Dennis tells us about progressing from BSc to MSc in St Andrews
Doing physics at St Andrews seemed like an unlikely target when I first applied here. My choice was motivated mainly by ‘well, they have a great rating in physics’. So when I actually got my offer I was thrilled. I visited on one of the open days, and after Bruce’s demonstrations during the open day lecture to all the prospective physics students, I just pulled out my phone and accepted my offer right there. It was a spur of the moment thing which I don’t regret at all.
I’m really bad at taking exams. Under time pressure my adrenaline tends to spike and I lose the ability to think in the same way I can under normal conditions. Except I didn’t realise that until I started failing exams in my first year. I thought I wasn’t studying hard enough, so I started studying more and more, trying to learn everything I could. I also tried numerous ways of improving my nerves before exams. Of course, this was a learning process, and my exam grades didn’t improve quickly enough for me to meet the grade 15 average needed at the end of second year to stay on the MPhys. At the time this was disappointing, but in retrospect it helped me discover that despite my weakness in exams, my strengths might lie in actually doing research. The BSc is 4 years long instead of the original 5 I had signed up for, but I was still committed to getting a Masters degree, so I decided not to stray and just apply to St Andrews MSc Astro program, a 1 year course split 50-50 between teaching and research. The MSc is set up like the final year of the BSc, with an additional 10 week summer project after the second semester. Also, instead of a 30 credit research project in semester 2, you do a full year 30 credit ‘Research Skills’ module, which includes a research project (in semester 2) making up a total of 80% of the credits. After 4 years, my exam grades improved just enough, and my BSc research project went pretty well, so I met the entry requirements.
My MSc year was difficult. It started with GR and ended with a global pandemic. Anyone who has done physics at St Andrews (especially third year) knows about the intensity and the pace of lectures, the frequency of deadlines, and the weird grading system, so I felt relatively prepared for this aspect of the degree, but it still felt overwhelming at times. I really struggled with the two exams I had in the first semester, even though I spent so much time preparing, watching multiple lecture series on the topics, reading all the books I had access to. That killed off any chance of getting a first very quickly.
Maybe a few of my exam grades were bad, I had still learned so much about everything I had studied. I knew so much new physics, regardless of if I was or wasn’t able to answer 7 very specific questions about it in 2 hours. This is a truly wonderful feeling, and the best part of the MSc year was being able to consolodate physics I had learned in the past 4 years and apply it to new situations. The MSc was also valuable because I was able to do my first smaller research project in an area I hadn’t worked in before, and allowed me to build additional skills and experience in a really interesting field.
By taking the alternate path to a Master’s degree, I ended up getting 2 degrees, and doing 2 more research projects than if I hadn’t switched from the MPhys. That isn’t to say it’s better, or worse; it’s just different. Personally, it helped solidify my interest in doing more research, and improved my research ability drastically. Though I always knew on some level that I wanted to do a PhD, it’s nice to know that I might actually also be good at it.
Whatever you decide to do with your future, remember that exam grades don’t define your intelligence, they define your ability to take a test. 🙂
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