Taking the leap – reflections from a mature student

There are challenges and opportunities for all students, but what are some of the difficulties and potential gains faced by mature students?

Michael Marshall started studying after a 30 year career and raising a family.  He has recently completed an MSc in Theoretical Physics and is currently undertaking a PhD in Theoretical Physics.

Why did you chose to study the MSc in Theoretical Physics?
I completed my undergraduate degree while working full time. Towards the end of my degree I realised that to embark on a new career in physics I would need a PhD, and the obvious first step was to undertake an MSc. My undergraduate tutors recommended the University of Edinburgh’s Higgs Centre as one of the best places to study theoretical physics.

Tell us about your experience studying the MSc
The course took my knowledge of particle physics theory from introductory quantum mechanics to a working knowledge of field theory and the standard model. The satisfaction in having completed the masters is commensurate with the challenges presented by the course work and the sheer difficulty of covering such a large volume of material in such a short space of time.

My research project was computational in nature and complemented my newly acquired theoretical skills. I wrote 7500 lines of code, constructing Monte Carlo models of higher twist using deep inelastic scattering data. This was the perfect introduction to the practical business of research, teaching me about popular scientific libraries such as CERN ROOT, LHAPDF and APFEL, as well as the dark art of statistics and experimental covariance matrices.

Spending the summer carrying out topical research was the highlight of the degree. Working closely with such an experienced supervisor, who is a prominent member of a large collaboration at CERN, was inspiring and challenging. I was very grateful for his time, insights and valuable discussions. Being part of a large, dynamic theoretical physics department also meant that I had the practical support and encouragement of my supervisor’s endlessly patient PhD students.

Did you face any unexpected challenges, and what advice would you give to mature students who are considering embarking on a degree? 
I would offer a couple of points of advice – you are going to need a holiday before your course starts, so do take one! You’ll have to cancel your social life for the duration of the degree (except perhaps for a couple of weeks off at Christmas) and you’ll be relying on your partner, so be especially nice to them.

Unless you are much better prepared than I was (and I thought I was well-prepared), I’d put aside a good four weeks for study before the course starts to make sure you are up to speed. Take a look at the course and subject outlines [check out the Degree Programme Tables http://www.drps.ed.ac.uk for these] and reach out to the course organiser for suggestions.

Very quickly after starting, I had the experience of struggling academically for the first time. My peers’ response was to get together and tackle study and tutorials as a group. However, I felt the age difference very keenly and foolishly expected that, because my class-mates were a good decade younger than my offspring, I should somehow be a better theoretical physicist than they were. So I ploughed on and studied largely alone. My advice is therefore to make sure you study with your classmates (this may very well be second nature to most). You’re going to need the collective wisdom of the group in order to understand the material. Few students will be fully prepared, so the mathematical techniques you’ll share will be invaluable. Most importantly, by discussing the material and the tutorial problems, you will absorb the material far more deeply than is possible on your own.

The MSc in Theoretical Physics was the second Masters I have completed – the first, in 2002 when I completed an MBA majoring in finance, was very much an extension of my career. Studying the MSc in Theoretical Physics at an even more mature age, and this time for self-actualisation rather than for money, was an entirely different, far more challenging and satisfying experience. As a result, I now have my dream career and I cannot overstate how much happier and fulfilled I am going to work each day as a theoretical physics PhD student than I was in my past career. If you are thinking of doing the same, I’d encourage you to start: “boldness has genius, power and magic in it”.

Research on a doctoral training scheme

Are you considering undertaking a PhD following your undergraduate degree? The School of Physics and Astronomy has research opportunities in astronomy, condensed matter, nuclear physics, particle physics experiment & particle physics theory.

The School also offers CDT (Centre for Doctoral Training) opportunities with partner institutions. These entail an additional year which centre around the development of technical and transferrable skills, which may include the completion of teaching courses, industrial placements, attendance at workshops and participation in outreach activities.

David Crosby graduated from the University of Edinburgh in 2016 with an MPhys in Physics and is currently in year 3 of a SOFI CDT degree.

“During my degree I realised I wanted to pursue a career in research but wanted to focus on industrial relevant projects, so I applied for the SOFI (Soft Matter and Functional Interfaces) CDT training program.”

This multi-disciplinary CDT is a collaboration between the universities of Durham, Leeds and Edinburgh, and provides training in both academic and industrial-relevant soft matter research. Soft matter being the scientific term for anything squishy – this covers a vast range of materials such as foods, pharmaceuticals and paints.

“Being able to visit and work with different industries as well as gaining an understanding and appreciation for the different expertise and skills needed to solve real world soft matter problems is extremely beneficial.”

“After spending time in Durham and Leeds I am now back at Edinburgh working with Dr Tiffany Wood on characterising the structure and rheology of topical formulations, sponsored by GSK. The main focus of my project is to characterise the structure and rheology of skin creams as they are being applied to a substrate (i.e. skin).”

The School is currently a partner in two new CDTs: Soft Matter for Formulation and Industrial Innovation, and Mathematical Modelling, Analysis and Computation.

Theoretical Physics – reflecting on my MSc studies

With winter graduation ceremonies upon us, we had a chat with Andres Armua who is due to graduate with an MSc in Theoretical Physics, and this is what he told us about his experience here:

Tell us about your most memorable aspects of the degree.

The excellent quality of courses and teaching and the nice atmosphere created by the University staff made the learning process highly satisfying. The teaching staff are very approachable and they are very willing to talk about material. The degree is designed in a very coherent way with good introductory courses and also amazing research level courses. The wide variety of projects offered for the dissertation illustrates the large range of topics in which the School is involved.

What was your research project about?

My research project was on the chaotic properties of turbulence, which involved understanding the background theory of fluids and chaos, then running fluid simulations to analyse data and test certain aspects of the theory.  Before starting the project I knew very little about chaos and I had practically no programming skills so I can say that during this project I largely improved my understanding of the research process as well as my computational skills. At the same time the project was relevant for the research that was being carried out by the Particle Physics Theory Research Group so that was obviously satisfying.

How did you find living in Edinburgh?

The city of Edinburgh is great. It offers a wide variety of activities (sport, cultural and social).  There are also many beautiful towns and places all over Scotland to visit during the weekends. Even though student life can be stressful, I would say that the city helps to make everything more relaxed and enjoyable.

Andres is from Argentina and is currently studying for a PhD in Data Intensive Physics at the University of Edinburgh.

Photo credit: Sergio Parrella.