Biology | University of Oxford
Biological Sciences
Students on a field trip.

Biology

Please note: this Biology course has been changed since the Undergraduate Prospectus was printed. The course structure has changed, and there is now the opportunity to study for a fourth year and graduate with a Master's degree (MBiol), in addition to the existing BA degree.  

Biology is an exciting and rapidly developing subject area. The study of living things has undergone tremendous expansion in recent years, and topics such as cell biology, developmental biology, evolutionary biology and ecology are advancing rapidly - all of these areas are covered in the taught course. This expansion has been accompanied by a blurring of the distinctions between disciplines. A biologist with an interest in tropical plants may use many of the tools and techniques that are indispensable to a molecular geneticist; contemporary evolution can be studied in laboratory and field settings; and behaviour of animals and plants needs computational perspectives. Our modular structure encourages this cross-disciplinary approach.

The Biology degree is taught jointly by the Departments of Plant Sciences and Zoology. Additional resources include: Oxford University Museum of Natural History, Botanic Garden, Herbarium, Arboretum, the John Krebs field station and Wytham Woods.

Students can choose to leave after three years and graduate with a BA, or they can continue to a fourth year and graduate with an MBiol. Progression to the MBiol is contingent on satisfactory academic performance in the first three years. The fourth year consists of an extended project, which can be lab or field based, plus advanced research skills training.

Skills training is an integral part of teaching across all years and there is a compulsory one-week field trip for all first-year students to Pembrokeshire to study ecology. Skills training in second year is also compulsory and covers a whole range of more advanced practical and quantitative skills essential for a modern biologist. At the end of second year, students can choose from a range of extended skills courses that last one or two weeks: examples include ecological fieldwork (in the UK and overseas), genome sequencing and genome editing. In the third year, students specialise on a narrower range of options but skills training continues – this time in the form of learning how to engage with and critique a scientific paper. All overseas work requires financial contributions from the student.

Careers in Biology

The new Biology course was introduced for the first time in 2019; hence we do not have any graduates yet. The following comments are taken from interviews made with students graduating from the three-year BA in Biological Sciences.

Over half of Oxford biologists embark on a professional, scientific or technical career after graduation; this includes areas such as industry, finance, medicine, the law, teaching, the media or conservation. More than a third go on to further study such as a research doctorate or a postgraduate course in an applied field.

Example 1: After graduation, Jenny spent several years in a medical communication agency environment and now has her own business, working directly with major global pharmaceutical companies. She explains: ‘The tutorial system and writing opportunities during my degree were critical in developing the skills needed to analyse and interpret data, present them clearly and concisely in context and discuss results of clinical trials.’

Example 2: Hannah, now a research assistant at the Royal Veterinary College, reports: ‘My degree gave me a keen interest in my subject and the skills to pursue it. So far I have tracked rhinos across deserts, chased birds across oceans, and am currently working with chickens!’

Related courses

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

A typical week

Almost all teaching takes place in the Science Area and in the first year can be broken down into the following categories:

  • Lectures: around eight hours a week
  • Research skills training: around seven hours a week
  • Class discussions: around one hour a week
  • Tutorials: one hour a week, plus preparation time.

In the second and third year, variable hours are also spent on coursework elements. Tutorials are usually 2-4 students and a tutor. Lectures and practical class sizes will vary depending on the options chosen. They will normally range from around 115 students in the class to as few as 20 students in the class.  

Most tutorials, classes, and lectures are delivered by staff who are tutors in their subject. Many are world-leading experts with years of experience in teaching and research. Some teaching may also be delivered by postgraduate students who are usually studying at doctorate level.

 To find out more about how our teaching year is structured, visit our Academic Year page.

1st year
Courses

One course which integrates three themes:

  • Diversity of Life
  • How to Build a Phenotype
  • Ecology and Evolution

Skills training which includes quantitative methods and a field course to Pembrokeshire, South Wales.

Assessment

First University examinations: Three written papers:

  • Short-answer paper
  • Essay paper
  • Research skills paper

Coursework: four practical write-ups

2nd year
Courses

Students choose three themes from the four on offer.

