Undergraduate Study

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About the Course

Read the MBiol Biology brochure

All students begin by registering for the MBiol, and you will have the chance to decide during Year 3 if you want to continue or leave with a BA. In Year 4 you will pursue an independent research project, subject to obtaining at least an upper second-class degree in the BA.

The course covers all areas of biology from molecules to ecosystems, and includes both fundamental science and its real-world applications. Taught by more than 70 staff from the new Department of Biology, you will have direct access to world-class academics throughout the course. Our staff have contributed to managing the recent COVID pandemic, helped to establish new protected areas around the world, and are working to engineer better crops to tackle food shortages. Most of our academic staff are willing to take fourth-year project students (although there are limits on the number that each can take), giving you the opportunity to join research groups at the forefront of their field. 

Oxford is the oldest university in the country, and all students belong to a college with at least one dedicated biology tutor. The college system provides care and support throughout your degree.

The course strongly emphasises research skills through lab practicals, computer programming, analysis, and the reading and discussion of scientific papers, helping students to develop skills beyond essay-writing. We offer amazing opportunities for students to hone and extend their skills through intensive courses in Year 2, which involve overseas and UK fieldwork or immersive lab practice. In recent years, these options have included residential field courses in Tanzania, Tenerife, and Northern Ireland.

https://www.youtube.com/embed/R5zChcNj9HE

 

Read more about what and how you'll study with us below

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In Year 1 you receive an introduction to themes that recur through the course, along with scientific methods and essential research skills.  Lectures, practicals and synthesis sessions come from three interwoven themes: 

  • Diversity of life 
  • Building a phenotype
  • Evolution and ecology

Year 1 begins with a four-week Orientation period, designed to help you settle into Oxford. Key goals are: learning the scientific method, discovering Oxford’s unique facilities such as the Natural History Museum, the Botanic Garden, the Arboretum, the Herbarium, and Wytham Woods, and learning key research skills.   

All sessions in Year 1 are compulsory. There are lectures, lab practicals, computing sessions, synthesis sessions (in which you discuss topics in depth), and a week-long residential field course in the UK.  

In Year 2 the depth of material increases and you begin to specialise. There are 8 modules, grouped into 4 themes:

  • Cell and Developmental Biology
  • Ecology and Evolution
  • Genomics and Host-microbe Interactions
  • Organisms – Behaviour and Physiology

You receive compulsory training in statistics and quantitative methods, and can join an extended skills course. There are many exciting options, including intensive lab training and overseas and UK-based residential field courses. In previous years, options have included residential field courses in Tanzania, Tenerife and Northern Ireland.

You will make and present a scientific poster based on some aspect of your extended skills course.

In Year 3 you choose 4 from 8 specialist modules:

  • Advanced Cell Biology
  • Advanced Ecology & Evolution
  • Animal Behaviour & Physiology
  • Biology of Infectious Disease
  • Ecosystems, Conservation & Sustainable Development
  • Evolution & Development
  • Genome Diversity & Evolution
  • Green Grand Challenges

All combinations are possible and some modules contain a small number of practicals. 

Your computing skills are developed and assessed, and you choose a topic to research and present orally. Journal club provides training in how to read and critique scientific papers. 

In the summer term (Trinity Term), you work on a research proposal in conjunction with an academic supervisor. This is assessed as part of the BA and forms the basis of the fourth-year project for those who continue to Year 4. 

If you opt to stay for the fourth year and you obtain a 2:1 at the end of year 3, you will complete a long research project, supported by some optional advanced research skills training.

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 you will have the opportunity to present your work to your 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.

Teaching
The photo is taken inside. Lindsay Turnbull leans over a table, looking to her right at a group of students. The students are looking down at the table, appearing to speak to each other. A student on the left of the photo is thinking.

Biology is taught using a mixture of lectures, skills training (including field courses), classes, and tutorials. Lectures are designed to tell you about the important issues, theories, and 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 usually consists of a one-hour meeting, once a week, between the tutor and two/three students.

The tutorials are beneficial to students as they help develop key transferable skills, particularly evidence-based communication, critical thinking, and problem solving. The skills developed during tutorial teaching are indispensable for a number of diverse careers. Tutorials can vary in style but often, 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. Most first-year tutorials take place in your college with your college tutors. In later years, most students have tutorials with a wide range of tutors, depending on their interests.

Skills training

You will be required to perform a range of lab, field, and computer-based investigations in the first three years of the biology course. These provide essential practical skills and knowledge to prepare you to engage with your own research in the optional MBiol year. Most lab practicals include a pre-lab session that must be completed before you enter the lab. In the first year, there are a small number of carefully selected dissections that have been designed with animal welfare and conservation principles in mind. 

For the second-year skills courses, you choose from the different courses on offer — though due to limitations on the number of places, we cannot guarantee that you will get your first-choice course.

Admissions

Course entry requirements are detailed on the University Biology admissions page (see the Admissions Requirements tab).    

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.

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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 might expect some questions based on your UCAS form, and it is likely that an object and/or some data will be shared with you and discussed.

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 the University of Oxford are associated with an Oxford college. There are 21 Oxford colleges that offer Biology. Each has its own history, ethos, and architecture, as well as providing students with accommodation, food, and a wealth of social activities. Although your lectures, practicals, field courses, and exams will be organised by the Department of Biology, the college will be responsible for organising small group teaching known as tutorials. First-year tutorials are often with your own college tutors, but in later years, students receive tutorials from staff across the Department. 

You can name a college at the application stage (your “first-choice” college), but this is not essential. Due to the large numbers of applicants at certain colleges, you might be interviewed or offered a place at a different college.  

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

Biology is a highly suitable foundation for all sorts of professions that require observation, communication, critical thinking, and intellectual skills.

Some of our students continue to postgraduate research at Oxford or further afield. Others use their skills and knowledge to establish careers in a variety of sectors, which may or may not have direct connections to biological topics. These vary from charity and not-for-profit, law, energy and the environment, financial services, consultancy, health and social care, government and public services, and media, marketing and publishing.

Open Days

Our 2022 Open Days are now finished. We will be holding them again sometime in June and September 2023.

You can find out more about Biology at Oxford by keeping up with our Twitter and Instagram, where our Student Ambassadors have shared what they’ve loved about studying with us. Please stay tuned for further information, or in the meantime please visit the central University website here.

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