oxford ppe messy desk
My (terribly messy) desk…

Once you pick your options in years 2 and 3, no two Oxford PPE degrees are the same. Your degree can be highly mathematical, exclusively essay-based, or filled to the brim with statistical analysis and computing. There simply is no way to describe what studying Philosophy, Politics, and Economics is like for everyone in their second and third years.

But in your first year, everyone does the same thing.

If it's not clear already, Oxford PPE is an incredibly broad subject. Think you've got an idea of what it's like? Trust me, it's even broader. For me, this is what studying Oxford PPE in my first year looked like:

Oxford PPE Is Even More Than Three Different Subjects…

If you've taken a look at the website, it's clear you're doing three very different subjects. The modules look something like this:

Philosophy

  • Logic
  • Moral Philosophy
  • General Philosophy

Economics

  • Introduction to Microeconomics
  • Introduction to Macroeconomics

Politics

  • Introduction to the Practice of Politics
  • Introduction to the Theory of Politics
  • Political Analysis

In your first year, you'll do eight different modules. And all honesty, it feels like studying at least six different subjects.

How you study these will vary from college to college. I study two out of Philosophy, Politics, and Economics at a time each term. Some colleges do all three every term, but less material in each.

Therefore, I'll aim to give an accurate picture of what each module looks like to reflect what a day in the life of an Oxford PPE student looks like. But remember: everyone truly has a unique experience.

PPE Philosophy

1. General Philosophy / Moral Philosophy

It's a Lot of Reading…

Oxford Philosophy is a lot of reading. And not just a lot of reading, but a lot of close reading.

For general and moral philosophy, I'm set an essay title, such as, "what grounds do we have for believing the sun will rise tomorrow?". I'm given a reading list, and I need to have the essay written in time for my next tutorial. My days involve me sat in a library, cafe, or my room reading and taking notes.

The reading list for Oxford Philosophy will often have a compulsory section which you must read and plenty other optional books. Depending on how much time I have, I like taking at least a look at every book on the reading list.

What exactly is the reading? A lot of philosophical papers and journals, usually anywhere from as little as 8 pages long, up to about 30 pages long. Book chapters and excerpts are really common too. In a week I reckon I'm reading roughly 100-200 pages.

sunrise oxford philosophy
A beautiful sunrise. But how do we know this will happen again?

It's Not as Bad as It Sounds

The great thing about these two topics is you're often not set cover-to-cover reading. Descartes's Meditations is the only book you must read start to finish for general philosophy, and Mill's Utilitarianism for moral philosophy. But that's across a whole term, and you'll never do both of these at the same time.

Philosophy in particular is very focused on how well the arguments are made as opposed to the content. Therefore, I'm paying close attention to what the premises and conclusions are for each argument made by a philosopher.

Personally, I never go without googling around the essay title and reading expert summaries as well. Having a clear idea of what's being said is extremely important, especially because a lot of the texts can be wordy and confusing.

I find doing my own reading, and reading on the topic gives me the best understanding. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy is consistently my best friend.

Once I've done my reading, which usually takes about two to three days, it's really important to just gather your thoughts. There's a huge focus on having a well-crafted argument, and precisely understanding the opinions you've read, and so I always avoid jumping straight into essay-writing. Even if it's one night just before bed, I make sure at some point I'm doing nothing but thinking about the question.

Writing Time

Then, I write. I have a lot more to say on writing an Oxford PPE essay here. I find doing all my writing in one single go is not only better as I'm more focused, but I can then revisit my entire essay with fresh eyes the day after before submitting it.

The style of an Oxford Philosophy tutorial will depend on your tutor. But in most cases, you'll be looking at one of the essays submitted between a pair or group of students, and evaluating both the essay and the arguments made by the philosophers it references.

One of the first things my tutors said to me was that we weren't learning Philosophy, we were doing Philosophy. Oxford Philosophy tutorials and even Philosophy essays don't involve a ton of subject knowledge at all. Your arguments and understanding or other arguments are what will be picked apart.

You don't necessarily leave one of these tutorials knowing more facts, but over time you definitely get better at critical thinking.

Wait, What About Philosophy Lectures?

Unlike some other departments, there's no departmental teaching scheme for Oxford Philosophy so lectures and tutorials can often be quite separate. There will be lectures on these topics weekly throughout the year, but they may not be specifically relevant to this week's work, though they will be relevant to another.

