Biological Sciences at Oxford

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Straight from the prospectus:

"The Biological Sciences is a single honours degree course taught jointly by the Departments of Plant Sciences and Zoology. The course combines traditional, underpinning topics such as animal and plant systematics and relationships, with modern developments and techniques in all spheres of biology, from the molecular and cellular to the whole organismal and ecological. In the first year you will encounter the full range of biology while in the second and third years you will be able to specialise to a greater extent, pursuing to the forefront of the latest research findings those subjects that interest you most, while retaining a broad overview of the modern concepts of Biology."


Teaching in Biology is split between lectures, tutorials and practical classes. First year is by far the most lecture and practical heavy. In Michaelmas term students have daily lectures in Organisms and Cells and Genes (see below) in addition to a weekly Quantitative Methods (Statistics) lecture. They also have 2 organisms labs and up to 2 cells or genetics labs. 80% of these must be passed to complete the course. In Hilary term the number of labs sharply decreases, and in Trinity term the Populations field work is all carried out in a single field trip week to Orielton in Pembrokeshire.

In the 2nd and 3rd years, students pick their options, and it becomes their own responsibility to organise tutorials, which then now require longer essays and the use of primary literature (e.g. papers from Nature and Science).

First year

As a first year biologist at Oxford you will take three major courses (each of which is examined by a single 3 hour paper in 9th week of Trinity), as well as Statistics and Data Handling, in which there is no final exam, but instead continuous assessment. An 80% pass rate is required for all practical work. Each week students will have a tutorial in groups of usually between 2 and 4, for which a 1500-2000 word essay is expected. Reading lists generally consist solely of textbooks, although some tutors may produce a limited list of papers from relevant journals. Tutorials generally last for an hour, and consist of discussion of the essay and of wider topics surrounding it. In some cases, especially if tutorials are carried out by members of other departments (e.g. Biochemistry or Medicine), the tutorials may last for more than a single hour. These tutorials are organised by the college tutor.


The Organisms course (also referred to as OB - Organismal Biology) takes place in the Michaelmas and Hilary Terms (Autumn and Spring). It is split into 5 parts, which cover natural history, micro-organisms, invertebrates, vertebrates and plants. Practical work takes the form of 4 microbe practicals (microscope work, studying how an epidemic works and fungi work), followed by a number of dissections. These include:

  • A platyhelminth
  • An annelid
  • A crayfish
  • A starfish
  • A squid
  • A teleost
  • A mouse
  • A frog
  • A pheasant

Cells and Genes

Cells and Genes covers everything from the basic structure of macromolecules (carbohydrates, proteins and lipids), their synthesis and degradation as well as the Endomembrane System, the Extracellular Matrix and organic reactions such as photosynthesis and respiration within cells to medical genetics, cancer genetics, inheritance, genetic disease and even some population genetics.

In the first term there are Biochemistry practicals, which are followed up by genetics practicals using Drosophila in the second term and bacteria in the final term.

The key cell biology textbook is Alberts' Molecular Biology of the Cell; although Stryer's (later editions = Berg's) Biochemistry also comes highly recommended. Key genetics texts include Hartl's Genetics, Analysis of Genes and Genomes and Hartwell's Genetics, From Genes to Genomes although these cover essentially the same material. The Hooke lending library contains tens of copies of each book so buying your own is unnecessary.


The Populations course is wide reaching, covering such diverse topics as food webs, evolution of herbivory and carnivory, modelling (such as Lotka-Volterra and Hardy-Weinberg) and various parts of ecosystems.

Rather than lab-based practicals, the practical side of Populations is covered in a week long field trip to Orielton in Pembrokeshire, where the Rocky Shore, Sand Dunes, Trees, STDs (of plants) and Insects are all covered in detail.

Statistics and Data Handling

Stats takes the form of one lecture a week, and one "lab" where the information is used to complete a series of worksheets using Minitab. These lectures and labs take place for the whole of Michaelmas term and the first 6 weeks of Hilary term.

Those who have taken a Maths A-level (Maths + Stats / Statistics) are likely to be able to manage without the lectures for the first term at least. Although they can be a useful reminder, they are based on the assumption that students haven't done advanced statistical testing (t-test, z-test, ANOVA, F-test etc) before.

Following suggestions from students the current Statistics course may be restructured in the future.

Second Year and Third Year Options

In the second year students must choose three out of five option courses. Two of these will be continued to the third year as majors, while the third "minor" subject will be dropped at the end of the second year. Tutorials may now be carried out individually, although they will largely remain in twos or threes. They are also supplemented by tutorial classes (in which numbers may increase from around 6-10). In the second year students are expected to take on responsibility for organising their own tutorials, for which the reading lists are likely to be largely paper-based. Essay length may also increase.

Additionally the number of lecture courses taken can vary a lot. The department recommends taking between 5 and 8 lecture courses. 2 tutorials are available for each, so obviously this means it is not possible to have tutorials in everything if you take the full work load. In the FHS exams you will need to answer 3 problem questions and 3 essays (although there will ALWAYS be a question on each lecture course, so it's not a case of "predicting" which modules will come up) so it is necessary to revise a minimum of 4 topics per course.

