Mathematics and Philosophy
Complex mathematical formulas, equations, and geometry.
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Mathematics and Philosophy

This course brings together two of the most fundamental and widely applicable intellectual skills. Mathematical knowledge and the ability to use it is the most important means of tackling quantifiable problems, while philosophical training enhances the ability to analyse issues, question received assumptions and clearly articulate understanding. The combination provides a powerful background from which to proceed to graduate study in either Mathematics or Philosophy or to pursue diverse careers. Historically, there have been strong links between Mathematics and Philosophy; logic, an important branch of both subjects, provides a natural bridge between the two, as does the philosophy of mathematics.

Mathematics and Philosophy at Oxford

The degree is constructed in the belief that the parallel study of these related disciplines can significantly enhance your understanding of each.

The Philosophy Faculty is the largest in the UK, and one of the largest in the world, with more than 70 full-time members and admitting more than 500 undergraduates annually to read the various degrees involving Philosophy. Many faculty members have a worldwide reputation, and the faculty has the highest research ratings of any philosophy department in the UK. The Philosophy Library is among the best in the country. The large number of undergraduates and graduates reading Philosophy with a variety of other disciplines affords the opportunity to participate in a diverse and lively philosophical community.

The Mathematics Department, since 2013 housed in the new Andrew Wiles Building, is also one of the largest and best in the UK and contains within it many world-class research groups. This is reflected in the wide choice of mathematics topics available to you, especially in the fourth year.

Careers

Recent graduates secured positions in diverse occupational areas such as software development, teaching, research, the public sector including the civil and diplomatic services, journalism, and financial and investment analysis both in the UK and abroad. A smaller group of graduates go on to further academic study.

Will, who graduated in 1999, works as a data analyst at the University of Michigan. He says: ‘My degree taught me to construct a rigorous and detailed argument, and also to adapt and defend it “live” in a tutorial setting. This is a crucial skill for jobs that require the analysis and presentation of complex data.’

Related courses

Students interested in this course might also like to consider other Mathematics courses or Computer Science and Philosophy.

The course

There are two Mathematics and Philosophy degrees, the three-year BA and the four-year MMathPhil. You are not asked to choose between them on your application, and so long as your exam results in the second and third years are of an appropriate standard you have the option either to complete an honours BA or continue to the fourth year for the MMathPhil.

The mathematics units in this joint course are all from the single-subject Mathematics course. Accordingly the standard in mathematics for admission to the joint course is the same as for admission to the single-subject Mathematics course.The compulsory core mathematics for the joint course consists of the pure (as opposed to applied) mathematics from the compulsory core for the single-subject Mathematics course. The philosophy units for the Mathematics and Philosophy course are mostly shared with the other joint courses with Philosophy.

All parts of the course in the first year are compulsory. In the second and third years some units are compulsory, consisting of core mathematics and philosophy and bridge papers on philosophy of mathematics and on foundations (logic and set theory), but you also choose options. The structure of the fourth year Master’s level is currently under review.

A typical weekly timetable

In your first two years work is divided between lectures (about ten a week) and tutorials in your college (two or three a week). In your third and fourth years the same applies to Philosophy subjects, but most Mathematics courses are linked to intercollegiate classes rather than tutorials in your college. About a third of your week will be spent working on your own, preparing essays for Philosophy tutorials, and solving problems for Mathematics tutorials or classes.

1st year

Courses

Mathematics:

  • Algebra

  • Analysis

  • Calculus and Probability

Philosophy:

  • Elements of deductive logic

  • Introduction to philosophy

Assessment

First University examinations:
Five compulsory written papers

2nd and 3rd years

Courses

Mathematics:

  • Core pure mathematics (Algebra, Metric Spaces, Complex Analysis)

  • Foundations (set theory, logic)

  • Intermediate mathematics options

Philosophy:

  • Knowledge and reality or History of philosophy from Descartes to Kant

  • Philosophy of mathematics

  • Further philosophy

Assessment

Final University examinations, Part A (2nd year)

  • Two written papers on pure mathematics core and two written questions on options

Final University examinations, Part B (3rd year)

  • Six three-hour written papers, at least two in Mathematics, at least three in Philosophy