The thing about Oxford PPE (and Oxford University in general) is that tutorials and essays are at the heart of all teaching. Philosophy lectures are great for providing extra information, and it's certainly advised you attend. But lectures should be thought of like extra reading for Oxford PPE. They provide extra information you can use in writing an essay, but they certainly are not compulsory.

John Stuart JS Mill Oxford PPE Philosophy
John Stuart Mill. His Utilitarianism is the focus of Moral Philosophy at Oxford

2. Logic

What exactly is logic?

Logic is unlike anything most people will ever have done in school. In summary, logic in practice is thinking about arguments and sentences as letters, and then conducting analysis on them. Very often, it comes down to learning lots of rules and working through problems.

modus ponens oxford ppe philosophy logic
This is an argument. This means, "if P and (if P then Q), then Q." In Logic, you learn ways to test if this is a valid argument, and what terms like 'valid' even mean.

As new and odd as logic can seem, the structure of the work is the most straightforward. For nearly every college, you work through Volker Halbach's Logic Manual. There are 8 chapters, one for each week.

Studying Logic

Every week there's a lecture on a chapter. You attend the lecture (though the material is often the same as the chapter in Logic Manual, read the chapter, and then work through the designated problem sheet for the week.

oxford ppe logic question
What a week 4 logic question looks like

For me, I spent a couple of hours reading the chapter in close detail, then worked on the problem sheets straight afterwards. You can often finish a sheet in as little as a single day, and generally no more than three or four days.

The work is marked and, during a tutorial or class (the only difference is classes have more students) you go through each question. The aim is to understand why you got wrong what you did.

There are no essays and, for most colleges, no extra reading. Logic itself can be quite hard however, and takes practice to get used to. But the straightforwardness of studying it means as for most colleges it's the first Philosophy you do, so it can be quite nice to study.

PPE Economics

3. Introduction to Microeconomics / Introduction to Macroeconomics

If you're expecting as clear a picture of what a week looks like doing Oxford Economics, I'll apologise in advance. Economics is quite broad, because there are three types of questions it can include:

  • Essays
  • Short-answer questions
  • Maths questions

Therefore, exactly what studying PPE Economics is like can be quite college-dependent too, as different tutors have their own preferences.

With Oxford Economics as a whole however, the department runs lectures which correspond to college teaching far more closely. Furthermore, unlike PPE Philosophy, there is greater emphasis on specific subject knowledge. Therefore, lectures are more important for PPE Economics.

exam schools oxford ppe lectures
Examination Schools. Where most 1st Year Oxford PPE lectures take place

What About the Reading?

For Oxford PPE Economics, textbooks are far more useful than extra reading. Tutors at individual colleges set or recommend textbooks. But most colleges will be using the same set of textbooks, these being:

  • Frank, R. (or Frank, R. and R. Cartwright) Microeconomics and Behaviour
  • Varian, H. R., Intermediate Microeconomics: A Modern Approach
  • Perloff, J., Microeconomics-Theory and Applications with Calculus
  • Morgan, W., Katz, M. L. and Rosen, H. S., Microeconomics
  • Jones, C. I., Macroeconomics

As for Oxford Economics essay questions, they operate quite similar structurally to Philosophy essays except I'm doing a lot less reading (for micreoconomics especially), and using the lecture notes in a lot more detail.

For macroeconomics, there is more emphasis on reading lists and material outside of lecture notes. Most of this extra reading is from textbooks, however.

PPE Economics essays are also generally shorter than Philosophy essays. Mine average 1500 words only. You're spending less time combing through specific arguments, and more time applying specific subject knowledge to directly address a point.

On the whole, the time it takes to write an Oxford Economics essay is slightly less than for a Philosophy essay.

For short-answer questions, you'll be set problem sheets. Often they involve a mixture of Maths and written answers.

You'll get problem sheets for microeconomics far more often. Studying for these looks a lot like doing logic problem sheets. I read mostly the lecture material, then pore over these for 2-4 days.

4. Don't Forget the Maths …

Oxford PPE Maths class whiteboard
My view at an Oxford PPE Maths class

Although the Maths we study comes under Economics, it definitely feels at times like a separate subject. One worry Oxford PPE applicants have is what the Maths is actually like.

