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Student Research in the Department of Physics

Research skills in the curriculum

The Physics and Mathematics & Physics courses will develop research skills including communication, computing, data analysis, laboratory and team-working skills.

In your first year, you learn computational skills in the Python-based Programming Workshop. The optional second year module on Computational Physics covers data handling and algorithms. Physics students work on their practical skills in the first year Laboratory and learn how to handle experimental uncertainty ("error bars") correctly. The second year laboratory is part of a Skills module, which also develops literature-searching and communication skills through a team-based exercise.

In your third and fourth years, you develop research and presentation skills in the final year project. A Communicating Science module is taken by all BSc students, while MPhys students complete a Physics Group Project which requires students to review a current research topic. MPhys and MMathPhys students work in the laboratory on more advanced experiments, which are tackled in groups of three and written up as if they were research papers in a scientific journal. Optional Scientific Computing and High Performance Computing modules develop students' understanding of good software development in the context of physics research.

The final year project

As a BSc or MPhys/MMathPhys student, you undertake a year-long final year research project which allows you to develop your ideas in a particular field and to develop research skills in physics. It is often seen by students as the most challenging and satisfying part of the course.

Normally, you work in pairs on a project which may be experimental, computational or theoretical (or a combination of these). With your supervisor, you establish your project plan which you review frequently. Over the Christmas vacation you write an interim report which will be marked by your supervisor, who will return it to you with feedback. After a further term's work you write a final report, which will be assessed by two independent members of academic staff. MPhys and MMathPhys students present a poster describing the project an open poster session, which mimics what happens at scientific conferences.

Typically projects are hosted within one of the department’s research groups where you work alongside postgraduate students and other full-time researchers. You may also interact with specialists from other disciplines or from industry. Final year projects include research where your supervisor will not know the outcome. They give a flavour of aspects of working in a Physics research group, from project planning and execution to presentation of results in poster and report formats.

Extra-curricular research opportunities

The Physics Department supports the URSS scheme, with more than 20 vacation projects typically running in a given year. We also support students looking for external research projects and placements, e.g. in industry or at universities near the family home. Other support is available for summer research projects, e.g. through the Energy and Materials Global Research Priorities.


What is research?

Nowadays people can call almost anything research - as in "I'm researching my essay" which means looking up the answer. Research can also mean tackling unsolved problems. In 1915 General Relativity (GR) removed the non-locality that had been part of Newton's theory of gravity since 1686. Another hundred years later (2015) the gravitational waves predicted by GR were observed. Obviously you celebrate if you find something out, but the joy of this type of research has to be in the search and the hard work.