4th year

Courses

Units from M-level
Mathematics (including a Maths dissertation) and M-level Philosophy (including a Philosophy thesis, (Precise exam structure under review)

Assessment

Final University examinations, Part C: Units are mostly examined by a three-hour written paper, plus one 5,000-word essay for Philosophy subjects

  • A-levels: A*A*A with the A*s in Mathematics and Further Mathematics (if taken)
  • Advanced Highers: AA/AAB
  • IB: 39 (including core points) with 766 at HL
  • Or any other equivalent (see details of international qualifications)

Candidates are expected to have Mathematics to A-level (A* grade), Advanced Higher (A grade), or Higher Level in the IB (score 7) or another equivalent. Further Mathematics is highly recommended.

All candidates must also take the Mathematics Admissions Test (MAT) as part of their application. Please see how to apply for further details.  

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

You do not need submit any written work when you apply for this course.

Written test

All candidates must take the Mathematics Admissions Test (MAT), normally at their own school or college on 5 November 2014. Candidates must make sure they are available to take the test at this time.

Separate registration for this test is required and the final deadline for entries is 15 October 2014. It is the responsibility of the candidate to ensure that they are registered for this test. See www.matoxford.org.uk for further details.

See also details of how to register for this test.

What are tutors looking for?

During the interview for Philosophy you will be given the opportunity to show a critical and analytical approach to abstract questions and the ability to defend a viewpoint by reasoned argument. In Mathematics you may find yourself asked to look at problems of a type that you have never seen before. Don’t worry; we will help you! We want to see if you can respond to suggestions as to how to tackle new things, rather than find out simply what you have been taught.

Selection criteria

Candidates may wish to refer to the selection criteria for Mathematics and for Philosophy.

Suggested reading

Reading lists for prospective Mathematics and Philosophy applicants can be found on page 17 of the departmental prospectus, available to download from the Maths Department website.

Thomas, 1st year

'I came to Oxford because I wanted to study at one of the best universities in the country. I enjoy the reading in preparation for essays and also the tutorials, especially the philosophical discussions; it’s really interesting to try and make your point clearer and to discover sides of the argument you’d never thought about. Organising your time is very important. If you enjoyed maths and further maths at A-level and you find questions in philosophy interesting then this is definitely the course for you.

Life at Oxford hasn’t been what I expected. The image I created was far too stereotypical and I was surprised when I arrived to find that Oxford is a university much like any other. I’m a member of the Secular Society, which has been really interesting: its guest speakers include well-known philosophers and recently the Society held a faith schools forum which I took part in. I’m also a member of the Oxford Union – nearly every week there’s some head of state flying in to give a talk, or someone from Hollywood recounting their experiences, as well as the debates which have covered topics ranging from gay parenting to the 'War on Terror’. The University is one of very few places with a collegiate system, which means that you belong to your college community while being a member of the University as a whole, and I think that although you do have to work hard while you’re here, your friends, tutors and activities in and out of college will make your time really worthwhile and enjoyable.'

Jack, who graduated in 2007

He is currently a capital actuarial analyst at Catlin Insurance. He says:  

‘The mathematical skills developed during my degree have helped with the technical side of my work, but studying philosophy alongside maths also developed my abilities to analyse an argument and to take a logical approach to problem-solving. These skills have proven particularly valuable in the workplace, both in my current role and as an associate on the Financial Services Authority’s graduate scheme.’

Katherine, Maths and Philosophy, who graduated in 2009

The most unexpected thing about my course:

'How few people take it - only 24 in my year across the whole university. I found it quite hard having no one in my year at the same college to compare notes with.'

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

'How intense the work would be here, compared to both school and most other universities - I had five or six assignments every week in my first term!'

My favourite Oxford memory is...

'I went to formal hall at my college for my birthday in first year and the catering staff brought out leftover high table food from the day before as a special treat...along with the usual three courses and an extra pudding for me, complete with birthday candle! It was really lovely to see how much my college cared about its students, and everyone appreciated the extra dinner!'

I'd just like to add:

'I didn't realise for a long time that it's okay to get stuck on work and ask your tutors for help or even a deadline extension, and that doing so won't reflect negatively on you - having had that knowledge really enforced would have saved me a lot of stress!'

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