Students may attend lectures in all themes.

Themes:

  • Genomes and Molecular Biology
  • Cell and Developmental Biology
  • Behaviour and Physiology of Organisms
  • Ecology and Evolution

Skills training, which includes a compulsory element plus extended one and two week specialist courses.

Assessment

Final University examinations, Part I:

Two written papers:

  • Essay paper covering the four themes
  • Research skills paper

Coursework:

  • Two practical write-ups
  • Detailed report on two-week extended skills course
3rd year
Courses

Eight specialist options are offered. 

Students are expected to take four, which are chosen freely.

A full list of current options is available on the Biology website.

Assessment

Final University examinations, Part II:
Three written papers:

  • Synthetic essay paper
  • Applications essay paper
  • Research skills paper

Coursework:

  • Critique and synthesis of a chosen research topic, presented as a scientific report
  • Critique and synthesis of a second chosen research topic, presented orally
4th year (optional MBiol*)
Courses

Advanced skills training.

Extended research project.

Assessment

Project (25% of MBiol)

* Students can choose to leave after three years and graduate with a BA, or they can continue to a fourth year and graduate with an MBiol. Progression to the MBiol is contingent on satisfactory academic performance in the first three years. 

The content and format of this course may change in some circumstances. Read further information about potential course changes.

A-levels: A*AA –Biology (or Human Biology) is required and the A* must be in a science or Mathematics (see the full list of subjects in which an A* grade will be acceptable)

Candidates are required to have Biology (or Human Biology) to A-level, Advanced Higher, Higher Level in the IB or another equivalent. Another science or Mathematics are also recommended.

We expect you to have taken and passed the practical component in any chosen science subjects.

Please note these requirements listed above are for entry in 2019.

For entry from 2020, A-level Biology (or equivalent) will be required and a second A-level (or equivalent) must be in Chemistry, Physics or Mathematics. The general entry requirements for A-level students will remain A*AA  (see the full list of subjects in which an A* grade will be acceptable)

If English is not your first language you may also need to meet our English language requirements.

Wherever possible, your grades are considered in the context in which they have been achieved.  (See further information on how we use contextual data.) 

Oxford University is committed to recruiting the best and brightest students from all backgrounds. We offer a generous package of financial support to Home/EU students from lower-income households. (UK nationals living in the UK are usually Home students.)

Fees

These annual fees are for full-time students who begin this undergraduate course here in 2019.

Fee status

Annual Course fees

Home/EU£9,250
Islands
(Channel Islands & Isle of Man)
£9,250
Overseas£34,678

For more information please refer to our course fees page. Fees will usually increase annually. For details, please see our guidance on likely increases to fees and charges.

EU applicants should refer to our dedicated webpage for details of the implications of the UK’s plans to leave the European Union.

Living costs

Living costs at Oxford might be less than you’d expect, as our world-class resources and college provision can help keep costs down.

Living costs for the academic year starting in 2019 are estimated to be between £1,058 and £1,643 for each month you are in Oxford. Our academic year is made up of three eight-week terms, so you would not usually need to be in Oxford for much more than six months of the year but may wish to budget over a nine-month period to ensure you also have sufficient funds during the holidays to meet essential costs. For further details please visit our living costs webpage.

Financial support

Home/EU

A tuition fee loan is available from the UK government to cover course fees in full for Home (UK)/EU students undertaking their first undergraduate degree*, so you don’t need to pay your course fees up front.

In 2019 Oxford is offering one of the most generous bursary packages of any UK university to those on a family income of around £42,875 or less, with additional opportunities available to those from households with incomes of £16,000 or less. This support is available in addition to the government living costs support.  See further details.

Islands
(Channel Islands and Isle of Man)

Islands students are entitled to different support to that of students from the rest of the UK.

Please refer the links below for information on the support to you available from your funding agency:

States of Jersey
States of Guernsey
Isle of Man

Overseas

Please refer to the "Other Scholarships" section of our Oxford Bursaries and Scholarships page.

