Undergraduate Study

https://www.youtube.com/embed/5LxcwMSQav4

The Course

Biology is a single honours degree course taught jointly by the Departments of Plant Sciences and Zoology. Many UK universities offer excellent Biology courses. We firmly believe that we are one of the best, and that we have many features that combine to produce a “value added factor” which is hard to beat. Oxford is the oldest university in the country and the sheer quantity and quality of libraries, museums, field sites, reference collections and societies (scientific, sporting or just odd) is arguably unsurpassed.

All students belong to a college with at least one dedicated biology tutor. The college system provides an immense amount of care, support, encouragement and sense of belonging. The opportunity to work in small groups alongside the departmental teaching helps to build student confidence and fosters strong relationships between staff and students.

In Oxford, we encourage you to develop your own ideas by reading the research literature as well as text books.  As you progress to second and third year, there is an increasing emphasis on independent thinking and you will hone your critical skills through small group discussions of key scientific papers.

Biology at Oxford now incorporates an optional fourth-year, so students can leave after three years with a BA or after four years with an MBiol. Progression to the MBiol is contingent on satisfactory academic performance in the first three years. The fourth year consists of an extended project, which can be lab or field based, plus advanced research skills training.

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You will spend the first year encountering the full range of biology, developing an understanding of the integration between the levels and discovering, perhaps to your surprise, the similarities of some of the laws governing interactions between molecules, cells, individuals and populations. For many, the transition from A level (or equivalent) to first year university biology is a surprise which takes some coming to terms with. However, we have designed a three-week orientation period which will help you to make a smoother transition. During the orientation, you will be introduced to the course and we will focus on a few key fundamental topics which underpin most of biology, such as Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection. You will also be introduced to the scientific method and can begin thinking – what does it take to be a modern biologist?

All topics in the first year are compulsory, to provide you with a broad and solid background or further specialised study. The first-year lectures are comprised of three themes, which are woven together to tell a compelling integrated narrative of the history of life and highlighting major evolutionary events. The three themes are:
(1) Diversity of Life;
(2) How to Build a Phenotype;
(3) Ecology & Evolution.

Alongside the lectures, there is compulsory skills training that provides the research skills relevant to modern biology. In the first year, skills training includes dissections as part of the Organisms module. You will also attend a week long field course in the UK in the summer term.

 

Assessment:
Paper 1: Factual and core conceptual content examined.
Paper 2: Essay paper to assess synthesis skills.
Paper 3: Research Skills paper. Designed to test knowledge of practicals in year 1, via labelling of diagrams, descriptions of protocols, calculations of rates etc. 
Practical write-ups: Students will submit short practical write-ups.

In the second year there is greater specialisation compared to first-year and four themes are on offer. The themes currently on offer are:

(1) Genomes and Molecular Biology;
(2) Cell and Developmental Biology;
(3) Behaviour and Physiology of Organisms;
(4) Ecology and Evolution.

It’s possible to attend lectures in all four themes, although for examination purposes, you only need to attend three out of four.

Research skills, such as statistics continue to be taught, and are compulsory. You will get a chance to develop enhanced research skills, through a range of longer extended skills training courses. Topics currently covered include: ecological fieldwork (in the UK and overseas), genome sequencing and museum curation. All overseas work requires financial contributions from the student.

Research Skills Training (Second Year)

Skills training includes statistics and scientific methods, presentation and analysis of data, and writing reports. Students will have formal training in statistics and coding and will also employ these techniques in the analysis of data that they collect during practical exercises associated with the lecture-based material. Research skills associated with the lectures currently include bioinformatics training, modelling, bench skills, and experimental design.

You will participate in an advanced skills course. Currently, choices include ecological field courses in Borneo, Tenerife, and Skomer; lab-based courses on sequencing and genomics; museum curation in the Oxford Natural History Museum; and UK-based field courses that teach cutting-edge technologies for studying global climate change and conservation biology. The field courses will culminate in a scientific poster  presented at a research forum.

Please note that skills courses will change from time to time and that overseas work requires financial contributions from the student. We also cannot guarantee that all students will be offered their first-choice courses.

Assessment:

Paper 1: Essay paper. Students will write essays to demonstrate synthesis and conceptual understanding.

