This is a brief breakdown of the different things you'll come across as an Oxford Materials Science student.
Keep in mind that the course does change over time (Check the Oxford Materials Science department's website for more up to date information) and that any comments I make are purely personal opinion. You will have your own tastes and in the end a lot of the course is what you make of it.
The Structure of the Oxford Year (or: who even was Hilary anyway?)
As an Oxford Materials Science student, in your first 3 years you will have three 8-week terms a year. These are named Michaelmas, Hilary, and Trinity.
This might seem like a terrible deal for over £9,000 a year but trust me, you get your money's worth of content within that time. The volume of content that you get at other universities is going to be around the same, but the intensity will be higher here.
This changes in your 4th year of Materials Science, which is a 9-month research project and nothing else, where the terms are suddenly 12 weeks long. This year is more of a 9-5 so it's more manageable. If you tried to work at the pace you do in the first 3 years for 12 weeks, you would probably burn out.
Below is a break down of the 4 stages of an Oxford Materials Science student. Enjoy.
Oxford Materials Science Year 1 – The Polymer
The Fresher: Full of bounce, relatively new and seemingly everywhere
When I started the course, one of the first things that the tutor at St Catz said to me and the other first year Materials Science students was:
The objective of the course is to succeed with as little memorised as possible.
Having come out the other side of finals I fully agree. Throughout the degree you will have more information thrown at you than is reasonable to memorise for exams.
The idea is to break those ideas down into their components to see how you can build to the more complex systems and theories using these fundamental rules.
The day to day
There are usually 2-3 hour long lectures Monday to Friday. In the first year as an Oxford Materials Science student you will find yourself studying things that may seem a long way from the fusion reactors and nanomaterials that you may have written about in your personal statement.
But, as you go through the course you'll quickly discover that all the more advanced stuff is built on understanding these basics. I probably use more of the techniques I learnt in my first year now I'm doing my research project in the fourth year than what I learned in the second or third. Some examples of the lecture courses you will take include:
- Maths for Materials Science
- Electricity and Magnetism
- Mechanical properties
One of the things I like about being an Oxford Materials Science student is that, as it is a small course with around 30-40 students coming in each year (up from 23 in mine – it's growing) there is more of a classroom feel. This can make it feel easier to interact with the lecturers.
For an Oxford Materials Science student, labs run on Thursdays and Fridays from 2-5 every other week and involve going through a set of instructions in a group of 2 or 3. This work is then typed up (hand written, back in my day) as a lab report.
The first lab I had involved bouncing squash balls at different temperatures to find the glass transition temperature, and making jelly. Other labs include using lasers to do spectroscopy, casting metals, and using an optical microscope.
For roughly every 4 hours of lectures, you will have a tutorial sheet, which is a set of questions that you do in your own time. These theoretically take 10 hours, but it can vary by quite a bit.
The tutorial system as it is in Oxford is something very unique. In your first year you will be taught the very basics of Materials Science by tutors who are world experts in the field. This may seem like a crazy system – and maybe it is! – but I'm very grateful for it.
Coursework and other options
One morning every other week or so from 9-12 you will be doing crystallography classes, which is a problem set of crystallography problems you work through as a small group with some other Oxford Materials Science students.
I found these tedious at the time but they are so useful for understanding and applying the concepts taught in the crystallography lectures. These are skills I'm now using in my fourth year.
Something that has been added since I did my first year, and something I wish was around in my time, are MATLAB classes one morning every other week. This will help you gain coding and computational skills early on in the degree which can massively help with the 4th year research project.
There is also the option to do a language course if you want.
In the last term of the first year you will do Prelims. This is a set of exams which, combined with the coursework you've done over the year, will result in a pass/fail/distinction mark.
This has no effect whatsoever on your final degree grade and all you need to do is pass to continue to the second year. Although I'm sure you can aim higher than that.
Prelim exams for an Oxford Materials Science student end a few weeks before the start of the summer vacation, giving you 2 glorious weeks of summer in Oxford. This a great opportunity to really enjoy Oxford life outside of work and also give punting a go.
Oxford Materials Science Year 2 – The Metal
A year of fatigue awaits, but you have built up toughness and a steely look of determination. Time to shine.
The day to day
Lectures continue much like in the first year, but with a step up in the content. These lectures are built upon the work you do in first year and go into much more detail. Topics covered in this year include:
- Phase Transformations
- Electronic Structure
- Microstructural characterisation
Something to note about the Oxford Materials course, as apposed to Physics or Engineering is the amount of Maths that you will come across.
