Studying Astrophysics At University: This Is What It’s REALLY Like

If you’re fascinated by the way the universe works, studying science at university might already be on your radar. But have you ever considered applying for an Astrophysics course? 

Astrophysics is the study of the physical laws of the universe, and how these laws explain the birth, life and death of stars, planets, galaxies, nebulae and other objects in outer space. 

If that sounds intriguing, you’ll definitely want to read this insightful, honest Q&A with our very own Head of Physics, Katie

Katie studied Astrophysics at Sheffield University, so she’s perfectly placed to deliver the truth about the course and about being a woman in STEM.  

Read on to find her pearls of wisdom for Save My Exams students, and don’t forget to check out our brand new Revision Notes for AQA AS Level Physics.

Most of us don’t study Astrophysics at school; how did you decide to pursue this subject at university?

To be honest, I wasn’t the biggest fan of the sciences for most of my time at Secondary school – it was only once I began my A Level courses (I took Chemistry, Physics, Maths and Further Maths) that I really started to find the subjects interesting. 

I think this was because suddenly we began covering the ‘fun’ topics like  astronomy and particle physics, and I realised that the study of physics really is the key to unlocking some of the universes’ coolest secrets. 

Still, it took me a really long time to narrow down my uni course choice!

I wavered between Chemistry and Maths before eventually deciding that Astrophysics excited me the most. 

What attracted you to Sheffield University?

I firmly believe that the best way to decide on a university is to physically go there and see it for yourself! That’s why I visited a lot of different places when I was in Sixth Form (including Oxford, where I had an interview), but I eventually decided on Sheffield because it felt like the right place for me. 

The university is well rated, and it’s a beautiful city with a really vibrant student culture. The societies on offer are fantastic – I ended up trying everything from scuba diving to debating, and got involved with the city’s student climate change and LGBTQ+ movements.

What were your first impressions of university life?

I found that the first year of the course was similar to the A Level course, just a little bit more detailed. Any student who is comfortable in their school classes should find Year 1 a breeze!

Many of my friends on other courses had much less ‘contact’ time than me, and I did have to be fairly disciplined about saying no to midweek parties. However, I eventually managed to balance having fun and going out with attending my lectures and keeping on top of the workload.

One thing that I did find strange was being one of only 10 girls in a year of 250 students! This really inspired me to advocate for more girls to get into STEM, a passion that’s lasted throughout my career in STEM education. 

Did the workload change in your second and third years?

Yes! Second and third year were a big step up – both in terms of workload and the difficulty level. 

However, it was really rewarding to be faced with new challenges (such as building a C code model of the Sun’s interior), and to have the chance to design my own projects (including recording a podcast series about the evolution of stars). 

Some of my favourite moments in second and third year were when I was able to sit inside the telescope dome on the roof of the Physics building, just taking pictures of far away stars and galaxies at night.

What advice would you give to a student thinking about pursuing Physics at university? 

You should start by asking yourself what you want to achieve by getting a Physics degree. 

Do you want to be a researcher? Do you want to be a teacher? Or do you just enjoy the subject?

There are no right or wrong answers to these questions, but It is still important to think about.

There are so many things in life you can do with a Physics degree – and more career paths are appearing all the time! I qualified as a teacher and now have a rewarding job as Head of Physics at Save My Exams – but the opportunities really are endless. 

However, it’s important to realise that Physics is one of the most challenging degrees you can do, and it will require you to spend a lot of time in labs, lectures and classes.  You really need to be prepared to work hard and give it your all – and this will only be possible if you genuinely enjoy the subject.

And finally, what are your top study tips for Save My Exams students?

  1. Persevere!  It’s a lot of hard work to prepare for GCSEs, A Levels and the IB,  but if you put in the hours (and make full use of all the brilliant Save My Exams resources!) you can definitely ace your exams
  2. Practice practice practice. Learn all about the format of the exams you will be taking and keep trying questions until you are confident
  3. Find out about your preferred learning style – do you prefer flashcards, do you prefer a more hands-on approach, or maybe you benefit most from videos or visual aids? Finding your best way of learning can make revision a much smoother process.

Many thanks to Katie for sharing her story!

If you’d like to read more honest accounts of student life, try Amelia’s account of studying Biochemistry at Oxford or explore Lucy’s tales of studying Maths. 

And remember, we’ve got all the Physics revision resources you could need here at Save My Exams – explore the Revision Notes, Topic Questions and Past Papers below:

GCSE Physics

AS Level Physics 

A Level Physics (ft. NEW Revision Notes)

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