*If you have studied at undergraduate level before and completed your course, you will be classed as an Equivalent or Lower Qualification student (ELQ) and won’t be eligible to receive government or Oxford funding

Fees, Funding and Scholarship search

Additional Fees and Charges Information for Biology

First-year students are required to undertake a one-week residential field course to West Wales (Orielton Field Studies Centre near Pembroke) in the summer term. You will study living organisms in a range of environments, both terrestrial and marine, and the content is assessed as part of the first-year examinations. The University covers all costs for this compulsory trip, including food and accommodation.

There are also two optional overseas fieldtrips in the extended skills courses at the end of second year:

  • Tenerife: a one-week trip to study the systematics, diversity and ecology of the local plant communities.
  • Borneo: a two-week trip to study tropical rainforest ecology, both animals and plants.

As a guide, costs for these optional courses in 2018 were £625 for Tenerife, plus whatever students spent on lunches and evening meals during the week, and £950 for Borneo, plus the return flights to Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia.

Further details on fieldtrips can be found on the Biology website.

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

All applicants must apply for the MBiol.  Students can choose to leave after three years and graduate with a BA, or they can continue to a fourth year and graduate with an MBiol. Progression to the MBiol is contingent on satisfactory academic performance in the first three years.

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?

Tutors are looking for enthusiasm for biology and potential to study it at university. Interviews are not to test factual knowledge – they are designed to enable applicants to show an ability to think and to understand whatever facts have been encountered up to that time. Be prepared to talk intelligently about particular aspects of biology that are personally interesting. The process is rigorous but sympathetic. Applicants may be asked to examine and comment on biological objects, or to interpret a written passage or a simple set of data, provided during the interview.

For more detail on the selection criteria for this course, please see the Biology website.

Suggested reading

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

Apply

The new Biology course was introduced for the first time in 2019; hence we do not have any graduates yet. The following comments are taken from interviews made with students graduating from the three-year BA in Biological Sciences.

Watch a series of short videos of students talking about some aspect of their time at Oxford.

Claire

'Throughout my whole life my head has buzzed with questions; questions about humans, plants, the oceans and the microscopic world invisible to the naked eye. Oxford offers me the answers to these questions. It’s incredible!

There’s loads of practical work, from a brilliant week-long field trip to Wales in your first year, to tropical Borneo in your second. Lab work is a great chance to test the theories you’ve learnt in lectures and the supervisors are always happy to offer help and explanation. In your third year you get to carry out a project, investigating whatever you choose, the only criteria being that you’re fascinated by what you’re investigating.'

Hannah

Now a research assistant at the Royal Veterinary College, she says:

‘My degree gave me a keen interest in my subject and the skills to pursue it. So far I have tracked rhinos across deserts, chased birds across oceans, and am currently working with chickens!’

Luke

First job after graduating

Medical laboratory assistant

Current job

I am currently a GP Trainee in South London having studied medicine after my biological sciences degree. Fascinating tutorials on animal behaviour lead to a keen interest in the human animal and lead me into the ultimate study of humans: medicine! I have recently spent time working in an Ebola centre in Sierra Leone as part of the NHS response and have just returned from an epic sailing expedition as the ship's medic which will be shown on Channel 4 in the Winter

How did Oxford prepare you for this type of work?

The tutorial system at Oxford exposes you to a huge variety of incredible tutors - all of who have different perspectives and experiences. Learning with these inspiring people broadened the way in which I think and challenged me to think outside the box. When surrounded by leaders in the field of science you can't help but push yourself and that drive has stayed with me in my current work

What was the most important thing your time at Oxford taught you?

The tutorial system and the laboratory work instilled a sense of discipline in me that I have been able to carry forward into my career. Contrasting this, the most important thing Oxford gave me was a supportive peer group that has provided me with a career network but, most importantly, friendship

The new Biology course was introduced for the first time in 2019; hence we do not have any graduates yet. The following data relate to the three-year BA in Biological Sciences.

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

Was this page useful?*