Study Physics in Prague: There Is No Science Without Students
In 2021 Matfyz is opening a new English Master programme, and international students thus have a chance to study physics at one the most prestigious universities in central Europe. What do students and teachers think about our new programme? How difficult is the study? How expensive it might be? And what can you get from studying at Matfyz?
From this year onwards, you can finish your master’s degree in physics in Prague. In 2021 the Faculty of Mathematics and Physics is opening a Master programme in Physics to all international students. We asked one of the initiators and teachers of the course, Lukas Nadvornik (pictured right), and a student representative in the academic senate, Andrej Farkas, who confide us what the new programme offers or how life is in Prague.
I would start with an obvious question: what has triggered the opening of the new English-taught Master Programme in Physics?
LN: Maybe like everything, it started as personal experience. I was contacted by a young Bachelor student from the UK looking for study possibilities in Prague and experimental experience in our group. It was difficult not to be able to offer him a study program at our faculty as all of them were taught in Czech language. Later on, I learnt from my colleagues that it wasn’t the only case and we realized that the Faculty is becoming more and more attractive for students from abroad. Since English-taught courses are already being offered in Mathematics and Computer Science, we got inspired and started the programme in Physics.
Andrej, you are a Slovak student finishing your master’s degree in physics of the Czech-taught programme. Why have you chosen the Faculty of Mathematics and Physics and why physics at all?
AF: One of the most significant reasons, why to choose the Faculty of Mathematics and Physics for my studies, were possibilities. Firstly, I wanted to study mathematics in Prague when I was circa 13 years old. Yes, I was a bit of a weird child, but later on I discovered that I like solving problems with a more hands-on approach. So, I developed an interest in physics. I did not know exactly which field I wanted to study, but I knew that I would have a plethora of choices here. I know that it is not really a case for the master students, since their bachelor degree already pointed them in a certain direction, but I still think that our school offers a lot of possibilities and I think I have managed to try at least some of them.
I know that you have spent some time abroad too, so you can compare. Is there something that makes our Faculty unique for students from abroad?
AF: I was fortunate to visit a few places during my studies. Most memorable to date was KAUST in Saudi Arabia, where I spent a summer on the Photonics camp. That was really similar to other summer internships. I am a strong supporter of internships or other short term projects abroad. Charles University and our Faculty are unique in many ways. What I would consider better than standard is that you can find really good teachers with a friendly attitude towards students. Of course it does not apply to all of them, but for the most part, they are quite forthcoming and helpful, which I really appreciate.
Back to the English programme. Lukas, what are the fields in Physics that an international student can apply for?
LN: I think that we cover a wide spectrum of modern disciplines in Physics, ranging from highs of Meteorology and Climatology to depths of Particle and Nuclear Physics. You can also find other important fields like Condensed Matter, Material Sciences, Surface and Plasma Physics, Biophysics or Optics and Optoelectronics – which is Andrej’s field, actually.
Really? And can you describe in simple words what you are actually doing, Andrej?
AF: I am currently working on my master's thesis, more specifically in a field of opto-spintronics, so in simpler terms I am blasting laser pulses on a new material and trying to figure out how it can be useful. The most interesting part of my thesis is that I can watch my material grow in the MBE (big hunk of stainless steel with the cleanest place in the universe inside), do some lithography (almost like printing an image on nanometer scale), make it into a device I can characterize and then blast a phew-phew just to destroy it and gather some data along the way.
Sounds like fun. So, it seems the students’ work and experience in laboratories are quite essential, doesn’t it, Lukas?
LN: Definitely. We put a high priority to it. And it is not only a formal requirement for experimentally oriented master theses. Actually, students are an irreplaceable part of every laboratory and their contributions to the common output of groups are really important for all of us, junior and senior scientists. Honestly, I couldn’t imagine science without students. And the same is true, I am sure, for theoretical theses. Then, you just replace laboratory equipment by a pen and paper or a massive computer cluster.
I know that you give quite special care to each individual student, am I correct?
LN: Yes, you are. It is a good observation. I think it is because we have a very convenient ratio of the number of students and academic staff or researchers. In reality it means that we are known for a highly individualistic approach to students. Not only in terms of scientific work, but also when it comes to lectures, courses or seminars. You can always come and discuss with the lecturer, get support from him or dig deeper into the problems. Or even get involved in some real science he or she is doing. And it is true especially in master programmes.
What are the typical next steps of students who completed the masters’ degree at the Faculty? Do they stay in academia or go to industry?
AF: That really depends on their specialization. More experimentally oriented students can either stay in academia or go to do research and development in many different companies. More specifically in optics for example, I have a few friends working for Škoda, the car manufacturer, or Crytur, a producer of optical crystals and solutions. There are just a few big companies in Czech Republic with their R&D centers, so there are not that many choices, but you can easily work for many different companies across Europe. It is quite easy to get hired with the qualifications that we get from our studies. As per academia, it is more or less the same story. It is quite easy to find a PhD position either in Czech Republic or abroad. And thinking about the ratio, I would say that around 70 % of students stay in academia.
LN: I would add that, in the case of international students, it may depend whether they stay in the Czech Republic or move to another country. Many researchers and their groups have really excellent connections and collaborations all round the world, so I would not be surprised if the student takes this opportunity and travels more during their PhD. The possibilities may be really country-specific, but I would say that the perspectives of absolvents in Physics are very good in science and out of it. And everywhere in general.
Maybe a question that everyone wants to know, but is afraid to ask: is the study difficult? Andrej, you are maybe the better person to ask.
AF: Yes, most definitely it is demanding, but as you progress through your studies, you are doing more and more actual scientific work. This was my motor that kept me going even through tough exams periods. But I think if someone wants to study anything, they have to have a clear motivation, something that fascinates them on the thing that they are studying. If you lack motivation, of course you will find the study painful, but I think that applies not only to physics.
And what about Prague? How is living here? I mean accommodation, culture or events. What does Prague offer to a student, especially an international one?
AF: That really depends, if there is a global pandemic or not. Because during the pandemic Prague is really intimate and quiet. But I miss Prague before the pandemic. I really like the culture here. Prague was the city of music. I miss going to concerts ranging from the philharmonic to Slovak underground band (you can most definitely find your favourite concert place here). But I hope it will get back to this vibrant city of art and I will be able to explore this loud and flashy side of Prague again. As per accommodation, I would say that it is more or less similar to for example eastern part of Germany and prices are just a bit cheaper.
Last but not least a very important question: what are the numbers behind? Is the study expensive?
LN: I think that the tuition is quite low, making the study here much more affordable than in the UK for example. We are also offering scholarships to cover the cost. So, considering the lower cost of living in Prague, you can keep your budget small or not on the contrary, and enjoy more of what Prague offers. The choice is always up to the student.
AF: I would agree with Lukas, even though tuition is not something to write home about. Living expenditures are quite low. If you choose to live at the dormitory, you can cover your housing and basic living expenses with your scholarship. If you decide to rent a room in a flat, the scholarship will be sufficient just for the housing. But as Lukas mentioned, the faculty offers some extra scholarships or sometimes your supervisor might help you by giving you some work contracts. This is something you can ask your supervisor in advance, so you can plan your life here. Usually they are willing to give you at least a bit of money, so you wouldn't have to worry about your finances and explore Prague a bit.
Thank you both for sharing your ideas and good luck with your careers. I remind that the deadline for applications is set to April 30, 2021. All details can be found on the Faculty webpage: https://www.mff.cuni.cz/en.
Kristýna Zinková, photo by Tomáš Rubín