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Calvin Asks: Is having Physics A-level a 'must have' to do an Engineering Degree?

14 Replies

Calvin Asks: Is having Physics A-level a 'must have' to do an Engineering Degree?

Posted by CalvinTheEngineer on Nov 14, 2018 12:54 pm

My son wants to be an engineer when he grows up. He is doing his GCSE’s this year and getting ready to choose his A-Levels, but his school has a new physics teacher, whom he HATES! He is now adamant he won’t be choosing physics at A-Level, but I’m worried that he’ll struggle to get onto an engineering course at a good university without it.

He doesn’t want to change schools as all his friends are staying; it’s one of the best schools in the area and local too, so I don’t really want him to have to move either. So my question is, does he need a physics A-Level or can he get by without it?

A-Level dilemmas - Darlington
 
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Re: Calvin Asks: Is having Physics A-level a 'must have' to do an Engineering Degree?

Posted by Andy Millar on Nov 14, 2018 3:53 pm

First advice to all teenagers: don't take subjects because you do / don't like the teacher. Schools change teachers (or teachers leave and get replaced) all the time, so this can lead to nasty surprises.

But on to the question itself: you CAN study engineering without having studying A level physics (or maths), lots do, but it will make it harder to get your head around many of the concepts. Another sideways thought about this, when you enter the world of work you have to work with, and for, many people who you won't like (or at the very least wouldn't necessarily want to go to the pub with). So at some point you have to learn to cope with this - and part of the point of teenage years is learning key steps in coping with other people.

Personally I got on brilliantly with my A level physics teacher, but most definitely did not with my A level maths teacher. I'm sure I would have got much better grades in my A levels if I had got on better with him, but equally I still got through it and would have found my degree much harder if I hadn't..

Typical contact time at A level is (very roughly) 170 hours a year, which is (roughly) the same as working alongside someone for 4.5 weeks in a day job. Not necessarily pleasant if you really don't get on, but quite survivable. And besides, often they don't turn out as expected, it's very common to find teachers behave quite differently to sixth-formers to the way the behave to Y10-11 students. (With apologies to your son, I have to say that I have sympathy with them: as a volunteer going into schools I find Y10-11 by far the hardest to deal with. Lots of hormones, and the impending threat of having to actually get a job at some point is not yet real enough to tame them smiley  Whereas with sixth-formers it's much easier to talk to them as adults.) 

So I certainly advised my children to go for the subject, not the teacher. And they both had a great time in sixth form - at least as far as that point goes - and learned a lot along the way about dealing in an adult way with people and problems.

Yes, I do think a good university would question why an engineering candidate hadn't studied physics at A level (most engineering after all is the application of physics), and he would need a really good reason for why he positively chose the subjects he did choose rather than negatively not choosing physics "because I didn't like the teacher".

Cheers,

Andy
Andy Millar CEng CMgr IET Mentor / IET PRA uk.linkedin.com/in/millarandy

Re: Calvin Asks: Is having Physics A-level a 'must have' to do an Engineering Degree?

Posted by Roy Bowdler on Nov 15, 2018 2:26 pm

An alternative would be finding an apprenticeship with qualifications included aligned to his ability, or studying at a College for a BTEC Diploma.  Some employers still recruit at 16 and may offer progression opportunities, including up to degree level. Because this involves them paying a salary and college/university fees, they rightly expect a strong work ethic in return. A BTEC Diploma can also potentially open the door to a Degree Apprenticeship, or entry onto a full -time undergraduate degree.

https://www.ratemyapprenticeship.co.uk/advice/students/apprenticeships-for-16-year-olds

https://www.oaklands.ac.uk/course-area/course/19_20-DP3EGA1F_1-BTEC-National-Foundation-Extended-Diploma-in-Engineering

https://qualifications.pearson.com/en/support/support-topics/understanding-our-qualifications/comparing-btec-to-other-qualifications/btec-ucas-points.html#tab-NewBTECNationalsRQF

