Since 2001 the Institute of Physics report that 30% Physics Departments in higher education in the UK have either merged or closed. The University of Reading's recent announcement that it intends to stop recruiting students from October 2007 onwards is the latest in a line of decisions to downscale student admissions in this subject. The reasons why Physics appears to be in decline are many - one of the most commonly voiced arguments is that it is seen as a "difficult" course amongst applicants, who would prefer to take other, less-demanding, disciplines.
The need for applicants to have a strong background in Mathematics also can create difficulties, not least because students with ability and aptitude in Mathematics and Physics have a wealth of additional options available in higher education (e.g. pretty much any branch of engineering, as well as some less well trodden routes such as meteorology, oceanography and sport technology).
Applications to study Physics at Oxford remain buoyant, so partly in response to a posting to the site requesting that the blog also cover more traditional science and/or engineering disciplines, and also to provide a sense of why Oxford may still be attracting strong applicants in what appears to be a diminishing pool, I arranged to attend some Physics interviews.
Unfortunately, because of a last-minute alteration to my diary commitments I had to pass on attending in person, but rather than lose the opportunity I was able to provide an alternate observer from the access and widening participation team to go in my place. Emma at least had the benefit of taking Physics and Mathematics at A-level herself, and the report she provided was therefore more informed than anything that I would have written.
Emma attended seven Physics interviews (all at the same College). Each was conducted by two interviewers, who aimed to provide twenty minutes with each candidate - the candidates all had three interviews in total at the College, focusing on the applicant's ability in Mathematics, in Physics, and their practical and laboratory skills. She found the atmosphere relaxed and congenial, with none of the formality that she had anticipated. With only twenty minutes the interviewers cut straight to the chase; the questions were heavily focused on academic topics - no time was spent on personal statement data indicating a candidate's social or extra-curricular activities. In discussion after the interviews the tutors commented that they found the personal statements frequently concentrated on "popular" areas of Physics such a quantum theory, but when questioned on these issues applicants tended to have a fairly superficial grasp of the subject.
In each case Emma felt that even with her "rusty" recollection of Physics and Mathematics (she studied chemistry at university), the questions were fair and realistic; the questions did not have simple right or wrong answers, but required knowledge and understanding of mathematics, physics and general knowledge to resolve successfully. All of the students were able to answer the questions asked of them, but the tutors provided advice or information to a greater or lesser extent depending on how capable the candidate was in tackling the question. This was not an exercise in intellectual humiliation, but a genuine attempt to identify which candidates had an aptitude and interest in Physics. After the interview the candidate's performance was discussed and the tutors agreed a score using a standardised report form.
At the post-interview selection meeting, which involved all six tutors at the College who had been involved in the Physics interviews, what came across was their strong interest in identifying mathematically capable students. One of the tutors commented that weaknesses in practical experience or physics knowledge could be compensated for through the tutorial, but a strong mathematics foundation was critical to the study of Physics at Oxford.
Candidates who had not studied A-level Further Mathematics were initially at a disadvantage in the opinion of the tutor, but where only A-level Mathematics had been available at the applicant's previous school or college, experience had shown that those candidates who were admitted had a tougher first year than their further mathematics-equipped fellow students, with a slightly heavier workload, but they were frequently more highly motivated than their further-mathematics peers.
The selection process also took into account the candidates' performances in the practical skills interview. The interviewers were concerned that this seems to be an area of decline, with many applicants demonstrating limited first-hand experience and knowledge of lab work. In at least one case the candidate had indicated that because of staff illness and shortages they had no physics practicals since returning from the summer vacation into year 13 (upper sixth).
Finally, this year the Physics applicants to Oxford had to sit an aptitude test devised by the department but taken at the applicant's school in early November. The two-part test, covering mathematics and physics, provided the interviewers with additional evidence of the candidate's ability, and assisted in deciding the final ranking of the candidates.
The College had selected 19 applicants to attend for interview this year - seven eventually received offers, with several more recommended to the pool that would be considered by other Colleges looking to supplement their own Physics candidates.
Physics is a demanding subject at University but the variety of opportunities that it provides make it an interesting and attractive degree for suitably motivated students.
Further details of Physics at Oxford can be found at http://www.physics.ox.ac.uk/ - the admissions material on the site includes sample versions of the aptitude tests for anyone who wants to get a feel of the style and level of the questions. For those who are interested in finding out about Physics in a broader perspective, the Institute of Physics website has a great deal to offer.