An off-the-record guide to Science at Oxford

An off-the-record guide to Science at Oxford[caption id="attachment_24849" align="alignright" width="300"] A Day in the Life… /Phillip Martin[/caption]

Coming up to Oxford is filled with ideals of lounging in old building, reading romantic novels, soaking up the intellect that permeates the very fabric of life, spending all day exchanging political opinions with the future leaders of the country and writing essays minutes before deadlines. If you’re a humanities student.

The life of a scientist is slightly different – but following a few simple guidelines can help you lead a life closer to that of your non-white labcoat-ed friends. 

DO: Go to lectures. For God’s sake, do. It might sound very obvious, but empty chairs fill more of the hall than filled ones by a few weeks into term – give them a chance, you’d be amazed how intelligent and knowledgeable some of those professors are. That said, sometimes a mere five minutes into the first lecture of a course can be enough to happily discover that the all-amazing hand-out covers everything and you never need to go again, in which case nurse those Park End hangovers in bed as much as possible before labs.

DON’T: Try doing the tute sheet before at least looking at the books suggested. My cohort only realised at the start of Trinity that actually reading the books our tutors had recommended contained relevant information… surprising, that.

DO: Use Wikipedia. All this school nonsense of it being ‘made up’ and ‘wrong’ – it’s not. Most of it is written by the very people who teach you. Repeat the mantra “Google and  Wikipedia are my friends” every night before bed in the weeks leading up to coming to Oxford.

DON’T: Buy the textbooks. Seriously, the core ones are helpful (but also available in the library) and all the others are useful for a week’s tutorial and then never again.  Add to your mantra ‘The library books are my friends’ – that too will set you in good stead. But, should you want your own copy, at least wait to buy them at a knock-off price from the third years who – demonstrating their superfluity – no longer need them

DON’T: Buy a lab coat, or safety specs before coming up. Some kind, rich company will pay for you all to have ones with their logo stamped firmly upon them – my year happen to be branded by BP. Save the money for textbooks or ATS* for lunch in labs.

DO: Write ups for labs ASAP. You need to pass first year – put in enough time to pass (get 40%) and not a second more (genuine words of wisdom straight from my tutors. And second years. And third years). Not doing them is just a pain; and involves more meetings and remedial action than you can imagine. Plus, if you get it wrong, they just explain it, and send you on your merry way (probably none the wiser), so it’s all fine.

*ATS: Alternative Tuck Shop – a legendary sandwich shop close to labs, to which students from all years pay homage during the free time which punctuates labs (normally when the experiments are merrily stirring away) for sandwich-y goodness to keep them going for the rest of the day.

Post-grad Tutors: Incompetent Ignorami or Informative Intelligentsia?

The proposition argues that being tutored by post-graduate students results in a quality of teaching far below what we might expect from Oxford (despite the possibility of increased tutor shagability).

Postgrads are us in three years. When undergrads choose a paper, they might be tutored by the world experts on the subject: professors with a quarter of a century’s experience under the belt. Or, they might be tutored by a postgrad. The allocation of undergrads to tutors within a given paper is presumably random, leaving it up to chance whether you enjoy the tuition of a seasoned professor, or use your reading to give tips to a 2016 version of yourself who’s struggling with a DPhil.

Postgrads were probably among the brightest and best in their undergrad years, but that doesn’t mean they have any talent for or interest in teaching, let alone any relevant training. The benefits that undergraduates are meant to be able to derive from the brilliance of a postgraduate genius are significantly dulled by the inability of said genius to communicate with other (younger, clueless) human beings.

Even the rarer, socially competent genius types have usually specialised to a pinpoint of a topic. This leads to a tendency among DPhil-writers to spend tute after tute telling you all about the relevance of a particular semicolon in a particular line of a particular legal text to our understanding of the literary conventions of a particular decade, when what you require is a comprehensive understanding of the century. Postgraduate tutors are a disadvantage to ambitious undergraduates, who must compete, in the exact same exams, with peers who are lucky enough to have tutors who actually know more than they do.

For us undergrads, the primary merit of being taught by postgrads rather than more senior academics is that we’re more likely to (think about what it would be like to) shag them. I realise that this is not an insignificant benefit. The pain of learning about, say, the intertextual details behind Chaucer’s dream visions, which you can’t read because they’re in French, can be significantly alleviated by imagining one’s tutor naked.

But, I implore you, think of the postgrads. This is you, in three years, being dumped in front of your 19-year-old undergrad counterparts, who between them have almost certainly read more than you, and will therefore be more interested in your abs than your understanding of Spanish law. A postgrad tutor is a weary specimen, trying to reconcile completing a DPhil with the fact that he’s getting too old to go to Park End and still make it to a 9am tute. The last thing he needs is equally hungover Freshers who have read more and care less.


Fiona Macgregor responds that there are similar (or worse) drawbacks to being taught by experts, and that at least post-grads might be slightly more able to relate to the life of an under-grad.

It sounds to me as though the writer of the proposition has been embittered by a series of post graduate tutors who are both frustratingly incompetent and exasperatingly fit. My experience of student taught tutorials have been blessedly free of either of these hindrances, which is more than I can say of some of the tutorials taught by fully-fledged academics.

I see no reason why post-graduate students should be any worse at imparting knowledge than their counterparts on the other side of their DPhil. As the prop mentions, tutors at Oxford are here by virtue of being experts in their field. Unfortunately this virtue, believe it or not, does not magically turn them into communicative personages who are incredibly skilled at translating their knowledge into a revision-friendly format accessible to the tired, stressed out student who does sort of remember writing their essay, but went on a crew date last night, made a twat of themselves on the cheese floor, and still has Teenage Dirtbag ringing in their ears.

The tutors that have taught me thus far have been a fairly mixed bag, and include a fair few post-grads, but were I to pick out the few that I’ve had most difficulty learning from, and gained the least benefit from my tutorials, they are invariably from among those who already have a doctorate.  While it’s true that they might just possibly know more, the only real benefit in being taught by a non-student is that they potentially have more years teaching experience, but experience is very far from equalling competence. Some of the worst teachers at my school were just about to retire. And while a post-grad might get hung up on a relatively minor point, I rather doubt that the tendency as academics progress is to broaden their interests. Some academics will have written a book as well as a DPhil on their personal bugbear.

How good your tutor is, post-grad or not, will always be the luck of the draw; even if you tailor which college you apply to in order to be taught by a particular tutor, the chances are they’ll be on sabbatical by the time you arrive. However a significant part of me would much rather be taught by a cleverer, more knowledgeable and altogether more conscientious future version of myself than a century-old academic, probably born with a beard and elbow-patches, whose only experience of the student world are the occasional terrifying glimpses of it he catches in the drooping eyes of his clinically bewildered tutees.