If he is of high potential academically and hoping to compete for admission to one of the most selective universities, then he should understand their admission requirements and seek to meet them.  This is likely to include A level Physics and good grades, although some may be flexible. If he isn’t ready to commit to a career direction, then A levels might also be more adaptable later, rather than the more vocational Diploma. If he chose the full-time college option intending to go onwards for a degree, then he is likely to find a warmer welcome at one of the post-92 universities, but check requirements to be sure. I have picked up on news of recent changes to admission requirements, as universities compete for students. If you look up the degree courses accredited by Institutions like the IET, there are plenty of post 92 Universities.

https://www.engc.org.uk/acad

Although some employers target their recruitment towards those graduates from the most academic courses, there are plenty of different employment options for engineers and technicians. Many employers focus on the specific skills that they need and the work relevant personal attributes that make someone more productive, rather than just academic attainment.  Some engineers prefer to pursue technical specialism and other become managers as their careers progress. As with any investment decision it is difficult to predict the future, so mining engineers for example are far fewer now in the UK, than they were some decades ago, with new technologies coming on stream.  Most engineers and technicians find their work satisfying and have skills that they can adapt to emerging opportunities.


 

Re: Calvin Asks: Is having Physics A-level a 'must have' to do an Engineering Degree?

Posted by Lee Nelson on Nov 15, 2018 4:54 pm

I've just had a quick look around some of the Russell group unis for electronic/electrical engineering and none (of those I looked at) are asking for physics. All want maths, some ask for one of physics/chemistry/electronics/further maths, some any science and some don't ask for a science at all.

Re: Calvin Asks: Is having Physics A-level a 'must have' to do an Engineering Degree?

Posted by Arran Cameron on Nov 15, 2018 10:02 pm

Mathematics is essential for most engineering courses but whether or not physics is essential depends on the university and the type of engineering. Electrical / electronic engineering will often accept electronics instead of physics; chemical engineering usually requires chemistry but not physics although preference is given to applicants which have it; software engineering doesn't require any science A Levels although computer science, electronics, or further mathematics will be valued subjects. Mechanical and aeronautical engineering tends to require physics though.

The best advice is to check with universities beforehand to find out whether physics is required or strongly preferred for particular degree courses.

Re: Calvin Asks: Is having Physics A-level a 'must have' to do an Engineering Degree?

Posted by Mark Tickner on Nov 16, 2018 9:11 am

No you don't.

Technically you don't need A-levels at all to do an Engineering Degree (I certainly don't have any and I've got a Masters from a Russell group and a CEng!).

It makes for a more complicated (and sometimes slower) path, but it is still do-able.  But finding a course you are happy with (and thus are more likely to succeed at) is more important then struggling with a subject you are unhappy with.  Selection of your post-GCSE learning is important as well, the school/college has to have the right learning environment.  This is the same when it comes to selecting Universities as well.
 
Mark Tickner MEng (Hons) CEng MIET MINCOSE

Re: Calvin Asks: Is having Physics A-level a 'must have' to do an Engineering Degree?

Posted by Ghibson Hudson on Nov 16, 2018 11:54 am

It is certainly possible to qualify for an engineering degree without having to do an A-Level in Physics as most Universities, particularly the ones within the Russell Group ask for an A-Level in Maths and a science subject i.e. Physics, Chemistry or Biology but preferably Physics. Another option, as mentioned by an earlier reply in the thread is to do an engineering BTEC Diploma which is a more practical form of education consisting of coursework & assignments rather than exams and universities will also set out the BTEC requirements needed if this route is followed. This will take the same amount of time as completing A-Levels and most sixth form colleges offer both BTEC and A-Levels. One thing to bear in mind if following the BTEC route is that often universities might require the student to complete a foundation year in order to cover higher level mathematical or scientific concepts which are not usually introduced within the BTEC engineering diplomas, so this will be an additional year to however long the Bachelors or Masters degree is. I have seen in the past that it may be allowed to do the BTEC course and an A-Level in mathematics as well but this will need to be discussed with sixth form faculty as timetabling is often an issue and I'm not certain this would mean a foundation year is not required. The best thing to do is have discussion  with your son to see if he has any preferences on which University he would like to go to or even just look through Universities together and then look at the requirements they ask for. 

Regards,
- Ghibson

Re: Calvin Asks: Is having Physics A-level a 'must have' to do an Engineering Degree?