The choices are as follows

Animal Biology

The second year AB course consists of 32 lectures, which cover an introduction to animal behaviour, control and physiology. (All of these lectures are compulsory) Animal Behaviour covers topics such as Group living, Eusociality, Tool Use, Conflict and Cooperation and Adaptive Hypotheses. The control topic focusses on the basics of neurobiology, and for this I strongly recommend a good textbook, since there is a lot of fact-learning involved. Physiology covers Heat and Cold adaptation, Diving, Hypoxia, Circadian and Circannual rhythms.

In the third year it is recommended that students take 4 modules out the 6 offered:

  • Entomology
  • The Origin and Evolution of Mammals
  • Advanced Integrative Neurobiology
  • Animal Behaviour
  • Biomechanics, Movement and Migration
  • Advanced Behavioural Ecology

Plant and Microbial Biology

The thirty compulsory lectures cover "Contemporary Topics", genetic engineering, plant-microbe interactions and cell walls and signalling.

The choice of option modules in the third year currently include

  • Biodiversity of Mediterranean Plants (this involves a 2 week field course in Portugal)
  • Biodiversity and Systematics of Angionsperms
  • Evolution and Development of Plants
  • Assimilation and Metabolism
  • Molecular Ecophysiology of Plants
  • Ecology and Evolution of Plant Reproduction
  • Plant Reproductive Development
  • Coping with a changing environment

Environmental Biology

The second year compulsory modules are:

  • Conservation and Management of Natural Plant Communities
  • Principles of Ecology and Conservation biology I and II
  • Conservation and Management of Marine Communities

In the third year, students choose 6 or 7 out of:

  • Microbial Ecology
  • Environmental Economics and Policy
  • Tropical Forest Ecology
  • Conservation Genetics
  • GIS and Remote Sensing of the Environment
  • Forestry
  • Pest Management
  • Marine Ecology
  • Soils and the Environment
  • Avian Ecology

Biology of Plant and Animal Disease

In the second year 32 lectures cover Animal Disease (20 lectures) and Plant Disease (12 lectures).

In the third year Pathogen Population Biology and Evolution I and II are compulsory (16 lectures) but students can then choose from two modules of case studies, mechanisms of host resistance, vectors, a further module on plant diseases and pathogen genomes.

Cell Development

In the second year the compulsory lectures cover "Life: the movie", Cellular components, gene expression in development and development in health and disease.

In the third year it is recommended that all students take Advanced Experimental Techniques and 5 out of

  • Animal Development I
  • Animal Development II
  • Plant Developmental Genetics
  • Cell and Developmental Neurobiology
  • Gonads, Germ Cells and Gametes
  • Evolution of Animal Development
  • Organelles
  • Cell Cycle and Cancer

Compulsory extra modules

Quantitative Methods

Throught 2nd year QM continues to be taught by a weekly lecture and lab class. The exam however does not take place until 3rd year.

Evolution and Systematics

The Evolution and Systematics course is taught throughout the 2nd year by 2 lectures each week. Students notoriously score poorly in the module - possibly due to the feeling that everything is quite obvious, or possibly because they often have fewer tutorials, preparing to have more on their options instead. It is split loosely into three sections, which cover evolution of populations (including for instance frequency dependent selection and the problems posed by a species concept); phylogeny; and paleobiology.

Students are strongly recommended (by me) to read Evolution by Mark Ridley and Fossils and Evolution by Tom Kemp (who gives the Paleo lecture and covers a lot of the material discussed in his book).

The minor subject and Evolution and Systematics are each examined by a single 3 hour paper, writing 4 essays, in Trinity term of 2nd year). The major modules (the two carried on into the third year) are examined by two 3 hour papers, one writing essays and one short-answer (based on 2nd year work) and problem solving (~data handling). It is also necessary for finalists to write one extended essay, perform a viva voce exam (effectively another extended essay but given as a mini lecture with 15 minutes of questions following it) one covering each of their major subjects, and to undertake a scientific project.

Project work

30% of the final mark for Biological Sciences is in the form of pre-prepared work. This falls into two MSCAs (Major Subject Course Assignments) and one Finals Research Project


Students must prepare an MSCA for each of their finals majors - and titles must be submitted in Michaelmas term to ensure there is no overlap with the Research Project. In previous years both of these have been essays (essentially a comprehensive literature review), but beginning in 2008 one will remain a 3000 word essay, while the other will be a viva (around 15 minutes prepared and 15 minutes questions) based upon an abstract. The two MSCAs together are worth 15%

Research Project

The research project can be based upon any area of science interesting the student (That means ANY area at all!!) and takes the form of an 8000 word write up, based upon lab or field work usually carried out over the summer vacation between 2nd and 3rd year. There is no longer a viva on the written project, which is worth 15%.

Frequently asked questions

Will I be required to get AAA at A-level?

Yes. The department sets an offer of AAA and has a policy of not relaxing this. Approximately 15 open offers are made for Biological Sciences each year, meaning that if you miss your grades, somebody holding an open offer will be offered your place.

What is the difference between Biology and Biological Sciences? What will my degree be in? What if I want to study Environmental Science?

