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Department of Physics

The Cavendish Laboratory

Good communication skills are an essential ingredient of a successful career in science or elsewhere. Many people who may never meet you will judge you on the basis of your written reports and papers, or talks that you may give, so these had better be good!

Our courses offer opportunities for you to improve your communication skills. Some of these are informal; you may, for example, be asked in supervisions to "present" the solution to particular questions as though you were giving a lecture. Other opportunities are more formal.

General principles involved in writing good reports and papers are given in a handout entitled "Keeping Laboratory Notes and Writing Formal Reports". Practical examples and advice on report writing are given as part of the Experimental Methods course in IB Physics A. In the first three years you will be required to submit several formal written reports on experimental work, and research reviews and project work in Parts II and III culminate in written reports.

Advice on preparing talks can be found in a one-page handout entitled "Advice on how to prepare and give short presentations", and in the IB Physics A Experimental Methods course. Part II students doing Vacation Work or Research Reviews, and all Part III Project students, have the chance to present short talks based on their work, and obtain constructive criticism from staff members. Upon completing these projects, assessment of written reports and of your performance in oral examinations will measure your progress in developing communication skills.

We have identified a set of transferable skills that physics undergraduates can expect to acquire in Cambridge. As well as being needed for academic performance, these skills are sought after by employers, and students are encouraged to develop them. The following description indicates how we may expect these skills to be acquired through the physics teaching programme.

Intellectual skills

The whole of physics may be regarded as expertise in problem solving, and the manner in which physicists solve problems by proposing and proving numerical models of phenomena and calculating their consequences has been widely copied in many practical fields. For instance, physics lies at the heart of almost all new technologies: operational research and information theory were largely invented by physicists, physics has often led major developments in both mathematics and computing, and physicists are in strong demand in many fields, including defence research, the electronics and computer industries and the city, precisely because of the problem-solving skills that they possess. In our physics courses, analytical and problem-solving skills are central to all lectures, practicals, supervisions, examples classes, project work and the examinations. Particular skills of wide applicability include training in developing models of phenomena, mathematical analysis of models, ability to think in graphical terms, ability to think in approximate terms when appropriate, ability in the design of devices, computing skills at a deep level, ability in statistical analysis, and critical ability, including critical analysis of data and a willingness to question fundamentals.

Communication skills

Science students arriving at university often have poor communication skills, and the Department has a firm policy of aiming to improve them. We aim to set lecturers examples and examination questions in a way that will develop use of good English and clear exposition of arguments. Supervisors are encouraged to work with individual pupils on the same lines. We also aim to develop skills in written and oral presentation of work, from the write-ups of first-year practicals through to the presentation of the third-year literature review and the fourth-year project (which involve a progress report, an oral presentation to a peer group, and a final report defended in an oral examination). The third-year education option gives some students practical experience of school-teaching.

Organisation and interpersonal skills

Students learn to get themselves organised, for instance, in managing a complex personal timetable and in organising several extended projects (which may include work at institutions outside Cambridge, such as CERN or an industrial laboratory). Many students are involved in committee work, some of it in the Department. In all years,students are forced to develop interpersonal skills in communicating with each other and with supervisors, in working with project supervisors, assistants and workshop staff, and in making arrangements with external bodies. Vigorous interaction within peer groups is continuous.

Research skills

We aim to develop reading and information-acquisition skills, from early use of appropriate textbooks, through to the use of sources and the mastery of current scientific literature required for the third-year Literature Review and the fourth-year Project. Students use the large departmental library and computer access methods. All students perform experimental work, the more advanced parts of which include experimental design, the use of advanced techniques (for instance, instrumentation, automatic data acquisition, use of microwaves, electronics, liquefied gases, etc), and the handling by computer of data, and its statistical analysis. All students learn to program computers, and use their programming ability in a computing project. Many of the more theoretical final-year projects involve extensive computing at an advanced level.

Numeracy and computing

Success in physics is entirely dependent on a high level of numeracy and computer skills. All Part I physics students take parallel mathematics courses, and all physics courses contain mathematical elements. The Department has a large Public Workstation Facility, which is used continuously and by all students.

Foreign language skills

Physics students have access to the University's extensive arrangements for self-teaching in foreign languages.