Walking into the Physics department, you really start to understand why it is called the Physics department. Writing on blackboards here and there, a door that says ‘Danger! 14,000 Volts,’ and labs with endless rows of electronic equipment. It does seem like the natural habitat of a mad scientist – and it sure makes you want to delve deeper into your studies and learn new things about Physics.
The ‘mad scientists,’ however, are luckily not that mad. Once you arrive, you quite quickly get in touch with many members of the academic staff. Everyone is very supportive, friendly, and passionate about what they do.
The Department has what they call an ‘open-door policy.’ This means that you can knock on a tutor’s door at any time, and if they’re not busy, you can come in. Contrary to many places where ‘office hours’ are the only times you get to talk to staff in person, this policy makes it a lot more flexible for us students. Most students use this policy to get in touch with lecturers when there is something they haven’t quite understood, or to seek out support for career planning or anything that has to do with their degree.
If you ask the staff about their research, be prepared for small bits of the ‘mad scientist’ kicking in. It is hard to stop them once they get started, and often bits slip into lectures as well. This is especially evident during the annual PhysFest, which is an event during Freshers’ Week, where first years and the department’s staff all come together over a drink, a slice of pizza, and a few games. Here, Richard Keesing gives his infamous speech about Newton’s apple tree, never leaving out any details.
While PhysFest is an obvious way to mingle with your new coursemates, it can be daunting being in a new place where you don’t really know anyone. That’s where you just have to remember what you have probably been told many times by now: everyone is in the same boat.
During Freshers’, there will be lots of introductory lectures and activities, and everyone will sit in those lecture halls next to someone they don’t know. So say hi. Introduce yourself – the other person is probably glad you started the conversation. I did something very cheesy, and read up on a bunch of Physics jokes. Then when I ran out of the usual questions (‘Where are you from?’ ‘What type of Physics degree are you doing?’) I had something to carry on the conversation.
Making friends on your course is a really good way to make it more enjoyable to go to lectures and get some studying done in between classes. Sometimes, the thought of that Monday 9.00am Maths lecture is not the most pleasant, but catching up with friends just before it starts is always something to look forward to.
In between lectures, my friends and I always make a choice whether we’re going to be productive or not. If we just want to have a chat, we go to the coffee shop in the adjoining building and relax for a bit. If deadlines are coming up, there are several student study spaces within the Department to use. And if you live on campus, you can also quickly pop home if you have free time during the day.
The Department recently renovated the physics library, and made a new student study space in one of the undergrad labs. These are good places for both individual study and group work. I especially use the study spaces to work on my Physics Practice Questions, or PPQs for short. These are weekly problems you hand in and get marked. It is not that many at a time, but you do them for all lecture modules. Basically, they keep you engaged with what you’ve learnt in lectures.
You can see on the web page for your course which modules you’ll be doing through the years. I’m currently in my second year, and looking forward to taking particle physics, electromagnetism, and more maths this term. In second and third year, you get to go into much more specific fields, and you start feeling more and more like a professional physicist.
Despite the modules being very exciting (though Quantum Mechanics at times very hard), I have recently also spent a lot of time thinking about careers. Having only ever had to think about ‘what to do next’ in terms of school and university, the real world seems awfully close. However, there are several people around to help you get to grips with it. They give talks, organise trips to careers fairs, give you feedback on your CV, send you internship suggestions, and hold mock job interviews, just to name a few. A month ago, I attended a mock assessment centre, to prepare for internship applications. They sometimes even send you opportunities for internships or jobs abroad.
During the whole of my first year, I barely made use of these opportunities. Maybe because I didn’t know whether they were also for first years. The same goes for the study spaces, and it wasn’t until recently that I came to a lecturer’s door unannounced with a query. But I realised that all those things in the department are there for everybody. The Department wants you to use them: it means you are engaged with your course. I would therefore recommend all incoming freshers to use these opportunities as much as you can.
By now, you should know a little more about what life is like in the York Department of Physics. You don’t have to be a ‘mad scientist’ to fit in, but I cannot guarantee you won’t grow a little more mad about physics once starting your studies.