Some thoughts on studying physics

September 26, 2016
I spent three years studying physics at the University of Exeter, and I share a few thoughts on how that was. Especially as a girl in STEM.

I recently graduated from Exeter University with a physics degree and you know what?

It was hard. Like, really hard. Regular homeworks and midterms (more like quarter-terms in first year) and lab reports practically every week for the first two years, and tutorials and classes and lectures, and then exams on top… I had more contact hours than like, half my house combined. And I lived with seven other people.

It was tough.

(Note: Brace yourselves, dear readers. This post turned out to be a doozy.)

I did not graduate with excellent grades across the board. In my my third year I worked my butt off. Sometimes I struggled with the content and I spent a lot of time going over my lecture notes and working on labs or homeworks. Maybe I should’ve studied Further Maths at A-Level (yes, yes I should have, but I do not regret studying French and Spanish instead and I am so happy I studied those subjects).

I got some really awesome grades. Mostly in lab projects or presentations, but I also did really well in my C programming module and my Galaxies module, to name a few. Actually, if I hadn’t got a place on a graduate scheme, I had a place to study a Masters in Computer Programming at Cardiff. Which I might go back to do some day. I think I’d like to.

And on the other hand… I loved my Nuclear and High Energy Physics module. Like, it was one of my favourites of everything I studied. It was majorly focused on particle physics (which I love). But you know what? I didn’t do so great in that exam. And it’s still my favourite module. I got a lot of the content, but I struggled with the exam.

So maybe I didn’t get as good a grade as some of my friends from physics. Maybe I’d have graduated with a First-class degree if I had done languages instead, which I seem to be pretty decent at. Or, seemed, at any rate, when I was studying them.

I do not, for one single second, regret any of it.

I mean, sure, I made awesome friends, and had a great uni experience, but I mean that I don’t regret my choice of degree. It might not show up in my grades necessarily but I learned a lot. I can talk you through the whole lifecycle of stars and explain how we are all, in some way, made of stardust (because that’s something I see talked about online a lot). I can tell you what a quark is and what wave-particle duality actually means. I can differentiate the hell out of Schrodinger’s equation and tell you what it all means.

I built a cloud chamber with my lab partner, H (you should totally check out cloud chambers – they’re an old school way of viewing particles and they’re generally amazing), and we studied half a dozen butterfly wings (most of which we broke, oops) to understand why they look blue sometimes and not-blue other times. (Yay particle physics!)

Besides the whole academia stuff, I also had the chance to speak at the Institute of Physics to talk about gender bias is subjects with a particular focus on physics. Which was really, really awesome.

So yes, maybe I didn’t graduate with an outstanding academic record. And maybe I spent a lot of time, like seemingly everyone else on my course, complaining about all the work and all the hours and how hard some of the exams were. But does that in any way diminish my love of physics? Of knowing and understanding how the universe works and why it works that way?


Plus, I graduated with some amazing experiences behind me. Working independently and as a group, analysing large chunks of data, being innovative and organised and dedicated… These were all skills that I was able to hone throughout my degree. And I did some book-stuff in my first and second years, speaking at events and having things published and being up for awards. (I tried to take third year off from all of that.)

Besides that, science is just so freaking awesome and I’m so glad I had the opportunity to study such an incredible and diverse subject. I’m so grateful that I was able to do that.

I was the only girl in my A-Level physics class and there was a huge male bias at degree level. Past that, I think I had two female lecturers in three years. Which is crazy. Only two!

Throughout my studies in physics I was always very aware of the fact that it’s a male dominated area. As are most STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) areas. When I said to people that I studied physics, I was more often than not told, “there must be a lot of boys doing that” or “there can’t be many girls on your course.”

And honestly I feel like those kind of attitudes in themselves are hugely damaging, even if it’s unintentional. Gendering subjects is damaging. It impacts and influences young people even if it’s on a subconscious level, to the point where it stops people progressing any further just because they don’t think they’re supposed to do or supposed to like that subject.

(When I spoke at the IOP, it was about gender bias, focusing on A-Level subjects and typical ‘male’ or ‘female’ subjects, like Physics and English. So I have some thoughts on this, but I’m trying not to go on too much.)

After GCSEs I was confident enough in myself to own up to who I was. I was a nerd and I liked writing and I liked physics. I didn’t care if people thought I was ‘cool’ or not. Actually, I knew I wasn’t ‘cool’. I just didn’t care. I was happy. I made good friends who were also ‘not cool’ and who liked things.

So I decided to do an A-Level in physics despite people saying, “Oh. That’s a boy’s subject/nerdy/weird.”

When I said I was going to apply for a physics degree, I was met with a similar response. Not from my family, necessarily (although they did think I’d be better doing languages), but also some teachers and other people I spoke to.

They were all surprised. People are still surprised that I didn’t study English because I’m a writer. 
And, you know – “Did you find many girls studied physics?”

I was confident in who I was, enough to say, “Yes! I’m studying physics! I think it’s cool and I want to learn more!” But a lot of sixteen year olds – even eighteen year olds – aren’t that confident in themselves. They will hear people gender a subject like that and think, oh, maybe that’s not for me, then.

That’s what I heard.

I just ignored it.

Look, this isn’t a post saying, hey, you should like science because it’s cool and interesting and therefore you should devote all your time to it! Science doesn’t have to be your thing.

It’s okay if it is! It’s totally awesome if science is your thing, or other branches of STEM like computer science and programming, or maths, or engineering, regardless of your gender. Because the world always needs more scientists and what’s so bad about being a science geek, really?

But my point is – you don’t have to just have one thing. You can be a lot of things and you can like a lot of things. And sure, maybe you’re not always ‘good’ at certain things, but that shouldn’t stop you from enjoying them and wanting to learn more. I mean, if you pick up a guitar and you’re not much good, that’s cool. You can keep practicing and learning and maybe eventually you will play shows. Or maybe you’ll just play and you’ll be decent enough but not that proficient but you’ll just like playing. And that’s okay too. Enthusiasm matters.

And honestly, I don’t see what’s wrong with that.

P.S. I wrote this post after watching Hank Green’s video about Why Are Fewer People Studying Science and Engineering over at the Vlogbrothers channel, and I’d love to know how you guys feel about science (especially physics), and I’m kind of curious to know if you ever felt like you couldn’t study a subject because you weren’t ‘supposed’ to, for some reason or other?

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