Despite any discrepancies in college prospectuses each of the Oxford colleges offering this course offer Biological Sciences, and your degree will be a BA, Biological Sciences. Essentially I believe it's call Biological Sciences to point out that you will study, for instance, Statistics, which while interfacing with Biology is not in itself Biology. Whatever Biology-related courses you apply for at other universities, at Oxford this will still be considered Biological Sciences - simply if you want to do Environmental Science then you might major in Environment and Plants; if you want to do Epidemiology then you might major in Disease and Cells and so on.

Should I read up on my tutor's research interests before I come to interview?

No. Your interview will be about you, not about them. There may be some time to ask questions at the end, and if you're actually interested in their field then that could be something interesting to ask. But there is no feasible way at 17 or 18 that you can enter into an academic conversation about their research and what you are trying to do will be very obvious.

Why am I going to be interviewed at two colleges?

Biological Sciences admissions are centralised, which effectively means that nobody makes a decision until after a departmental meeting. Each candidate is examined in turn, their chosen college gets first refusal; followed by their second college. So the second interview may be somewhat like a parachute - partly it gives you a second chance if your first interview was unsatisfactory; but also if your second college thinks you were good enough but has already filled it's quota then your first college or a completely different college may take you.

What has Oxford got to offer for the Biological Sciences course that other universities do not?

  • The tutorial system: for almost every topic covered you will be asked to write a 2000 word essay and discuss this and other aspects of the topic for an hour. That means you will have to know and understand the work long before the exam and hence you learn faster and better, and revision is nothing like so much of a challenge.
  • An obscenely good library provision: Zoology Library, Plant Sciences Library, the Hooke lending library, and the RSL (a copywright library - i.e. it has first refusal on any book published in the UK)
  • Project work: where other universities may offer you anything from a choice of 6 group projects up to one hundred individual projects to choose from, at Oxford it is literally up to you to pick whatever you like and find somebody to supervise you. If it's physically possible, you can do it.

What can I do to improve my chances at interview?

The only thing that will impress the tutors is your enthusiasm for the subject, and the ease with which you reason through problems. So think about what first got you interested in the subject, and how this has developed through your studies. If you want to do some background reading then the obvious two that a lot of applicants will read are The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins and New Scientist (which incidentally is a magazine, not a journal - don't make that mistake in your Personal Statement!

If your interests lie in a specific area then try to find an introductory text. The "Instant Notes" series are a good start for complete novices. If you're interested in the Animal Behaviour modules of the course then an Introduction to Behavioural Ecology by Krebs and Davies is a wonderfully readable introduction if you can get it out from your local library.

Do I need Chemistry / Maths?

The standard Oxford offer states that only Biology A-level is essential. In terms of Maths and Chemistry used in the course very little correlates to A-level. The main advantages of Chemistry are in understanding the movement of polar molecules, and some practical techniques such as using burettes and colorimeters. The only Maths used is Statistics and this is taught from the starting point of somebody with Maths A-level so neither is essential. However both will be useful; and a great number of other good universities insist upon Chemistry A-level for Biology, so abandoning it completely may restrict your choices for the other four places on your UCAS form.

Extra Reading

I seem to get a lot of questions about what to read before you come up, or just to prepare for interview. Here's my list of good pop-science books and things that might interest you.

  • Genome' by Matt Ridley

Ridley has written several books that are good introductions to various parts of genetics and the genome, but this is the most recent and, in my opinion, the best. Each chapter is based upon the 'story' of one chromosome and one part of the human character. It's interesting but also very well written even for a pop science book.

  • The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins.

Everybody under the sun reads, or claims to read this book for Biology. I personally never did and thankfully never claimed to, but at some point during your career you "will" read it: so you might as well do it now! Make sure you properly understand it though: you should be able to state Hamilton's Rule, explain eusociality, know what genetic determinism is and so on. Because it's such a popular read, you're likely to be asked about it if you say you've read it so make sure you're on the ball!

  • Power, Sex, Suicide: Mitochondria and the Meaning of Life by Nick Lane

If your particular interest lies in biochemistry then this is another popular book, which you should be able to navigate with your A-level knowledge and a bit of common sense.

  • An introduction to animal behaviour by MS Dawkins / An Introduction to Behavioural Ecology by Krebs and Davies

If animal biology is more your thing then either of these two books will be a good read. The Dawkins book is the shorter of the two and covers the experiments done to investigate animal behaviour. The Animal Behaviour lecture course is based on the information contained therein. Krebs and Davies is actually a textbook, but quite a small one and very readable. If it's in a library near you then it's definitely worth reading a chapter or two to glean some information about the weird and wonderful world of behaviour.

  • The Rhythms of Life by Foster and Kreizmann

Only attempt if you're feeling brave and like biochemistry. Circadian rhythms are the internal clocks that tell our body when to wake up, when to sleep, when to eat and even when to have sex. They have been documented in mammals, in insects and even in plants. The Rhythms of Life is about the control of the clock by the SCN (suprachiasmatic nuclei). It's likely to be heavy going so only attempt it if you're feeling brave, but it's short, well explained, and makes for fascinating reading.


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