NGC 2683 - the UFO galaxy. Credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA, used under CC-BY 2.0 license

Studying Physics at Merton

In Physics we study the universe from the largest to the smallest scales, we seek to understand why the universe behaves as it does, and we use our understanding to develop scientific and technological applications. In Philosophy of Physics we study conceptual questions that arise in physics, which are not (yet) amenable to experimental resolution.
The teaching team
Why Merton?
  • Our Physics community is a large and vibrant one, with typically 30 undergraduates and a similar number of graduate students in residence.
  • Three full-time tutors in Physics.
  • Oxford is the global leader in Philosophy of Physics, and Merton has its most senior figure.
  • High achievement: we put a lot of effort into helping our students to understand physics, and we expect a lot from them. We usually get it; a high proportion of our physicists graduate with first-class degrees.
  • A stimulating intellectual culture: we encourage our students to develop broad intellectual interests. Our termly Ockham Lecture, for example, provides an opportunity to hear from, and socialise with, world-leading academics.
Teaching

Undergraduates at Merton are taught by active researchers who are passionate about teaching and communicating their research to students. The college has three full-time tutorial fellows in Physics, several internationally-recognized professorial fellows, who also teach our students, and typically two or three college lecturers. It has two full-time tutorial fellows in Philosophy, one of whom is a Philosopher of Physics.

Teaching takes a variety of formats, according to what tutors and students judge to be most effective. We give classes, in which the whole year group meet to discuss problems; and we hold tutorials, which is an opportunity for one or two students to discuss conceptual difficulties. Students are encouraged to think critically, to make connections between different areas of physics, and to use tutorials and classes to develop a deep understanding of all aspects of the subject.

Graduate mentors are available to provide additional help and support with all aspects of the course.

Our courses

Physics and Physics & Philosophy are four-year degree courses leading to Masters degrees. If they wish, students may leave at the end of the third year, receiving a BA qualification instead. Transfer into the Physics & Philosophy degree at the end of the first year is possible, subject to the agreement of the tutors.

The fourth year of the Physics course comprises specialist option papers plus a significant period of project work. As an alternative, students can apply to transfer to the Masters course in Mathematical and Theoretical Physics.

The fourth year of the Physics & Philosophy course can be devoted entirely to Philosophy or Physics, or continue with a mixture of both.

Admissions

Physics and Physics & Philosophy are strong subjects at Merton – a high proportion of our students graduate with first class degrees – and we seek to maintain a high standard in these subjects. We usually aim to admit six students in Physics and two in Physics and Philosophy.

Applicants for Physics and Physics & Philosophy will need to sit the Physics Aptitude Test; if selected for interviews, they will usually have two interviews at Merton plus another in a different college. Candidates for Physics & Philosophy will have an additional interview on Philosophy.

Additional resources at Merton

Many of our students take advantage of summer research opportunities, both in Oxford and elsewhere. For those students who obtain summer placements at the University of Oxford or various Oxfordshire laboratories (Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, the Diamond Light SourceCulham Science Centre, and others) we operate a competitive scheme of student bursaries and subsidised vacation residence.

Merton hosts the termly Ockham Lecture by a special guest physicist.

Student profiles

Our physics undergraduates develop a wide range of skills including mathematical modelling, computing, analytic and experimental techniques, communication, and problem-solving. They are highly regarded by employers in industry, the civil service, academia and beyond. Many recent graduates have moved into postgraduate degrees; others have taken up careers in fields as disparate as renewable energy, international development, computing, management consultancy and finance.

 

Nic Mitchell

Name: Nic Mitchell

Year: 2

Where are you from?: Hampshire

Why Merton?
To be honest I chose Merton because it said that the food was tasty on the website, but after studying here for a couple of years I can confirm that that it's also a fab and friendly community with plenty of support (as well as good food).

Best thing about your course?
Loads of interesting topics! The first 2 years cover a wide range of stuff, but then in later years you specialise by choosing different topics you'd like to study. It's especially interesting that you study multiple topics alongside each other, then they have bits of cross over that make you feel like you're building up a proper understanding of your topic.

Best thing about the collegiate system?
It allows you to be part of both a large institution (the University), as well as belonging to a smaller community (the College). That way you kinda get the benefits of both!

How do you cope with the workload?
I just make sure that I get a good balance between working, socialising with friends and hobbies to get that variety of doing different stuff.