In the first year, the Maths course does not go too far beyond what you might find in an A-level Further Maths paper. In the second year, you get 2 lecture series which cover some slightly more advanced techniques as well as some other courses relying heavily on the mathematical techniques from the first year.
Maths makes up a much greater chunk of the learning in a Physics or Engineering degree, but that's not to say that you are getting less content as an Oxford Materials Science student. It's just that more of the content is focused towards gaining an understanding of the underlying physical phenomena.
Again labs run much like the first year but you get access to some more advanced equipment. You'll have the opportunity to use (and hopefully not break) a Transmission Electron Microscope (TEM), Scanning Electron Microscope (SEM) and an Atomic Force Microscope (AFM). This is the last year of labs as the next year focuses on revision and learning new material (which is usually a welcome break).
Once again these continue much like first year with 2-3 tutorials a week.
Coursework and other options
The first set of options comes up this year. You choose between Creating a Materials-related business plan as part of the Engineering and Society course, a course on the History and Philosophy of Science, or a course on Quantum Chemistry. Most people end up doing the business plan but you can pick what suits you.
The business plan is written as a group and ours was focused on building a processing plant to turn waste plastics back into fuels through a new catalytic process. Turns out it would cost a lot of money. Who'd have thought.
It's fair to say that the first term of the second year is one of the most intensive as an Oxford Materials Science student when it comes to contact hours. It's the warning we all give to any second years just back from their summer vacation after Prelims.
But don't worry, there is light at the other end of the tunnel: the workload does relax and you get more able to handle it by Hilary and Trinity term. As an Oxford Materials Science student, you also get a summer free from exams in the second year. I used this to get more involved in student theatre.
The summer between 2nd and 3rd year is also a great chance to go and do a lab placement abroad. The department has a number of exchange schemes with countries like Japan, China, Germany and the US.
I went to do research on biodegradable batteries at Tsinghua University in Beijing for 10 weeks paid for by the department along with Tsinghua.
Oxford Materials Science Year 3 – The Ceramic
Get ready to sustain high heat and high stress. Exams are on the way. But don't worry, you know your toughening mechanisms and are ready to withstand it all.
The day to day
In the third year, you can pick and choose which lectures to go to. Want to go to them all? go ahead. Want to go to none of them? Brave.
From this content you will be answering four questions on 2 papers. The content is much more in detail this year and you will be doing some more advanced stuff. The options I went for were:
- Advanced ceramics
- Prediction of Materials
- Strength and Failure
- Advanced Polymers
- Advanced Processing
- Devices (which has bits on superconductors and making electronic chips)
And these are just some of the options available and you can to an extent choose what you want. These were some of the most interesting and enjoyable lectures I went to.
In the third year, tutorials become classes, which means that instead of 2 or 3 students there may be up to 10 going through the tutorial sheet with the tutor. This is still very open and they're more than happy to clear up any misunderstandings you may have.
Coursework and other options
The first two weeks of the third year is spent doing a group project, writing a report on a particular area of Materials Science. This can be anything from my project on 'DNA Sequencing using Graphene Nanodevices' to 'What Would a Quantum Computer Server Farm Look Like?'
This project involves working with an academic to come up with a solution to a Materials problem and almost always ends in a stressful all-nighter the night before it needs to be handed in. Almost a right of passage for an Oxford Materials Science student.
There is also another 2 week project that you do and write solo and can either do in Materials Modelling or Materials Characterisation. I chose the modelling course and had a great two weeks playing around with models of atoms.
The last thing to mention about third year is Finals. They are not easy, but the main thing they tested for me was my resilience. Getting up every morning to spend 12+ hours scribbling notes and practising past papers 7 days a week for 3 months is a challenge. Even though you might just be going over old stuff it does wear you down over time.
If you think this seems like a lot to handle, I agree, but you'll surprise yourself with what you can manage.
Oxford Materials Science Year 4 – The Composite
Using the skills acquired in the earlier years, you've become something new, exciting and potentially very useful to society. You're ready to make your contribution to science.
The day to day
The fourth year is all research and it is very likely that what you are doing is something new and exciting in Materials Science.
One of the best things about this year is that the day to day is different for everyone. Some people roll into the lab at 10 am and spend all morning on an SEM, some people sit in an office coding all day, and others fly off to MIT or Harvard to do their project there.
This is the point I've got to. I'm currently doing a joint experiment and modelling project looking at crystal plasticity for my 4th year project. Whether you plan to apply, have applied, are thinking about applying to the Oxford Materials Science course, or if you clicked on this link by accident, I wish you the very best of luck.
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