Posted by Arran Cameron on Nov 16, 2018 12:33 pm

What is sneaky is that some universities demand TWO facilitating A Level subjects. Mathematics and physics are both facilitating. There have been cases when applicants for degrees in computer science (and similar courses) have been rejected because they have mathematics and computer science or mathematics and electronics as A Levels but they would probably have been accepted if instead of computer science or electronics they had chemistry, history, or even Latin because they are facilitating subjects despite them being less relevant to the degree course.

Re: Calvin Asks: Is having Physics A-level a 'must have' to do an Engineering Degree?

Posted by Emma Blackburn on Nov 18, 2018 1:46 am

HI 

Just thought I'd add an alternative option here.  I did neither physics nor maths A levels and subsequently went onto an Aerospace Engineering Degree course (20 years as an air engineer and counting...).  I actually did Chemistry, Geography and English A levels. I then completed a 1 year foundation course, which covered the maths and physics elements I required. It also had the advantage of broadening my knowledge (I was on course with civil, electrical, mechanical and aircraft engineering students) and sorted the issue that was mentioned in an earlier post relating to schools' assumptions about students abilities, the teachers available and their interaction with your specific child and the occasional appearance of people like me who are neither completely scientific not completely language based people.

Good luck with working through the plan :)
 

Re: Calvin Asks: Is having Physics A-level a 'must have' to do an Engineering Degree?

Posted by Andy Millar on Nov 18, 2018 4:33 pm

Emma Blackburn:
I actually did Chemistry, Geography and English A levels. [...] It also had the advantage of broadening my knowledge ...

Personally I couldn't agree more. I think at least one non-science subject is really useful for broadening the knowledge of undergraduate engineers - I wrote at length elsewhere that excellent engineering is about communicating with non-engineers to use technology to understand and then solve their problems in the context of their society. So pretty much any subject is going to come in useful here: English (or language of choice) and geography as you say, or history, art, drama, or (as in my case), music, sociology and psychology. (Ok, due to various constraints I only got half way through the first two at A level, but they were still very useful.) Probably lots of others I can't think of at the moment.

I'm honestly not sure how university admissions departments view this - I expect it very much depends on the university?

Excellent post!

Cheers, Andy
Andy Millar CEng CMgr IET Mentor / IET PRA uk.linkedin.com/in/millarandy

Re: Calvin Asks: Is having Physics A-level a 'must have' to do an Engineering Degree?

Posted by Roy Bowdler on Nov 19, 2018 2:04 pm

Going back to the original question, I can infer that the dilemma rests with a 15/16 year old, living in Darlington, who has expressed an aspiration to pursue a career in “Engineering” , with a parent who very wisely doesn’t want him to make poor choices for the wrong reasons, that might limit his options. The parent’s aspiration is for their son to attend a “good” university.  The attachment by the son to “following his friends in staying on” suggests that he isn’t at this stage focussed on gaining employment , although things can change quickly at that age , especially if age group peers have money in their pocket and you don’t. Not knowing the type(s) of engineering role he has become interested in and how much academic potential he has , makes the question is more difficult.  

The easiest option is to keep “kicking the can down the road”. For example I met someone at an exhibition who was aged 23 and came along with their parent, they had a good engineering degree but no relevant work-experience, or clarity about how to turn this into a career.  At the time tuition fees were only £3000 pa. In that situation today that person could have a debt of £40000+. This is not an imaginary debt, never to be paid off, because someone with a degree in engineering should enjoy a career of above average earnings.  Most people over the age of 38 didn’t have to pay any fees to attend university and those older still may have been eligible for a government grant as well. I would have been eligible, but I didn’t have any role models to follow, thought that university was just for “swots” and got offered an apprenticeship by the best local employer.  I don’t know the family circumstances, but if they are less than “very comfortable” the financial aspect is important.

I mentioned having a role model to follow,  likely to be  a major influence on a young person of that age, whether that person is a parent or someone else. Those who are most likely to attend the “best” universities, tend to have some family history of an advantaged education and social capital. It can be a great advantage in gaining access as a graduate to certain professions, to “know the right people”. This also applies to gaining an apprenticeship, although the two alternative pathways, have historically tended to attract different social classes, leading to some assumptions and prejudices.  Engineering is relatively meritocratic, so it isn’t much of a barrier to come “from the wrong side of the tracks” if you succeed academically, but I have encountered people from more disadvantaged backgrounds, who despite having done well academically (e.g. MEng) find themselves at a competitive disadvantage compared to peers.