Most of the Maths comes from the Maths Workbook, which can actually be found online. In truth, as far as the actual Maths goes, it's mostly similar to A-Level, with the exception of multivariable calculus/partial differentiation.

oxford ppe maths partial derivatives
An introduction to partial derivatives from the Oxford PPE Maths Workbook

However, there is a lot of new applications. Instead of abstract mathematical functions, we are now looking at supply and demand curves:

oxford ppe maths economics demand function
Demand function definition from the Maths Workbook

Instead of pure sequences, you're looking at investment, interest rates and loans:

oxford ppe maths economics present value
Present value definition from the Maths Workbook

And there is a lot of applied calculus. The largest portion of Maths you'll do is applied calculus.

oxford ppe maths economics calculus price elasticity
One example of applied calculus from the Economics Maths Workbook

The actual difficulty of the Maths is therefore a bit above A-Level standard, but it's the application that's new to almost everyone. Understanding the Economics content goes a long way in making the Maths easier.

So what does studying the Maths in PPE Economics looks like?

Though the Maths Workbook is pure Maths, most of the Maths questions you'll get asked are in the form of separate problem sheets which you work through. Therefore, if you don't know the Maths, the burden is often on you to look through the Maths Workbook and figure out how to do it.

The process is often the same as doing any other Oxford problem sheet, with extra Maths exercises if you find yourself unsure of how to do something.

The department, and many colleges, offer extra Maths classes for those who need help. These are directly set from the Maths Workbook, and can be thought of as similar to doing a logic problem sheet. You're told to read the material, answer certain questions, and you go through it in a class.

It's on the whole definitely more self-directed than A-Level. You aren't given a Maths textbook you have to work through. But making sure you understand the Maths Workbook in your own time is essential.

oxford ppe economics maths
A page of me (unfortunately) struggling with Maths…

PPE Politics

5. Introduction to the Practice of Politics / Introduction to the Theory of Politics

What does my week studying these topics look like? It's highly similar to PPE Philosophy. There's a reading list, I read through the core books for a couple days, think over the question, and answer the question. Introduction to the Theory of Politics is essentially Philosophy ANYWAY.

The key differences come from the different demands of the topics. For Practice of Politics, much of the work is statistical and involves reading around the methodology and case studies to understand it.

Politics in general requires more subject knowledge than Philosophy. More of my reading is therefore news articles and Wikipedia pages. I also spend more time looking at old or future lecture notes.

As far as the actual reading goes, Practice of Politics is similar to Philosophy in that little of the reading is cover-to-cover. A lot of it is book chapters.

For Theory of Politics however, the entire course is based around a selection of key, influential books. These books being:

  • John Locke, Second Treatise on Government
  • J. J. Rousseau, The Social Contract.
  • J. S. Mill, On Liberty
  • Karl Marx, The Communist Manifesto
  • Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America.

We're expected to read all of these, but not that much more. That said, extra articles, opinion pieces, and expert summaries can be highly useful.

locke treatise oxford politics ppe
Locke's second treatise (and the first!) – one of the core readings for Theory of Politics

6. Political Analysis

Political analysis is a topic that's exceptionally different from the rest of the Oxford PPE course. All this work is based around 4 lab sessions, 1 hour each, throughout a term (in weeks 2, 4, 6 and 8). In these sessions, we're taught computational statistics at the Oxford Q-Step Centre.

What we do is a basic introduction to the software R. We're set simple data analysis tasks that we have to do in these sessions. Part of this is learning about data analysis techniques like regression analysis, which is applied in our Practice of Politics studies.

In order to prepare for these, there are weekly lectures on political analysis and required reading centred around chapters from these two books and a few more:

  • Kellstedt, Paul & Guy D. Whitten, The Fundamentals of Political Science Research
  • Lijphart, Arend. Patterns of Democracy: Government Forms and Performance in Thirty-Six Countries

The reading lists are very specific in what we're supposed to read. We read these, attend the lectures, and the reading will be relevant for understanding and exploring concepts in political analysis in the software R.

Oxford ppe political analysis graphs software r
Graphs created using R

Conclusion

Oxford PPE is very broad, and as a result there's no certain structure to what any given week looks like. However, almost every topic is unique in how I approach my studies, and hopefully you now have a picture of what this may look like.

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