The Oxford Maths and Philosophy course is intense, the workload is large and the concepts you cover are varied. A joint honours degree is incredibly rewarding, but time management is key and the weekly schedules are full on.
An Overview of First Year Maths and Philosophy at Oxford:
Everyone follows the same structure for Oxford Maths and Philosophy in their first year, culminating in 5 exams at the end of Trinity (Summer) term. They are:
- Mathematics 1: With a section on Linear Algebra (which you study for a term and a half) and a section on Group Theory and Group Actions (which you study for a term and a half).
Linear Alegbra is the study of vector spaces, it is very abstract and pure, and employs and develops lots of the skills you have developed for dealing with transformations, matrices and determinants, as well as expanding out to more interesting theorems and proofs (such as the Rank-Nullity Theorem).
Group Theory can also be thought of as being related to transformations in a very broad sense – in particular, how they combine – but it's entirely new to you at university; it may be worth looking at some of the basics before you apply.
- Mathematics II: Analysis (which you study for all three terms), which is made up of three parts: Sequences and Series, Continuity and Differentiability, and Integration.
Analysis is unlike anything you've likely seen before. It is the study of the construction of Maths as you know it – how real numbers, functions, and calculus are built up. You begin by proving fundamental (but surprisingly difficult) results, using a set of key axioms. For example, we spent a whole lecture in my first year proving that if a continuous function goes from positive to negative, then it has a root in between.
- Mathematics III: Introductory Calculus and Probability (this is an abridged paper of the one the pure mathematicians take), both of which you study in Michaelmas (Autumn) term
- Elements of Deductive Logic: You study logic throughout the year, starting with introductory logic in the first term, and moving onto the elements of deductive logic section in the second.
- Introduction to Philosophy: You are expected to write four essays in this paper, on The Foundations of Arithmetic by the mathematician and philosopher Gottlob Frege (which you study in detail in Trinity) and General Philosophy (where you get a foundational knowledge of the standard issues of Philosophy.)
Here is a typical week from my first year, so you can get an insight into the studying and other commitments in Oxford:
My alarm goes off at 8am. All the first year Maths lectures are at 9, and the Maths faculty is a good 15 minute cycle from my college (St Hilda's). Generally every morning throughout first year I had two Maths lectures, at 9am and 10am, and the straight mathematicians had even more.
The lectures are very useful for Maths – the lecturer writes corresponding lecture notes that can be found online, but goes into more depth and uses more examples in the lectures.
Pro Tip: I would definitely recommend going to as many of the Maths lectures as you can, as it is the lecturer who will be writing your problem sheets, your collections (mocks) and your exams.
If I have Philosophy lectures (I would have 2 or 3 a week as opposed to up to 14 maths lectures, due to most of the Philosophy course being reading-based) they generally happen at midday at the Exams Schools.
In my Maths lectures, I always take notes on pen and paper, copying down the useful parts of the proofs and theorems, and examples shown by the lecturer. However, I type in my Philosophy lectures, as I find I can develop and deeply explore the lecturer's arguments faster.
In Philosophy lectures you generally get a hand out, like this one:
I then would go back to college, and have lunch in hall with my friends. Generally, I would then go to the St Hilda's library, where I would read, or work on problem sheets, or write an essay depending on my deadlines.
On Monday evenings I play the violin in an orchestra, so I would then cycle up after dinner (usually also in hall) and do that from 7-10.
Tuesday mornings would be similar to Monday mornings. If I had time to pack a lunch, I often work in the Radcliffe Camera or Bodleian Libraries up in central Oxford before going back to college. Sometimes I treat myself to lunch from Leon or Pret, but it does get quite expensive!
Pro Tip: Taylor's Café do the best baguettes and coffee in Oxford! Make sure you take a reusable cup too and you get a discount off every coffee.
Generally, with my problem sheets, I spend about 6-8 hours doing the reading and working out the rough draft answers for each question. I then copy them up in neat which takes about an hour. In first year of Maths and Philosophy I had 5 problem sheets a week in Michaelmas, 3 and an essay in Hilary, and 2 and an essay in Trinity.
I would often have a Maths tutorial on Tuesday afternoon. My Maths tutorials follow the same format:
- We do a sheet, and hand it in 24 hours before the tutorial.
- The tutor marks the sheet, and puts it in our pigeon holes about 6 hours before the tutorial.
- We are then expected to go through it, and try and self-evaluate and correct the mistakes we have made.
