Earth Sciences
Titanite from Graubunden, Switzerland.
(Image credit: Oxford University Museum of Natural Hist / Oxford University Images).

Earth Sciences (Geology)

The Earth Sciences are changing rapidly in scope and nature. The course at Oxford reflects these changes, and aims to provide earth scientists with a sound and broadly based scientific training. Earth Sciences courses at Oxford train students in the unique skills required for the interpretation of rock materials and geological phenomena as well as applying theory and techniques from physics, chemistry, materials science and biology to the study of the Earth and the environment.

 

Earth Sciences at Oxford

The Earth Sciences Department at Oxford has an international research reputation, and houses state-of-the-art laboratories and computing facilities within a recently completed building. The department is a lively place, an active laboratory, where students, teachers and visitors, many from overseas, mix and work together. Offices and teaching labs are close together but with plenty of shared open space, so you will very quickly get a sense of being part of a vibrant community where everyone knows each other. This makes for a very good atmosphere in which a student can not only learn the basics of the subject, but also get some feel for the discoveries emerging from current research.

The diversity of the subject is reflected in the range of courses which cover processes from the Earth’s interior, as mapped by seismic waves, to the evolution of the Earth’s crust documented in the rocks at the surface, to ocean and atmospheric circulation, through to the evolution of life on Earth.  As an undergraduate, in addition to lectures, practicals and tutorials, you can find yourself on a field trip being taught by a geologist whose other field area is high up in the Himalayas; on a boat in the Atlantic learning about ocean circulation from an oceanographer who researches the Arctic; or in a laboratory using isotopes of uranium and strontium in stalagmites to measure the fluctuations of past climates.

Earth Sciences is part of the Mathematical, Physical and Life Sciences Division, which also contains Chemistry, Computer Science, Engineering, Materials, Mathematics, Physics and Statistics. In the first year, it may, in principle, be possible to change to another degree course, subject to the availability of space on the course and to the consent of the college.

Careers

Typical destinations for Earth Sciences graduates include the energy industry, the environmental sector and engineering/ technical consultancies. Some enter professions unrelated to their subject, such as finance, in which the analytical and problem-solving skills they have developed are highly sought after. Around 40% continue to study, developing their interests through a PhD or further master’s course. Recent Earth Sciences graduates include a data analyst for a media organisation, a tax accountant and a hydrogeologist.

Rachael, who graduated in 2007, works for BP as a geoscientist. She says: ‘I am currently working as an Operations Geologist in London for a project based in North Africa. My degree gave me the technical basis for my career, but more importantly it taught me how to think out complex issues from basic principles and to motivate myself to produce the best results I can.’

Related courses

Students interested in this course might also like to consider Biological Sciences, Chemistry, Geography, Human Sciences, Materials Science or Physics.

Work placements/international opportunities

The Earth Sciences course includes a number of excursions. These are designed to link closely to material covered in lectures, and to convey the practice of geology, geophysics, geochemistry, and palaeontology in the field environment. This work culminates in an independent project to study and map an area chosen by the student (with advice from lecturers). Many of the field excursions take place out of term time, so students on the course must be available outside of term.

A typical weekly timetable

During years 1–3, your work is divided between lectures (about ten a week), tutorials (one or two a week), and practical classes, occupying about a third of your week. In year 4 you have the opportunity for independent work on special topics or in a research laboratory.

1st year
Courses

Students take all courses in five parallel streams:

  • Planet Earth

  • Fundamentals of geology I

  • Fundamentals of geology II

  • Physics, chemistry and biology for Earth Sciences

  • Mathematics for Materials and Earth Sciences

Field Courses

  • Pembroke Field Course (pre-session)

  • Arran Field Course (Introduction)

  • Local field courses 

Assessment

First University Examinations
(Theory and Practical)

2nd year
Courses

Students take all courses in five parallel streams:

  • Earth deformation and materials

  • Palaeobiology

  • Petrology

  • Geochemistry and ocean chemistry

  • Mathematical and geophysical tools

Field Courses

  • Dorset Field Course

  • Assynt Field Course (Mapping)

Assessment

Part A1 Examinations (2nd year, Theory and Practical)

3rd year
Courses

Students take a combination of core and optional papers from the following:

  • Natural resources

  • Sedimentary basins

  • The oceans

  • Palaeoclimate and sea level

  • Seismology and earth structure / Continental deformation

  • Volcanoes and environment / Igneous processes and petrogensis

  • Evolutionary turning points / Vertebrate palaeobiology

  • Earth materials, rock deformation and metamorphism

  • Mathematical and geophysical methods

Field Courses

  • South-east Spain field trip
  • Independent field mapping project (conducted over summer break between 2nd and 3rd years)
Extended Essay

 

Assessment

Part A2 Examinations (3rd year, Theory, Practical for Field Course)
BA Hons (Geology)

4th year

Research

Students choose four options, generally two in each term (four / eight–ten):

  • Anatomy of a mountain belt

  • Planetary chemistry

  • Seismology

  • Records of major environmental change in Earth’s history

  • Palaeobiology

  • Environmental, rock and palaeo-magnetism

  • Topics in oceanography

  • Topics in volcanology

Field Courses
Optional field courses as announced each year

Independent work
Research project over 2.5 terms 

Assessment

Part B Examination (Theory)
MEarthSc Hons (Earth Sciences)

Candidates are required to have Mathematics plus Physics or Chemistry either to A-level, or to Advanced Higher or Higher Level in the IB, or an equivalent qualification. Chemistry or Physics are also highly recommended as a third subject. Biology, Geology or Further Mathematics can also be helpful to candidates in completing this course.

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.

Both the BA in Geology and MEarthSc in Earth Sciences are exactly the same for the first three years. Students can then choose to continue with the four-year Earth Sciences course or leave with a BA in Geology. The MEarthSc is not open to anyone who has not completed the first three years of the course. If students are unsure which course they would rather follow, then we would advise them to apply for the four-year course, as it is easier then to change to the three-year course later, rather than the other way around.

Written work

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

Written test

Tutors are looking for highly motivated individuals with the intellectual skills necessary to do well on the course (eg problem-solving ability). As part of the interview process, candidates may be asked to comment on specimens of a geological nature, or to carry out simple calculations, but always with due recognition of their previous knowledge of, and experience in, the subject being discussed.

Selection criteria

Candidates may wish to refer to the selection criteria for this course.

Suggested reading

At present we do not produce a reading list for students applying for Earth Sciences but we encourage you to read New Scientist, National Geographic or any other relevant materials which you find interesting.

Martin, who graduated in 2009

He currently works in the mining industry for De Beers Canada as a Field Geologist. He says:   

‘My Oxford degree helped me to develop the knowledge, understanding and confidence to approach geological problems in a critical and informed manner. I appreciate the course’s focus on both the theoretical and practical side of geology.’

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