My question of the parent here is; do you potentially foresee your son studying at Teesside or Durham University?  Both offer some similar degree courses (e.g. MEng), one is held to be more “prestigious” than the other and sets a higher tariff, although both charge similar fees. The social and geographic profile of students will be different.  When it comes to gaining employment as a graduate engineer, I would expect that within the local market of employers in the area, someone from the Teesside programme would be at no disadvantage, some employers might have close links with the course for recruitment. Nationally and internationally the Durham graduate would potentially be at an advantage in certain situations. 

Coming back to the issue of “Return on Investment”. I would suggest that; a Degree Apprenticeship or one including the option of  eventually gaining a degree by studying part-time with employer support, will very probably offer a better return over a lifetime, than being a full-time student at a typical post 92 university. Assuming that the apprenticeship option is available.  Study at a university that is considered prestigious (i.e. not just “good”, but “very exceptionally good”), with a highly competitive and academically selective admissions policy, has a better chance of producing a life time earnings premium, although this isn’t anywhere near as certain as some claim, relative to something like an apprenticeship, or other “more vocational” option.  It may also be the case that the social capital of those attending the more prestigious universities forms a large part of any advantage. If your son has aspirations to become a professor of engineering, of otherwise pursue a research orientated career, then the answer would obvious. Such careers may offer “above average”, rather than “high” financial rewards, but can be very satisfying and held in high esteem.  

The landscape is changing, with the government and some universities promoting “Degree Apprenticeships” like this https://www.herts.ac.uk/degree-apprenticeships . Such options used to be have been around for a long time, although from the 1980s on a modest scale. This “new” model was at least part built on examples like a “Student Engineer and Commercial Student Training Programme” that I used to lead. Almost without exception, graduates of this programme are now in senior industry roles, including several directors by early 30s.  

Publicity was given over the last weekend to “two-year degrees”. The BEng in Manufacturing Engineering at Wolverhampton University accelerated by work-based learning, came to my attention some time ago and I wish them well.  Talk at the weekend was of more intensive study , such as by longer hours and shorter holidays, for full-time undergraduates.

If your son is highly intelligent and likely to gain admission to one of the most selective universities, then I would suggest “keeping his nose the academic grindstone”.  However probably the most important thing, that I would try to do for my son, is encourage him to identify and interact with different role models. Build social capital among those who might offer insight and/or be able to offer opportunities like work-experience.  

Assuming that he doesn’t become frustrated or disillusioned by school, then he may have up to three years before “adult choices” come upon him. He can delay hard choices for a few more years by studying for a degree aligned to his talents , but this could be costly. You are probably familiar with university graduates in jobs that don’t need a degree, this doesn’t mean that the person or the degree course was “bad”, but simply that they weren’t able to access a “graduate level job” , where they wanted (or could afford) to live, or were outcompeted by others for the limited number of such jobs.   

I appreciate that this is quite a long and complex answer to an apparently simple question.  I wish that the issues were simpler, like they were in the past for some of us , with if we were lucky our parents “Making Plans for Nigel” wink.

 

Re: Calvin Asks: Is having Physics A-level a 'must have' to do an Engineering Degree?

Posted by Stewart Russell on Nov 23, 2018 4:19 pm

I would say no but my route into engineering was a bit different to most.

Recommend that an A level in mathematics is a must.


i didn’t do A levels at all.

Went straight from school into military were I did a NVQ level 3 Telecommuinications Installation apprenticeship.

after 7 1/2 years I left and trained as an electrician and went into industry with two trades
Stewart Russell BEng(hons) EngTech TMIET TechIOSH

Re: Calvin Asks: Is having Physics A-level a 'must have' to do an Engineering Degree?

Posted by Arran Cameron on Nov 24, 2018 10:51 am

Andy Millar:

Emma Blackburn:
I actually did Chemistry, Geography and English A levels. [...] It also had the advantage of broadening my knowledge ...