Paper 2: Research Skills paper. Designed to test knowledge of skills training from the practicals in year 2: (e.g. understanding of protocols, calculation of rates, carrying out and interpreting statistical tests or analysis of pertinent data), and focusing on statistics and scientific methods.

Practical write-ups: Students will submit short practical write-ups.

Poster: The advanced skills course will be written up in the style of a scientific poster that will be assessed by oral examination.

In the third year, the course allows students to specialise further and contains eight options, from which students select four. The modules encompass a blend of core research areas and emerging topics relevant to society such as GM crops, bio-fuels, and stem cells. Skills training continues. Computing skills are taught via individual and group projects using data from internal and external partners. There are also regular journal clubs that allow students to engage with and critique the primary scientific literature.

Current modules are listed below:

  • Advanced cell biology
  • Genome diversity and evolution
  • Animal behaviour and physiology
  • Ecosystems, conservation, and sustainable development
  • Green Grand Challenges
  • Advanced ecology and evolution
  • Evolution and development
  • Biology of infectious disease

Research Skills Training:

Year 3 will focus on establishing a strong base in skills that will be needed for your 4th year projects and your later scientific careers. Students will hone their research computing skills in programming, handling and visualizing data, through multiple sessions held throughout the year. Students will solve a problem using their own computer code and write up a choice of these for submission as coursework. In addition, students will test out their data-wrangling powers through unassessed group projects, in which they will help internal and external partners to gather, process and/or analyse new data. These projects will allow students to contribute to real-world tasks and experience working in teams on professional projects.

Through a regular journal club, students will learn how to engage critically with the primary scientific literature. This will prepare students for the research skills paper, in which they will have to read and critique a short scientific paper. Students will also present an assessed oral presentation on a research topic of their choice, with a critique of the current state of play and suggestions for how the research field might move forward.

Finally, students will work on a research proposal in the style of a grant application that might be submitted to a research-funding or conservation body. It will outline a project suitable for one person for a 12-month period, and in a final section propose how that project would develop if extended to 3 years in total. In short, by the end of the year you will have a solid foundation in the skills needed to be a research biologist

Assessment (numbering continues from year 2):

Paper 3: Research Skills - Candidates will read one short scientific paper (chosen from options that represent a breadth of topics ranging from cells to ecosystems) and answer the same general questions: e.g. What are the hypotheses being tested and have the authors made them explicit? Are the methods appropriate for the question being addressed? What further experiments could support this work?

Paper 4: Conceptual Essay paper - students write essays from a selection of modules out of those taught. This paper will emphasise synthesis of conceptual ideas from across the modules.

Paper 5: Applications Essay paper - students write essays from any a selection of modules out of those taught. This paper will emphasise how research in the modules can contribute to applied challenges in their fields.

Students will also be assessed on three other elements:

Research Skills Assignments: Students will submit computer assignments chosen from a selection. Each of these assignments will require students to adapt and apply their knowledge and computer-based skills: for example, to new data or by using an alternative model to the example covered in the training session. Each submitted assignment will comprise annotated code and a short report of findings.

Coursework 2: Oral presentation. Students will choose a topic on which to make a presentation. They will then present the current state of art research in that area (citing recent publications within the last 3 years), highlight current shortcomings and limitations, and outlining next steps and future directions.

Coursework 3: Research proposal. Students will submit a research proposal in the style of the case for support of a grant proposal that might be submitted to a research-funding or conservation body.  It should outline a project suitable for one person for a 12-month period, and in a final section propose how that project would develop if extended to 3 years in total.

If you opt to stay for the fourth year and you obtain a 2:1 at the end of third year, you get an opportunity to pursue an in-depth research project, under the supervision of an academic member of staff. Those who successfully complete the fourth year will leave with a Masters of Biology (MBiol). Progression to the MBiol is contingent on satisfactory academic performance in the first three years (with the exception of the first entry in the 2021-2022 academic year, due to COVID-19 disruption).

Research Skills Training:

The MBiol is a masters by research. That means you will have an entire academic year to focus on an in-depth piece of research as part of the research group of your project supervisor. While you will focus on your own piece of research, a large part of the training will come from participating in the day-to-day activity as a member of your research group, and by working with its other members (post-docs, PhD students etc.). However, in year 4, there will be some advanced skills courses to support the conduct and writing-up of the research project dissertation, including: Experimental design and planning; Data analysis; Reproducible research; Data presentation; Scientific writing, Grant and fellowship writing. There will also be a mini-conference in which students have the opportunity to present their work to their peers.

