Biology is a single honours degree course taught jointly by the Departments of Plant Sciences and Zoology. The course combines foundational topics, such as biochemistry and evolution, with modern developments and techniques in all spheres of biology, from the molecular and cellular to the whole organismal and ecological. We pride ourselves on the fact that very few mainstream topics of biology are completely unavailable to our undergraduates and all the major research areas in the Departments of Plant Sciences and Zoology contribute to the Biology course.
The extremely diverse nature of the courses taught and the option system in the second and third year, allows our graduating students to design themselves either a very general background encompassing a wide range of topics, or instead, specialise in detailed aspects of animals, plants, cells or ecology—it’s up to student themselves.
Biology at Oxford now incorporates an optional fourth-year, so students can leave after three years with a BA or after four years 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.
You will spend the first year encountering the full range of biology, developing an understanding of the integration between the levels and discovering, perhaps to your surprise, the similarities of some of the laws governing interactions between molecules, cells, individuals and populations. For many, the transition from A level (or equivalent) to first year university biology is a surprise which takes some coming to terms with. However, we have designed a three-week orientation period which will help you to make a smoother transition. During the orientation, you will be introduced to the course and we will focus on a few key fundamental topics which underpin most of biology, such as Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection. You will also be introduced to the scientific method and can begin thinking – what does it take to be a modern biologist?
All topics in the first year are compulsory, to provide you with a broad and solid background for further specialised study. The first-year lectures are comprised of three themes, which are woven together to tell a compelling integrated narrative of the history of life and highlighting major evolutionary events. The three themes are: (1) Diversity of Life; (2) How to Build a Phenotype; (3) Ecology & Evolution. Alongside the lectures, there is compulsory skills training that provides the research skills relevant to modern biology. You will also attend a week long field course in Wales in the summer term.
In the second year there is greater specialisation and you can choose three of four themes: (1) Genomes and Molecular Biology; (2) Cell and Developmental Biology; (3) Behaviour and Physiology of Organisms; (4) Ecology and Evolution. Research skills continue to be taught, and are compulsory. After the second-year exams, you will get a chance to develop enhanced research skills, through a range of longer extended skills training courses, that last for one or two weeks. Topics covered include: ecological fieldwork (in the UK and overseas), genome sequencing and genome editing. All overseas work requires financial contributions from the student.
In the third year, the course broadens into a choice of around eight options, from which students select four. Recent changes to the course structure have placed additional emphasis on emerging topics relevant to society such as GM crops, bio-fuels, stem cells and ageing. Skills training continues – this time in the form of learning how to engage with and critique a scientific paper.
If you opt to stay for the fourth year, you get a chance to pursue an in-depth research project, under the supervision of an academic member of staff. Those who successfully complete the fourth year will leave with an MBiol. Progression to the MBiol is contingent on satisfactory academic performance in the first three years.
You can find out more about the lectures and tutorials, practicals, field courses and projects here.