Flasks against an Oxford skyline.
(Image credit: Rob Judges Photography / Oxford University Images).


What is Chemistry?

Chemistry is a wide-ranging science concerned with the synthesis, structures, dynamics, properties and transformations of all types of materials – organic, inorganic and biological.


Chemists are a constant source of innovation: it is hard to imagine any product introduced in recent times that did not require the creative efforts of a chemist at some stage. Chemistry also underpins the conceptual framework and methodology of biochemistry and molecular medicine, and is at the heart of many major industrial activities.

If you have a scientific approach, and chemistry is your favourite subject, that is enough reason in itself to study it at university. As well as its inherent challenge and excitement, a Chemistry degree opens the door to a wide and varied range of careers.

Chemistry at Oxford

The Department of Chemistry is the largest in the western world. Each year some 180 chemists graduate after a four-year course which includes a year of research, and about 80 graduates receive doctorates.

Oxford is one of the leading chemistry research departments in the world with around 80 academic staff carrying out international-level research, and an annual research income of around £15m. The latest (2008) Research Assessment Exercise confirmed that Oxford Chemistry has the highest ‘power rating’ (breadth and depth of science) in the UK. The department is currently engaged in a number of innovative areas of work including chemistry for measurement, drug discovery, energy, catalysis, nanochemistry, synthesis, atmospheric chemistry, synthetic biology and femtochemistry.

The department has an unrivalled track record in protecting and commercialising the innovative work of research staff. Tens of millions of pounds has been raised for the University as a result of spin-out activities from research carried out by Oxford chemists.

The school is housed in four laboratories clustered together in the University’s Science Area, particularly close to the well-stocked Radcliffe Science Library. These include a state-of-the-art £65m research laboratory with unrivalled facilities, which opened in 2004.

The undergraduate course lasts four years, the fourth year (Part II) being devoted exclusively to research – a distinctive, long-standing feature of Chemistry at Oxford.

Chemistry is part of the Mathematical, Physical and Life Sciences Division, which also contains Computer Science, Earth Sciences (Geology), Engineering, Materials, Mathematics, Physics, Plant Sciences, Statistics and Zoology, some of which are taught in combinations in joint courses. In the later stages of honour schools in Mathematical, Physical and Life Sciences there are opportunities to take options in other subject areas: in Chemistry, for example, it is possible to take History and Philosophy of Science or a language as supplementary subjects, usually in the second year.


As the central scientific subject, Chemistry provides an excellent opportunity for the development of your critical faculties and intellect, and also instils a variety of important transferable skills that will serve you well whatever your subsequent choice of career. Typically about 55% of our Chemistry graduates go on to do research or further study. Others enter professions such as accountancy, banking and actuarial work, as well as manufacturing, IT and education. The Royal Society of Chemistry provides further information about careers using chemistry at Recent Chemistry graduates include a management consultant, a market research analyst, and a scientist.

Sue graduated in 1975 and is now a patent attorney. She says: ‘My job is to assist inventors to achieve proper legal protection for their inventions. I handle chemical inventions, and am involved at the cutting edge of chemistry, as well as being an expert in the relevant law. My Oxford training gave me first-rate scientific understanding, and also the analytical skills I need to handle legal work.’

Related courses

Students interested in this course might also like to consider Biochemistry (Molecular and Cellular), Biomedical Sciences, Earth Sciences (Geology), Materials Science or Physics.

Years 1–3

During the first three years, your work is divided between lectures (usually about ten a week), tutorials and classes (one or two a week), and practical classes occupying about one and a half days a week. The course is challenging but leaves adequate time for extra-curricular pursuits.

Year 4: Extended terms

There are three terms in the Oxford academic year, each eight weeks long. Students usually arrive a week early in the first term of their first year for welcome and induction activities. In the final year of the Chemistry course, students undertake full-time research under the supervision of a member of the academic staff. This final year has three extended terms of 12 to 13 weeks and is 38 weeks in total. This final year, which is entirely devoted to research, is a unique feature of the Oxford course, and will give you research skills that are highly valued by both academics and employers.

Work placements/international opportunities

Part II (the fourth year) involves full-time work with an established research group. There is the possibility of a few students spending three months of the year at universities in continental Europe or the USA.

1st year

Four courses are taken:

  • Inorganic chemistry
  • Physical chemistry
  • Organic chemistry
  • Mathematics for chemistry

First University examinations:
Four written papers; satisfactory practical record

2nd year

Core material, including courses on:

  • Theoretical chemistry
  • Bio-organic chemistry
  • Bio-inorganic chemistry
  • Molecular spectroscopy
  • Synthetic chemistry

Optional supplementary subject course


Part IA examinations:
Three written papers

3rd year

Further core material, plus advanced courses with a choice from among a variety of options

  • Optional supplementary subject course

Part IB examinations:
Seven written papers; Continuous assessment of practicals

4th year

Full-time research under the supervision of a member of the academic staff

  • Optional supplementary subject course

Part II examination:
Dissertation; oral examination; determination of the class of honours degree

  • A-levels: A*AA (including Chemistry and Mathematics) with the A* in a science or Mathematics
  • Advanced Highers: AA/AAB (including Chemistry and Mathematics)
  • 39 (including core points) with 7 in HL Chemistry and EITHER 6/7 in HL Mathematics OR 7 in SL Mathematics plus a second science at HL
  • Or any other equivalent (see details of international qualifications)

Candidates are required to have Chemistry and Mathematics to A-level, Advanced Higher, or Higher Level in the IB or any other equivalent. In IB, Mathematics 7 at SL is also acceptable. Another science or Further Mathematics are recommended.