Each project will have a budget of up to a maximum of £1000 (although you may be able to apply for small grants from your department and/or college to help you cover any exceptional expenses). Standard travel insurance can be provided by the University. However, students may be required to pay any additional insurance premiums associated with travel to areas with an increased level of risk, and should factor this into their planning for fieldwork.

Assessment:

The research project dissertation will contribute 25% towards the final degree. The fourth year will be assessed by a written dissertation and a short viva where the work is presented and questions answered.

Tutorials

Biology is taught using a mixture of lectures, skills training (including field courses), classes and tutorials.  The lectures lay down the syllabus of each course, and the skills training provides techniques essential for any modern biologist. Our lectures are designed to tell you about the important issues, theories and empirical research in biology,  while skills training gives you the tools you need to become a modern biologist. We also use small group teaching for experimental design and quantitative data analysis. Extra reading is encouraged, and this should increase as the course progresses.

Oxford University’s greatest asset is the tutorial system. This system means that you are likely to receive much more personal tuition and greater pastoral support than other universities can offer. The tutorial consists of a one hour meeting, once a week, between the tutor and two or three students. Before the tutorial, your tutor will set you an essay to write and provide you with a reading list.  You hand in the essay before the tutorial, which is read and commented on by your tutor, and handed back at the start of the tutorial.

The discussion during the tutorial goes beyond the original topic, giving you a chance to talk about your own ideas and opinions in modern biology. Tutorials are often in blocks of two or more, so that you can cover a topic in depth, and your tutor can get to know you personally. They are asked to comment on your performance in tutorials, and these comments are sent to your college at the end of each term.

Our tutors are very fond of addressing questions that none of us even thought to ask, and it really pushes us to question fundamental assumptions. I believe that learning from another human beats learning from papers or textbooks any day. Being able to bounce ideas off your tutors and your peers is very valuable and you end up with a much better understanding of the topic.

- Mavis, student

 

Admissions

The A-level admission requirement is A*AA, with the A* in a Science or a Mathematics. A-level Biology (or equivalent) will be required and a second A-level (or equivalent) must be in Chemistry, Physics or Mathematics. See a full list of 'subjects in which an A* grade will be acceptable'.

The requirement for the International Baccalaureate is total score of at least 39 points including core points, with 7 at the Higher level in Mathematics or a science (preferably Biology). Other equivalent international qualifications are also accepted.

For details, please see the University pages on international qualifications.

The deadline for applications to Oxford is the 15th October. On the basis of your UCAS form, you may be called for interview in December by the tutor of your chosen college. This is usually for admission the following October, but you may also submit a deferred application for the following year.


Each year, we receive many more applications to read Biology than the number of places we can offer, and so we cannot interview everyone who applies. We therefore shortlist applications with the aim of interviewing those who display the greatest potential as biologists in their UCAS form. So, if you have achieved a strong run of GCSE grades (or equivalent), by which we simply mean one of the top sets of grades within your own school, and you have a deep interest in Biology, then we will want to see you at interview. However, please ask your teacher to put your grades in context in their UCAS reference, and do tell us about your scientific interests in your personal statement.

We take account of the full range of information available to us at shortlisting, including information about school performance and on any specific factors affecting achievement. So if you think you meet our admissions criteria then it is always worth applying. And, if you've already taken your A-levels (or equivalent), we will usually interview you if you have met our standard offer and also display the deep interest in biology that we always look for.

Applications for Oxford are received through UCAS in much the same way as for other UK Universities – see the UCAS website for more details.

https://www.youtube.com/embed/ejkjHP5F5rM


Students are selected for interview from their UCAS forms on the basis of examination scores (achieved and predicted), referee's report, and personal statement – showing both an interest in and an academic potential for Biology. Interviews are held in December.

In the interviews, we are looking for your interest in biology, your ability to engage in conversation about biology related subjects, how you respond when you are given additional pieces of information, and how you respond when you are confronted with things that you don’t know the immediate answer to. You can expect some questions based around your UCAS form, and that then leads onto questions around an object and some data in attempts to try and stimulate a discussion.