- In our tutorials, we then usually go through the sheet on a whiteboard, showing each other our solutions with a tutor guiding us through the harder parts.
- My Maths tutorials vary from 1-3 hours.
On Tuesday evenings I have college netball practice after dinner, and then usually go back to the library for a bit. We often go to the college bar together at about 9:30/10, once everyone has finished their work to catch up and have a drink.
In my first year I had a Philosophy tutorial on Wednesday afternoon, after my lectures in the morning. Philosophy tutorials work very differently to Maths tutorials.
- For a Philosophy tutorial you are usually in a pair.
- Both of you prepare an essay, on the same topic, but often different questions (we are often told to write the questions ourselves.)
- One of you then reads your essay aloud at the beginning of the tutorial. The other sends their essay in for marking.
- You then have a discussion for about an hour after, centring upon the essay read aloud.
- Your tutor leads you into philosophical debate picking out key points from the reading and the essay.
Generally, Philosophy essays take me longer than a problem sheet. This is because you have to do more reading for them, generally at least 5 items from the reading list, and it takes me longer to write a 1500-2000 word essay than write the problem sheet solutions out.
Here is one of my Philosophy first year reading lists:
On Wednesday evenings in St Hilda's it is formal night, so my friends and I often go to that.
On Thursdays I generally had fewer lectures than earlier in the week, so I would often go to my 9am lecture, then work in the Maths Faculty. The Maths Faculty is a huge new space, and it even has its own Cafe: Cafe Pi! It's got good quiet working spaces, with big desks and lots of chairs for collaborative work. There is also a silent undergraduate study room there.
I would usually spend time wrapping up any weekly problem sheets, ready for any final deadlines on Friday and Saturday. Then over lunch on Thursday I'd play in a college netball match.
I would usually have another Maths tutorial on Thursday afternoon. Maths and Philosophy is a very contact-heavy subject, so you can expect to have at least 4 or 5 tutorials a week in your first year, as well as all the lectures.
Although this is time-consuming and intense, at least you're getting your value for money!
I usually take Thursday afternoons off and then every Thursday we have an event with the St Hilda's Feminist Society which I am a part of. These are often talks by external speakers, held in college. After that, I do something nice with my friends, socialising in the bar, or in someone's room, or we go to an event.
Fridays I generally have fewer lectures, so I spend most of the day around college. I do any final bits of problem sheets, and do some reading consolidating the lectures of the week in the library. I try to go for a run and just generally have a less intense day.
I often cook dinner with some friends, and just do some work in my room in the evenings.
Saturday mornings = brunch.
This is a crucial fixture in the college hall and one of the highlights of my week. After brunch if I don't have something on, I go to the library for a bit, and begin work on some of next week's material.
Often on Saturdays there is lots going on. We often have events such as Careers Fairs or interesting talks around Oxford, or concerts, or theatre. It is a vibrant city and there is always so much to do!
My family sometimes come and see me at the weekend too, and I try and go home once a term.
On 3 Saturday evenings of term the college Entz (Entertainment) team host a bop. Bops are really fun parties in the college bar, usually involving fancy dress.
On Sundays, I similarly spend most of the day consolidating reading and work from last week, and getting a head start on problem sheets and Philosophy reading lists for the following list.
Although most of Philosophy is essay-based, for Oxford Maths and Philosophy students it is compulsory to do all the Logic options. In first year this is two terms' worth of work. This is all done through problem sheets instead of essays.
On Sunday afternoons I often do something nice as a break. For example, in Trinity we went punting a lot. St Hilda's, being on the river, owns their own punts, so we can go punting whenever in Trinity for free.
In the evenings they do a roast dinner in the dining hall. This is a nice opportunity to catch up with your friends if you've all been doing different things over the weekend.
After that, every other week, we have a JCR meeting. This is compulsory for me as I'm on the JCR Committee this year. But in fact, we went a lot in first year anyway as it is interesting to know what is going on within your own college and get your own say on what the money is spent on.
Then the whole routine starts again on Monday morning!
Studying Oxford Maths and Philosophy is full on. The work load is intense and you are expected to put in around 6-7 hours per day, every day. Some days you end up working more than this towards a deadline, and of course, some days you take off. It is a lot of work, but it is achievable, and it is so rewarding as a course.
I highly recommend applying to study Maths and Philosophy at Oxford. You get the opportunity to have tutorials with only 2 or 3 people alongside incredibly talented academics, so as a place to study, I cannot recommend it enough.
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