All candidates must follow the application procedure as shown in how to apply. The information below gives specific details for students applying for this course.

Written work and written tests

You do not need to take a written test or submit any written work as part of an application for this course.

What are tutors looking for?

The tutors will be looking for evidence of motivation and potential for advanced study; they will seek to evaluate your capacity to analyse and use information to develop your own understanding, and your willingness to discuss concepts.

Selection criteria

Candidates may wish to refer to the selection criteria for Chemistry.

Suggested reading

Introductory reading for Chemistry.

You may also like to read Chemistry World magazine, and see other resources on Chemnet.

Abigail, 2nd year

'We study organic, inorganic and physical chemistry as well as maths. The topics we study range from quantum mechanics, to the applications of superconductors, to biochemical warfare and drug targets.

The department is one of the best in the world, with many top research chemists. It’s amazing how often we have lectures or tutorials given by the authors of the textbooks we use! '

Nick, who graduated in 2009

He is now an educational consultant. He says:

‘Since graduating I have started a company called Explosive Science with a friend from college. We perform chemistry demonstrations in schools, aiming to enthuse children about science.’

Nessa, Chemistry, who graduated in 2009

I wish they'd told me when I was applying to university...

'I think most of the things I was better learning myself. But I had no idea that the culture shock of moving down from the north would be so enormous. It was clear when I first got here that people didn't have the same social norms, and it was disconcerting at first. Now I realise that they're the same people inside and they are just as friendly; they just do things a bit differently...

The best thing that Oxford did for me:

'Actually, the best things came from the other students - when I joined the committee of the Scientific Society, I wasn't sure that I would ever know as much as the older students about the scientific community across all fields in the UK. Over the past two years, I've been able to meet and talk at length with some of the best-known scientists in the UK and beyond, including invaluable contacts in my own field who I've kept in contact with ever since.'

My favourite Oxford memory is...

'Being a part of the Scientific Society was the best thing for me. When I was President, the team and I organised a debate that drew a crowd of 650 people - an incredible thing to be involved with. You just couldn't get that anywhere else - even the most talented speakers are drawn to the Oxford name. SciSoc is now Oxford Uni's most Facebook-popular society!'

Contextual information

The Key Information Sets provide a lot of numbers about the Oxford experience – but there is so much about what you get here that numbers can’t convey. It’s not just the quantity of the Oxford education that you need to consider, there is also the quality – let us tell you more.

Oxford’s tutorial system

Regular tutorials, which are the responsibility of the colleges, are the focal point of teaching and learning at Oxford. The tutorial system is one of the most distinctive features of an Oxford education: it ensures that students work closely with tutors throughout their undergraduate careers, and offers a learning experience which is second to none.

A typical tutorial is a one-hour meeting between a tutor and one, two, or three students to discuss reading and written work that the students have prepared in advance. It gives students the chance to interact directly with tutors, to engage with them in debate, to exchange ideas and argue, to ask questions, and of course to learn through the discussion of the prepared work. Many tutors are world-leaders in their fields of research, and Oxford undergraduates frequently learn of new discoveries before they are published.

Each student also receives teaching in a variety of other ways, depending on the course. This will include lectures and classes, and may include laboratory work and fieldwork. But the tutorial is the place where all the elements of the course come together and make sense. Meeting regularly with the same tutor – often weekly throughout the term – ensures a high level of individual attention and enables the process of learning and teaching to take place in the context of a student’s individual needs.

The tutorial system also offers the sustained commitment of one or more senior academics – as college tutors – to each student’s progress. It helps students to grow in confidence, to develop their skills in analysis and persuasive argument, and to flourish as independent learners and thinkers.

More information about tutorials

The benefits of the college system

  • Every Oxford student is a member of a college. The college system is at the heart of the Oxford experience, giving students the benefits of belonging to both a large and internationally renowned university and a much smaller, interdisciplinary, college community.
  • Each college brings together academics, undergraduate and postgraduate students, and college staff. The college gives its members the chance to be part of a close and friendly community made up of both leading academics and students from different subjects, year groups, cultures and countries. The relatively small size of each college means that it is easy to make friends and contribute to college life. There is a sense of belonging, which can be harder to achieve in a larger setting, and a supportive environment for study and all sorts of other activities.
  • Colleges organise tutorial teaching for their undergraduates, and one or more college tutors will oversee and guide each student’s progress throughout his or her career at Oxford. The college system fosters a sense of community between tutors and students, and among students themselves, allowing for close and supportive personal attention to each student’s academic development.

It is the norm that undergraduates live in college accommodation in their first year, and in many cases they will continue to be accommodated by their college for the majority or the entire duration of their course. Colleges invest heavily in providing an extensive range of services for their students, and as well as accommodation colleges provide food, library and IT resources, sports facilities and clubs, drama and music, social spaces and societies, access to travel or project grants, and extensive welfare support. For students the college often becomes the hub of their social, sporting and cultural life.

More about Oxford’s unique college system and how to choose a college