My first interview was actually quite enjoyable and rewarding as I felt myself understanding my questions bit by bit as more information was revealed. My second was quite different but I would suggest to not letting a small setback early in the interview changing the way you act throughout the rest of it.

- Madeleine, student 

After the college interviews, all College Tutors meet together to discuss the gathered field of interviewees. First choice colleges always have the right to select students they like first, followed by second "choice" colleges, but any college can make an offer. There is also a Pool system whereby a small number of applicants are offered a place to read Biology at Oxford, but their college will not be determined until A-level or equivalent exam results are published in the summer of the following year.

 

Colleges

All students who come to Oxford University are associated with an Oxford college. There are 21 Oxford colleges that offer Biology. Each college has its own history, ethos and architecture but the quality of teaching you receive is identical. Colleges normally provide students with affordable accommodation for at least two (the first and last) years of the course and act as a social hub. In Biology, all your lectures, practicals, field courses and indeed exams will be organised by, and based in, the Departments of Plant Sciences and Zoology.

You can name a college at the application stage (your “first-choice” college), but this is not essential. Some applicants may not be interviewed by the college they applied to due to logistics, but don't worry - around 20% of students happily end up at a college different to the one they originally applied to.

Student Life

Studying at Oxford means you'll be learning from world-leading experts and have access to cutting edge resources, but that's far from all the University has to offer! Living in Oxford means you'll be in a beautiful, historic city with a very active student population, and a lot of choice about extra-curricular activities to get involved in. Oxford's terms are shorter than most other UK universities, lasting for about 8 weeks. You'll spend a lot of that time in labs, lectures, and preparing for tutorials, but there's a lot of other things outside of your course that will be a big part of your life here. 

A lot of your student life will happen in and around your college. Each college has its own social culture (as well as stereotypes!), so it's worth having a think about what you want when choosing what college to apply for. Colleges also have sports, music, and drama groups, as well as the Junior Common Room, which represents the voice of the student body to the rest of the college. You'll likely spend some of your time living in college, too, so make sure to check out what accommodation they have available.

Outside of college, Oxford has over 400 clubs and societies to join, ranging from the Quidditch Society to the Ceilidh Band, and featuring amateur dramatics groups, political societies, and much more. It's very tempting to want to sign up to everything that interests you during freshers week, and it's always great to try as many things out s you can - just try not to overwhelm yourself! Over time, you'll find out what you enjoy most and where your closest friends are. 

Oxford also has a reputation of being a high-pressured environment, so make sure you know how to take care of yourself whilst studying here. There's a lot of support that you can access to help you make the most of your time at Oxford, and equip yourself to manage any stresses that arise. 

Careers

While more than 40% of Oxford biology graduates go on to further study such as a research doctorate or postgraduate course in an applied field, over 40% embark on a professional career after graduating in areas as diverse as education, research, not for profit, health, environmental work, media, marketing, and consultancy.

Hannah, now a research assistant at the Royal Veterinary College, reports: ‘My degree gave me a keen interest in my subject and the skills to pursue it. So far I have tracked rhinos across deserts, chased birds across oceans, and am currently working with chickens!’

After graduation, Jenny spent several years in a medical communication agency environment and now has her own business, working directly with major global pharmaceutical companies. She explains: ‘The tutorial system and writing opportunities during my degree were critical in developing the skills needed to analyse and interpret data, present them clearly and concisely in context and discuss results of clinical trials.’

Open Days

In the light of continued developments with coronavirus (Covid-19) our 2021 Open Days (June 30 and July 1, and September 17) will be Virtual Open Days. 

As such we’d like to invite you to join us - from the comfort of your living room! - to learn more about our Biology undergraduate course. All Biology Open Days will be hosted centrally on the main university website here.

Make sure to keep up with us on Twitter and Instagram, where our Student Ambassadors will be sharing what they’ve loved about studying
Biology at Oxford. Please stay tuned for further information, or in the meantime please visit the central University website here.

We can't wait to welcome prospective students back to Oxford once it's safe to! In the meantime, you can find more information about what it's like to study Biology at Oxford in these YouTube videos:

https://www.youtube.com/embed/videoseries?list=PLXiKiyo6tkx6xF3_HHBnD9wtjnsVfSL5o