Personally I couldn't agree more. I think at least one non-science subject is really useful for broadening the knowledge of undergraduate engineers - I wrote at length elsewhere that excellent engineering is about communicating with non-engineers to use technology to understand and then solve their problems in the context of their society. So pretty much any subject is going to come in useful here: English (or language of choice) and geography as you say, or history, art, drama, or (as in my case), music, sociology and psychology. (Ok, due to various constraints I only got half way through the first two at A level, but they were still very useful.) Probably lots of others I can't think of at the moment.

I'm honestly not sure how university admissions departments view this - I expect it very much depends on the university?
Students traditionally took 3 A Level subjects so it was a wise choice to ensure that the subjects were compatible with each other and relevant for the university course. A more modern practice is to take 3 A Levels and an AS Level which provides a greater opportunity for more diverse subject combinations. There are still questions about whether the fourth subject should be a potentially useful addition in terms of knowledge or very distant in terms of knowledge in relation to a university course or a career along with whether it is best to have a facilitating or non-facilitating subject.

A / AS Levels in law, economics, or business studies, are potentially more useful in terms of knowledge to engineers than history, English literature, or Latin are, although the first group are non-facilitating subjects and the second group are traditional facilitating subjects. None of these subjects are particularly well understood by admissions tutors in engineering departments (as they are used to seeing STEM subjects) so the perception of a particular subject may differ. Pyschology and sociology are almost in a twilight zone as they are both non-facilitating subjects and unfamiliar to most admissions tutors.

If an applicant has an unusual combination of A Level subjects, or subjects distant in terms of knowledge in relation to a university course, then it will amost certainly be queried in an interview.

Personal enthusiasm for a subject distant in terms of knowledge in relation to a university course can impress. There was a case of an applicant for a physics degree who had an AS Level in classical civilisation (in addition to A Levels in mathematics, further mathematics, and physics) because he had a keen interest in ancient history and archaeology. However, picking a distant subject simply to broaden knowledge, or use the other side of your brain, will not always pay off.

I'm not confident myself that arts and humanities A Levels (or any A Levels for that matter) are particularly helpful and beneficial when it comes to acquiring the skills to communicate technical stuff to a non-technical audience because they were not designed for that purpose. I think that reading various business communications books are a better choice. Very few engineers have ever studied English language beyond GCSE or technical and business English. This is an area that I feel needs more attention.

Re: Calvin Asks: Is having Physics A-level a 'must have' to do an Engineering Degree?

Posted by Martin Letts on Jan 8, 2019 2:20 pm

Hi - I think you may be asking the wrong questuion here. Maybe you could sit down with your son and ask why he does not like his teacher ("hates" is a very strong word!). I must admit whilst I really enjoyed chemistry and physics but having got high marks at 'O' level in chemistry - I am really that old - I was put into the top A level class where I struggled. I don't think the teacher liked me either. If you can encourage your son to keep at physics it will help him a lot. I gave up chemistry and was sad about it. We all have and will meet people we don't get on with, but try and make the best of it, it's not for long and remember "Experience is what you get when you are looking for something else!"
i know a young man who is really fascinated with washing machines. He has about 40 and is becoming a real expert. He's just got a job in that field. Is you son interested ina particular branch of engineering? Encourage him by spending time with him, visiting museums and places he is interested in. Time itogether is what is really precious.
Good luck,
Martin Letts

Re: Calvin Asks: Is having Physics A-level a 'must have' to do an Engineering Degree?

Posted by Chris Burden on Jan 9, 2019 5:06 pm

Dear Sir
I read with interest the problem you have posted.
I have a bit of a different approach for you to consider, however I have engaged with quantum physics to a great depth as I need to understand, as data transfer with fidelity expands, how I can achieve the requirement of precision and confidence of analysis.
I did a real apprenticeship with Rolls-Royce 1971 following GCE's aged 16.
I attained HNC engineering, and moved on to OU to complete a BSc in technology, to include Mathematics, Computing Science, Technology and Design.
Now this is the interest option , check out Hereford University (its new and different) as they are looking at what I think the world of engineering now requires 'Technologists' who better link engineering science (all aspects and there are many) ,computer programming and most importantly encompass an 'holistic' vision.
This is what I am, a technologist and with life wisdom, an insatiable appetite to still be operational in engineering science but with a focus on the technology NOT the management of the businesses.
Hope this helps
Best regards
Chris AePS 
ChrisAePS

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