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Maths, Physics, Engineering, Chemistry, Biochemistery, Materials Science, Geology, Earth Science, Computer Science, Natural Science or any of the other multitude of physical sciences… but which one is for you?

Some of you may already know exactly what you want to study at University; some of you may not, and that’s fine.  I’m going to try to help start your thinking around this, so that you can begin narrowing down your choices and solidify some of your reasoning.

What is it you like about Science?

What could it be about Physical Sciences that you like? Is there something specific that first intrigued you? I know a friend who was always fascinated by weather.  Another wanted to combine their love of deep oceans with climate change, leading them to Earth Sciences.  Or do you perhaps want to explore a certain topic, or work on it in more depth?

Generally speaking, do you like knowing how things in nature occur? Do you like knowing the ‘behind the scenes’ process of how things happen? Do you enjoy building and putting things together to see how the smaller details create the bigger picture?  Do you enjoy how the theory builds the broadest foundations, and how the applications make practical use out of the theory? Does the mathematical process, the logical, analytical and problem-solving style of thinking interest you?  Do you like the objectivity that science brings and requires?  Or do you like taking how science works and using it to make applications according to our needs today?

Understanding yourself and what drives you

For me, one of the earliest things I consciously noted was that I have always loved Maths, and I was good at it.  There’s something about the satisfaction of getting to the right answer in Maths, Physics or Chemistry after a long working out process.  I like the final logical conclusion that you must reach from the specific set of information given to you and that there is a ‘right answer’ that makes sense, not only for me, but for anyone who tries it.  It’s a bit like solving a puzzle.  And if you happen to like the topic you’re studying then that interest becomes even stronger.  Don’t get me wrong – I love the Arts, the Humanities and enjoy a good debate, stories and points of views, but it’s not as strong as a final answer grounded in objective principles.

At the same time, I also noted that stars, constellations and all things related to astronomy always used to fascinate me when I was growing up.  This then grew into other related areas, like when I studied particle Physics – so I realised I liked the very small and the very big.  And once I realised that Physics was the foundation under both of these concepts, plus a whole host of what we use every day in our lives, I was hooked.  I wanted to know and understand more.

A friend who studied Physics at Oxford with me realised that one of the first things to intrigue him when we were young was a watch that was given to him.  He was fascinated by how it worked.  So he started taking it apart.  That interest grew to more and more things, and eventually he recognised that either Physics or Engineering would help him understand complex concepts and practice the application.

So, have a proper think and take a close look at the kind of things you enjoy learning and talking about.  Learn about yourself – how you work best, how you tend to think and what is important to you from a learning environment.  I know I really thrive in a one-on-one learning environment, so I knew I would like studying at Oxford.

Making your final choice: how work experience can help

So while I knew I wanted to study something around Physics, Maths and Engineering, it took me some time to be sure.  I loved the theory and tough grounding of Maths, but I also wanted to study its applications.  And then I liked the weird and wonderful world of Physics that somehow neither Maths nor Engineering could touch.  What nailed it for me was my gap year experience at an engineering firm.  I wanted to know how a particular circuit was set up and why it worked out the way it did.  But my manager had wise words for me: “Mathangi, for this year you are an Engineer.  For us, this is a black box.  We don’t need to know how it works, just that it works, and we can use it for what we need to do”.

One final thing that I’d recommend worth looking at is the career prospects for your choice of subject(s).  Studying a subject at school is one thing; studying at university is going to be different.  But it can be totally different still if you pursue it as a career post-university.  Look at what opportunities are available if you were to take up the subject, and what others before you have gone on to do.  That said, there are many people who have gone into careers that have nothing to do with their university subject.  Have a chat with your career counselor, teachers, friends and family.  Give them your best reasons and ask them to help you make them clearer.


So, why is this choice so important?

At the end of the day, there is a person who hasn’t met you, looking through your application against 5 or 6 others for the same place at university.  You need to show you know why you’re applying for your subject and get across the enthusiasm and passion which will carry you through studying it for three to four years.

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