School of Physics & Astronomy

School of Physics & Astronomy

What's special?

St Andrews and its bayMany of our current students tell us they chose to study here because of the location and the standing of the University.  St Andrews is a beautiful historic town of some 17,000 people, situated on the Fife coast.  There is a splendid quality of life here, with larger centres of population readily accessible.   The town is also famous as the "Home of Golf", and is periodically host to the British Open Golf Championships.   The University is Scotland's first, dating back to 1410, but has also got a strong forward-looking vigour.  The University usually does very well in the UK-wide league tables.   University accommodation is more-or-less guaranteed for all entrant students who apply in time, and some students choose to spend all their time here in the University residence system.   The 7000 students bring a tremendous vitality to the town during term time, with a host of student-run organisations providing sporting, social, cultural, and academic activities. As St Andrews is able to attract some of the best minds, entry grade requirements are higher than in many other Universities, but we welcome those with academic potential from all backgrounds.

Our building on the North HaughBut many of our students also tell us that they were attracted by the characteristics of this School. The School often does well in the various teaching “league tables”. Essentially all our teaching is done in the building shown in the photograph and the adjoining mathematics building. The same buildings contain library, computing, and research facilities for the School. The new Medical Sciences Building has now been built adjacent to our building, between where the camera was for taking the above photo and the School. In recent summers a number of the teaching spaces in the School have been completely rebuilt.

Part of the University Observatory at St AndrewsThe University Observatory is some ten minutes walk from our main site, in the middle of the University playing fields.   These domes contain, amongst other telescopes, the largest operational optical telescope in the UK.

We have three entry points to our degree programmes. Those joining us with excellent Advanced Highers, A levels, or IB may join us at level two from where they can do a three year honours BSc or a four year MPhys degree in degrees within the School or joint with Mathematics. Those joining us straight from Highers, those doing other joint degrees with the School, those who wish the broad-based first year of a traditional Scottish University, and those who are not sure if it is physics or another subject that they most wish to take to degree level, can join at level one where they may complete a BSc honours degree in four years or an MPhys or MSci degree (where it exists for the subject combination) in 5. We also have an alternative first year available as part of our widening participation programme, known as the Physics and Astronomy (Gateway) programme.

The relatively small size of the School means that there can be real interaction between students and staff. For example, in second year physics classes weekly tutorials consist of four or five students with one tutor. Lecture classes are also relatively small, ranging from about 150 students down to groups of just a few. Well-equipped teaching-laboratories and the observatory allow students to explore their science. The teaching staff are proud to have the reputation of being accessible to students, and enjoy explaining the excitement of physics and astronomy to their students.

Artists impression of newly discovered exoplanet.  Image courtesy of ESOAlthough the School is relatively small, the nearly 40 academic staff work with a further about 60 research staff and about 80 PhD research students [2014] on an exciting range of internationally recognised research programmes. In the 2014 Research Excellence Framework our School was ranked third in the UK for phyiscs research quality (with Edinburgh). Our research, which ranges from fundamental science to real-world applications, is summarised elsewhere in these pages. Our School is a member of the Scottish Universities Physics Alliance, which aims to strengthen further the physics research across Scotland's universities through collaboration and additional investment. All final year students undertake a major project, which is usually done in conjunction with one of the research groups. This image is an artist's impression of what was the most earth-like planet yet found around another star. The St Andrews team played a major part in finding this cold rocky planet.

Other recent research highlights include:-

  • the theoretical prediction of the optical equivalent of black holes, and what might happen at their event horizon
  • the theory of how to build quantum materials that absorb light at a super-fast rate
  • demonstration of an electrically powered polariton laser
  • the first imaging of debris-discs around solar-type stars, achieved using mm-wave observations
  • the detection of planets close to the end of their life around a star
  • the discovery taht the extrasolar planet Kepler-78b has a mass and density similar to the Earth's
  • the discovery of planets around another star looking like an analogue of our solar system
  • the development of an "esr" spectrometer, which can probe the structure of materials with a resolution some 20 times better than that generally available.
  • work using mm-waves to monitor the ground around volcanos
  • the development of a laser-based device for detecting methane gas
  • using light to create the fastest man-made rotating object
  • injection of genes into cells through laser-induced transient holes in the cell membrane
  • reproducible and quantitative detection of cancer markers using nanoplasmonic sensors
  • wide-field high-resolution imaging for neuroscience and developmental biology
  • the development and use of electrically-conducting polymers to generate light for treating skin cancer.
  • extreme slowing of light in micro-structured semiconductors
  • the generation and study of "collective quantum states" of matter, where 10^23 electrons behave as a coherent group in exotic conducting oxides

A St Andrews graduate inspects a medical laser system

Physics opens the door to many careers.  There are many opportunities in physics-based industry and research, as well as a wide range of more general careers where the physicist's way of thinking is highly desirable.  The destinations of recent physics graduates from across the country are available at the CSU & AGCAS website.   Please note that if you click on this physics careers link you leave our pages.

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Last updated BDS 1.17