3 top schools that are redefining physics education and research

University of Nottingham
Source: University of Nottingham

Physics stands as the foundation upon which we understand the world, from the vastness of the cosmos to the intricate workings of our own bodies. This fundamental science delves deeper than just everyday observations, exploring mind-bending concepts like relativity and string theory. Remarkably, the same field that ponders these abstract questions has birthed tangible innovations like computers and lasers, revolutionising our lives. From aiding joint healing to fighting cancers, physics-driven technologies shape our present and pave the way for a more sustainable future.

Many of the cutting-edge technologies we take for granted today were born in physics labs. Even the tools other scientists and medical professionals rely on, like X-rays and MRIs, are a testament to the brilliance of physicists.

Studying physics equips students to contribute to advancements in diverse fields, from exploring the cosmos as astrophysicists to developing renewable energy solutions or applying physics in medical settings. Whether pursuing careers in academia, government, or the private sector, physics graduates are key to shaping the future. Opportunities range from fundamental research in astrophysics, particle physics, and condensed matter physics to applied research in renewable energy, quantum information science, machine learning and medical physics.

If you’re keen on pursuing a career in this field, consider the following universities:

University of Nottingham

Home of the Nobel Prize for the development of MRI body scanners, the University of Nottingham’s School of Physics & Astronomy is a world leader in the area of medical physics. Source: University of Nottingham

University of Nottingham

The University of Nottingham‘s School of Physics & Astronomy offers a dynamic blend of cutting-edge research and innovative teaching. The Research Excellence Framework (REF) assessment ranked the university seventh of the 44 UK physics departments, second only to Cambridge over the last three assessments. Researchers here are some of the most respected figures in this field — with a passion and knack for teaching. They have guided 95% of the 2020/21 cohort to “positive outcomes” within 15 months of graduation.

Programmes here stand out for many reasons. The BSc Physics lets you explore topics as diverse as cosmology, nanoscience, quantum theory and medical imaging, with the flexibility to transfer between most physics courses after the first year. A tutor will guide your studies and support your academic progress and personal well-being. The MSci Physics, a unique four-year programme, beckons those seeking deeper exploration. The fourth year offers a chance to hone professional and transferable skills through immersive, student-centred learning, focusing on specialised areas and culminating in a year-long research project supervised by world-leading experts in the field. Assessments in the fourth year are continuous, with no exams required.

Both programmes are accredited by the Institute of Physics and taught by esteemed professors, including bestselling popular science authors and those featured on award-winning YouTube channels. Together, Sixty Symbols, Numberphile, and Deep Sky Videos have over five million subscribers, who love to watch Nottingham’s academic researchers discussing cutting-edge topics in physics, astronomy, and mathematics. Undergraduate students actively contribute to curiosity-driven research projects supervised by these experts using state-of-the-art laboratories and computing facilities. Projects focus on areas such as astronomy, cosmology, quantum technologies, machine learning and medical imaging, which won physicists at Nottingham the 2003 Nobel Prize for the invention of Magnetic Resonance Imaging body scanners.

Learning from these experts yields results. Nine out of 10 of the 2020/2021 cohort were in highly skilled work, further education, or professional study within 15 months of graduation and reported an average salary of over 30,000 pounds. Their home base was the University Park Campus, 300 acres of green spaces on the outskirts of a bustling city, filled with wildlife, period buildings and modern facilities that have won the national Green Flag award every year since 2003. To join this inclusive and driven community, click here to learn more about the School of Physics & Astronomy.

Cardiff University

In the 2022 National Student Survey, 100% of Astronomy and 93% of Physics graduates were satisfied overall with their degree courses. Source: Cardiff University/Facebook

Cardiff University

Studying at Cardiff University School of Physics and Astronomy brings you closer to the forefront of research and innovation. Ranked second in the UK for research impact and located in the capital city of Wales, Cardiff is a Russell Group institution in the top 25 universities in the UK. Exciting scientific discoveries are made here, as are inspired students and staff.

Cardiff University Physics offers eleven undergraduate programmes and six, research-led master’s programmes: PhysicsAstrophysics, Data Intensive Physics, Data Intensive Astrophysics, Compound Semiconductor Physics, and Gravitational Wave Physics. Each includes a project designed to mirror research groups, with support from academic staff and postgrad researchers. With access to an outstanding array of facilities, you will learn in a friendly, collaborative environment.

All programmes cover theoretical, observational, and experimental techniques across a wide variety of areas and combine data analysis and computational techniques with the core science disciplines. These include fundamental physics (theoretical and experimental) and range from the physics of nanoscale devices to the cosmos, on scales from planets to the whole universe. You will be taught by members of internationally-leading research groups, including the Institute for Compound Semiconductors; the Gravity Exploration Institute, one of the largest gravitational wave research groups in the world; and the Cardiff Hub for Astrophysics Research and Technology, one of the largest groups of astronomers in the UK.

Each programme is designed to equip you with the skills and knowledge needed for a range of careers, from academic research to technical, development and engineering roles in related scientific fields. All programmes welcome applications from a broad range of backgrounds, including engineering, computer science or maths, provided you have sufficient experience with core concepts such as maths and coding.

University of Edinburgh

University of Edinburgh’s School of Physics and Astronomy is ranked fourth in the UK and first in Scotland in the Research Excellence. Source: University of Edinburgh/Facebook

University of Edinburgh

Formed in 1993 by the merger of the Department of Physics (called the Department of Natural Philosophy until the late 1960s) and the Department of Astronomy, the University of Edinburgh‘s School of Physics and Astronomy is ranked fourth in the UK and first in Scotland in the Research Excellence Framework (REF) 2021 listing by Times Higher Education. Its numerous degree programmes are accredited by the Institute of Physics and the Royal Society of Chemistry. It boasts 260 members of staff, 80 of whom are teachers.

The school’s academic and research staff belong to research institutes such as the Institute for Astronomy (IfA), Institute for Condensed Matter and Complex Systems (ICMCS), and Institute for Particle and Nuclear Physics (IPNP). The university also hosts multidisciplinary research centres, namely the Centre for Science at Extreme Conditions (CSEC), Higgs Centre for Theoretical Physics, Tait Institute for Mathematical Physics, UK Centre for Astrobiology, and Centre for Exoplanet Science.

The school’s learning and teaching methods focus on peer learning. Some practices include peer instruction; flipped classrooms, where students study material in advance so lecturers can focus on complex topics; student-generated content, Peerwise, which enables authors to create their own assessment questions on the content of the course; and Physics Education Research group, which tests and examines the effectiveness of instructional techniques.

Programmes offered here include physics, astrophysics, computational physics, mathematical physics, physics with meteorology, physics with a year abroad, and theoretical physics. There are one-year taught master’s degrees in theoretical physics, mathematical physics, particle and nuclear physics, astrobiology and planetary sciences, as well as fully-funded PhDs.

*Some of the institutions featured in this article are commercial partners of Study International