Let’s get physiCal! My experience studying physics abroad

Allison Fong/Staff

A year’s worth of physics in the span of eight weeks? Who in their right mind would ever do something like that to themselves? Answer: me and a handful of people, that’s who. Offered through the UC Education Abroad Program, the physics program is popular among pre-med students and others alike. Sure, you could take physics at UC Berkeley, but that would mean stacking multiple STEM courses each semester in order to stay on schedule (like, thanks but no thanks). To avoid this, there’s a good number of people who opt to take an accelerated course abroad at the University of Sussex, University of Glasgow or University College Dublin in the summer.

I heard a lot about this option through upperclassmen, and although they gave me very helpful information, I did wish there was an article of some sort to read. No, I’m not talking about the course website or anything like that — I’m talking about the real rundown of what it’s really like to take such a course. If you’re anything like me, you like to know what the hell you’re getting yourself into before actually getting involved. So to fill this void in the many eager beavers out there (I’m talking to you, fellow pre-meds), here’s the rundown on my experience studying physics abroad last summer at the University of Sussex. 


The University of Sussex is located in Falmer, Sussex, England, just a 10-minute train ride to Brighton. Brighton is a seaside town filled with tons of shops, restaurants and nightlife and other fun things to do. The campus itself is surrounded by lots of nature so you can easily take a study break and enjoy the great outdoors with a quick hike, run or walk — or you can just admire it from the comfort of your own room. If you’re seeking a little more adventure, London is located only about an hour away by train.


The U.K. in the summer experiences a mix of hot and cold. It was pretty sunny for the most part during my time there, but we did experience some rain, believe it or not. Pro tip: Pack for everything, from sunny to rainy skies!


I lived in the Northfield flats, located in the northern part of campus. The residence itself was separated into “blocks,” which are basically buildings. Because of its location, many of the blocks overlooked rolling hills, hiking trails and lots of trees. The occasional sighting of bunnies hopping around or cows straight chillin’ on the hills behind the blocks were nothing out of the ordinary. The buildings consisted of several flats, each with six single bedrooms with an en suite bathroom, as well as a shared kitchen. Note that bedding and a towel is provided, so you don’t need to bring your own! 


Unlike previous years of the program, we were actually provided with a meal plan of 80 pounds per week — plenty, if you ask me. We were able to use our “munch money” at any of the cafés on campus, which was super convenient. Not needing to cook allowed you to focus more on studying. If you wanted to cook or have snacks, you could easily pick up groceries from the co-op located on campus, have groceries delivered to you, or visit a grocery store in Brighton. With Brighton so close, you could easily hop into town to explore some cafés and restaurants too.


Everyone’s schedule was a little different, but each schedule consisted of the same three components: lecture, lab and workshop. I had class Monday through Thursday (yay for three-day weekends!). Lecture was offered at two different time slots, one in the morning and another in the afternoon, each taught by different professors. A typical day for me started with lecture, followed by either workshop or lab, depending on the day. Over the course of a week, each student has five lectures, two workshops and two labs.

Workshops are basically discussion sections in which a graduate student goes over the material discussed in lecture and problem sets. They’ll break down each problem and answer any questions you might have. This was honestly the most helpful part, as you can clear up any confusion about the material. There’ll also be a quiz in every workshop, so it’s very important to keep up with the material. 

Each lab focuses on a different physics concept, and is taught by an assistant teacher in small groups of eight. On the first day of lab, you’ll be able to pick your own lab partner, so choose wisely. You’ll be with this person for the duration of the following eight weeks. You’re also expected to read the lab before attending your lab section. Luckily, there’s no pre- or post-lab to turn in. However, this means that everything must be turned in at the end of the three hours.

In terms of exams, each section will consist of a midterm (15%), a final (50%), the best five out of six labs (25%) and the best four out of five quizzes (10%). The midterm consisted of 10 questions and lasted one hour, while the final was 20 questions and lasted two hours. The overall conversion from U.K. grades to U.S. grades is pretty generous, so when you look at your score, you’ll be surprised to see that you actually didn’t do as badly as you thought!


Although you’re there to study, be sure to take advantage of your time abroad! Many students studied hard during the week and took the weekend off to travel all across the U.K. and other parts of Europe. The five-day break between the two sessions of physics is a popular time for many students to explore outside the U.K. Everything in Europe is relatively close, so a quick train or plane ride can literally take you anywhere. Pro tip: To get cheaper train tickets, I booked through Trainline.

If you don’t really feel like being a travel agent for yourself and your friends, the International Summer School  at the University of Sussex offered lots of fun trips at an affordable cost. These trips included a Harry Potter tour, a trip to Stonehenge and lots of other fun adventures!

Overall difficulty

It’s a year’s worth of physics in the span of eight weeks — of course it’ll be challenging. Things move very quickly, as there are many things that need to be covered. It’s really important to be on top of your studies, since there’s literally no time to play catch-up — Trust me on this one. This was actually my first time taking actual physics, so you can imagine what it was like for me to go through this program. Although it was hard and it really pushed me beyond my comfort zone, I made it through — so you can too! There are also a lot of ways to get academic support while in this program, such as attending office hours and forming study groups with your classmates.

TLDR — physics is hard but you’ll have a lot of fun during this program. I went into this program not knowing a damn thing about physics and I walked out with some knowledge in my back pocket and with some great, unexpected friendships as well. I actually met someone on my way to London during a layover and we ended up becoming best friends by the end of the eight weeks!

Sure, this program will be challenging, given the amount of information and short span of time allotted, but you’ll have a great time meeting new people and exploring a new country. The fact that I was in a completely different country allowed me to explore a different culture, gain independence and learn more about myself and the world around me. People always talk about how studying abroad was such an integral part of their undergraduate experiences — and now I think I understand why.

Contact Allison Fong at [email protected].