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I'm an Italian student of mathematical physics at the university of Edinburgh. I have recently caught up with one of my friends and noticed that their exams in Linear algebra and calculus (analisi I, II and Geometria 1) are harder than those I have done here, which made me question how valid my university actually is. I am aware that at Edinburgh university the toughest year is supposed to be the third (unlike in Italy where the first is when most people drop out).

Does this mean that an Italian degree in physics provides a better preparation to become a theoretical physicist, or are the two qualifications equivalent?

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Hi, and welcome to Academia.SE! Unfortunately, it is very difficult to judge a question like this in general because so much depends on the specific individual and their specific goals and area of work. – jakebeal Feb 22 at 21:54
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being a first year physics student, my specific goals are not clear yet, all I know is that so far I have enjoyed the theoretical side of science more than the experimental one, and I therefore hope to become the "best" theoretical physicist I can be. – Michele Galli Feb 22 at 22:00
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One very important advantage of studying overseas that you may not have considered: unless you were very fluent in English before you started, you will likely find the language skills you pick up now to be invaluable later. Unless you're actually considering switching universities, don't think about this too much or you'll only worry unnecessarily! – Moriarty Feb 22 at 23:15
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@MicheleGalli: are you on a combined Bsc/MPhys course with a 3/4 year option? Bear in mind that due to quirks of UK 16-18 education, it's the general opinion of UK universities that UK students are under-prepared for mathematical and scientific studies. It's why the 4-year undergrad degrees exist at all, and it might account for them taking it easier than you'd expect on the maths in the first year. I did a tougher maths A-level than the average, and there was literally an entire first-year course on linear algebra at Oxford that I had already covered. They'll step it up. – Steve Jessop Feb 22 at 23:46
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One important difference is that in Edinburgh you have one chance at taking the subject, and if you fail, it is failed for good; while in Italy you can retake subjects. This means that they have to make sure it is possible to pass each and every exam. Let me add that I know several physicists that studied in Edinburgh, my girlfriend among them, and their education is certainly very good, much better rounded than the one I got from Spain. – Davidmh Feb 23 at 8:40

Comparing different educational systems is frequently a futile exercise. Learning is like hiking to the top of a mountain from different trails: all of them lead to the same top, but one can be very steep at the beginning, a second one can have its steepest segment halfway to the top and a third one can have a final wall that needs an expert climber. Different educational systems can chose different paths according to different intermediate objectives.

Though it's true that some people prefer a certain type of trail with respect to another, and that along certain trails one can find more people with whom to share the joys and sorrows of hiking (learning), arriving to the top depends only on your efforts.

Now you are at the beginning of your trail. It's too early to decide whether it's a good trail or not: start hiking and enjoy the landscape, and if you think that the trail is not enough steep for your training, try to jog or run uphill. In other words, challenge yourself: you will learn much much more.


An anecdote about the appropriateness of certain steep starts. When I was a sophomore (2nd year) studying electronic engineering we had a mandatory class called Rational Mechanics about Lagrangian and Hamiltonian mechanics. The exam consisted in a set of problems on mechanical systems to be solved with those two formalisms, a home project in which we had to develop a numerical solver with different techniques (in Pascal), and a viva where we had to prove various theorems. It was a tough exam at the sophomore level, but mostly because no one could really get the grasp of it. I somehow managed to tunnel through the exam, even with a decent grade.

Two years later I attended a class on quantum mechanics. The first lecture the professor said something like: "Quantum mechanics is based on Hamiltonian mechanics, and since you already know it we can proceed quickly". I then timidly raised my hand and said "Er... no one in this room has the faintest idea of what Hamiltonian mechanics is. Yes, we passed the exam two years ago, but really... could you please give us a refresher?". She was astonished, but then agreed to spend a few lectures on Lagrangian and Hamiltonian mechanics. I integrated her lectures with a classic book, and since then those topics have been among my favourites.

The above example is to say that sometimes a tough exam at the beginning is just a misplaced exam, because some topics require a certain level of scientific maturity to be properly understood.

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Thank you very much! It is just hard sometimes to easily cope with criticism like that found on the internet and be very far from home at the same time. – Michele Galli Feb 22 at 21:56

I have travelled a similar path around 1970 asking the same questions transplanted from Italy and studying engineering in New York. My opinion is that the US or UK will actually prepare the student better, maybe at a slightly slower pace but not any less. In the US, classes and Labs are well furnished, with lab time and equipment for each student (or teams) to conduct research. In the US, the real study is Graduate and Pos-Graduate, often students are led by well respected leaders in their fields.

The advantage of the US (and possibly the UK) is a better learning environment, less theoretical, more practical (focused on using what is learned toward problem solving). The student body in the US is much more competitive but everyone benefits from exposure to bright students from around the globe.
Unfortunately, the academic study does not prepare the individual for the next steps, like work in academia or the private sector where it will take not only the learned methodology and skills but your insights and ambition to succeed.
To my surprise I landed on Wall Street, a really competitive environment particularly during the past few decades.

I would personally consider what will come after the course of study and which country (economy) will actually offer the opportunity to pursue a rewarding career, since the contacts made during the course of study can help the direction the career will take.

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