Favourite place to eat?
I usually cook in kitchens in college accommodation or eat in Merton's hall, but also there's loads of restaurants in Oxford with good deals for students. My personal favourite is a katsu curry in a restaurant on George Street!

What are tutorials like?
Just a casual discussion with a tutor about the topic that you're studying, generally focused around a problem sheet, but with the freedom to discuss any particular aspects in depth that you're particularly interested by.

Benedict Yorston

Name: Benedict Yorston

Year: 1

Subject: Physics and Philosophy

Where are you from?: Abingdon

Why Merton?
Accommodation for your whole degree, stunning grounds/buildings, the best barman in Oxford, central but still somehow feels like it’s in its own little bubble of tranquility, and the only college with free alcohol at our College Parties. And I’m there.

Best thing about Merton?
We had welfare Zoom calls with goats during lockdown. Beat that.

Best thing about your course?
You get to be a scientist and a humanities student so basically you get the best of everything (including two subject dinners!). When the two areas start to coincide it’s also insanely cool, provided that’s the kind of thing you’re interested in!

Best thing about Oxford?
Definitely the people. Your tutors are the smartest people you could ever hope to meet in your subject area, and you can learn something from every single other undergraduate.

Best thing about the collegiate system?
You can pretend you’re in your own Hogwarts House (friendly sporting rivalries and all…) 

Highlight of the year?
Time Ceremony. Definitely do ask in one of our Q&A sessions (or read about it in our Alternative Prospectus), but too awesome an event to explain here!

Most important thing you’ve learnt?
McDonald’s does actually have a closing time…

How has Oxford changed you?
It hasn’t really. No great self-discovery yet. Maybe next year.

What were you worried about before you arrived?
Like most, not knowing anyone at all to begin with.

What new opportunities have you had?
Literally endless. I spent five hours walking round the 300 societies at Freshers Fair, and signed up to about 150 of them. Can’t say I got involved with them all, but student newspapers, a radio station, and the political societies all stand out for me.

What’s the work like?
I get both problem sheets (a load of physics questions) and essays because of my degree. It’s a lot, I won’t lie. You’re expected to spend 40 hours a week working for your degree each week, so it’s basically a full-time job.

How do you cope with the workload?
I aspire to cope with excellent prioritisation and using my time well, but late night caffeine can also produce surprisingly good essay results. Getting ahead on readings during the holidays is a very good way of making term the best it can be (we get 28 weeks' holiday a year so a little prep work hardly ruins it…)

What do you do when you’re not working?
Sport’s a big one for me. For Uni I play hockey, squash, and a weird sport called Real Tennis, whilst there’s always a College football or rugby to play in/support. I’m also involved at the Oxford Union which is amazing (search it up on YouTube). Still plenty of time for nights out and bar nights.

Favourite spot to relax?
On a hockey pitch/football pitch/tennis court/squash court etc. I’m only relaxed when I’m doing the absolute opposite! The Merton games room (complete with Mario Kart) is a great place when you’re feeling a bit dead.

Favourite place to eat?
Pizza Pilgrims on top of the Westgate – best pizza in Oxford by miles, and they have a classic Pac-Man machine whilst you’re waiting.

Favourite place to go out?
Sports night Wednesday at Park End is regularly the  highlight of a week.

What do you do in the holidays?
I’ve only had one non-corona holiday so far! Tutoring is a good way I earn a little extra money, whilst I tend to spend the rest of it either training for sport, catching up on some Netflix box sets, or meeting back up with friends from home (or from uni to be honest, I miss them that much♥️♥️) 

What are tutorials like?
Very chilled, and productive. So much more efficient than school lessons.

Video: Physics at Oxford University
Course information
Key facts
Average intake at Merton:

Eight, typically two to study Physics & Philosophy.

Test:

All candidates must take the Physics Aptitude Test (PAT).

Specific subjects:

Physics and Mathematics essential. The inclusion of a Mechanics module is recommended; Further Mathematics is considered helpful. We expect you to take and pass any practical component in your chosen science subjects.

Deferred entry:

We do not encourage deferred entry, largely because lack of practice can affect the mathematical competence achieved at A-Level or equivalent; we will consider applications in certain special circumstances, e.g. where a candidate sponsored by industry is spending a year in a laboratory.