Oxford FAQ

20 July 2019

Shiri Avni

I want to thank everyone for all their enthusiasm and support for this blog. This post will be a work in progress, with answers to common questions asked by readers. Please feel comfortable to ask your own!

Is the MSc at Oxford only 1 year? Why?

Many, but not all Master degrees at Oxford last approximately 1 year. To check the duration of your desired degree, see here and set the field “Course Degree” to “Master’s”.

As to why this is the case, I think it’s simply a matter of history. The MSc programs started out this way, and so it’s continued like this. Furthermore, from what I felt during my time at Oxford, at least in the CompSci department, the viewpoint is that the objective of the MSc is to start specializing and getting a real taste of research: if a student enjoys the year, he/she should continue on the PhD.

Do CompSci MSc students normally manage to publish a paper?

The MSc in CompSci is a taught program, which means it consists of 2 terms of courses, and only the 3rd term is dedicated to working on the thesis. If you can manage your course load, you can start your research earlier (informally), and this is what I did. More specifically, to complete the MSc, a student needs to complete 6 courses, and you can register for up to 4 courses per term. So, I took 4 courses during my first term, and then in my second term took 2 courses and worked on my thesis for 2 days a week. In my third term, I transitioned to working on my thesis full time. In this way, a student can pursue a more ambitious thesis.

Most students do not manage to publish a paper in this MSc, but every year several students do. If you want to get a paper out, I recommend you discuss this with your potential thesis supervisor, to see if you are on the same page (pun intended). Some supervisors view the thesis very seriously, and meet with their students once a week, while others take a more relaxed view and meet their students only once a month. It really depends on the supervisor you have, and this is something you should keep in mind when you look for one. I was lucky, and found two wonderful supervisors, whom I met with each once a week.

What’s my opinion on applying for a PhD directly?

My answer relates to international students not from the UK.

If you know precisely what you want to research and you have a supervisor at Oxford that you would love to work with and that you don’t think you can find anywhere else, then I would propose that going for a PhD directly is a good idea. For everyone else though, I would recommend starting with an MSc first, or coming over to Oxford for a summer internship to collaborate with your supervisor of interest.

The reason that I think this way is that despite how beautiful and special Oxford is, it is also a very different place than probably anything you’re used to. There are many historical traditions, and in some senses Oxford is a ‘bubble’. This adds to its charm, but for many students I met, staying 4 years in this bubble was too much.

Furthermore, the town is not large, so if you come from a large city, you may find that London is a better fit for you.

Additionally, and this is true for any foreign student, regardless of where he/she studies: the hope is that you adapt and start loving the culture you’ve moved to. Even if you don’t want to spend the rest of your life in your PhD country, you should still admire it enough in order to really enjoy this multi-year adventure. I’ve met people who studied in the USA, Switzerland, and Germany who said that in hindsight, they didn’t think enough about the commitment they were making, not only to a new university, but to a new culture.

For all these reasons, I would suggest to most applicants to start with an MSc. Take the time to see how you fit in at Oxford and how your social life develops too, and then once you’re there, make the decision about the PhD.

What GPA does one need in order to apply?

For American candidates, the Oxford website states that the minimum GPA for applying is 3.55, which is equivalent to a 90 on a 0-100 scale. For applicants of other nationalities, there is no mandatory minimum, but accepted applicants are usually honor students.

I would like to note that in my cohort, while most students had indeed been at the top of their year during their undergrad, I did meet several students who had had marks in their 80s. That is, Oxford does make exceptions sometimes. If you are passionate about what you do and you think you have a strong CV besides your GPA, I would recommend applying. What do you have to lose?

For the CompSci MSc, what coding skills should an incoming student have?

Good question. I met many people who came to do the MSc having come from a pure mathematics or an engineering background. You definitely shouldn’t be afraid of coding, as you’ll have to do a little in each course you take (see my discussion on ‘practicals’). Most practicals are not difficult, unless you’ve enrolled in a code intensive course, such as “Programming Languages”. You can also decide to focus on more theoretical courses, which have a very lean coding component (e.g. “Game Theory”).

I enrolled in a Machine Learning course which required Python in the practicals, and I felt that the catch-up was very manageable! The practicals required about one or two A4 pages of code for each: the emphasis was really on utilizing Python to advance the students’ machine learning understanding, rather than to check how much sophisticated code the students can churn out.

Relevant Posts:

A Year at Oxford - Coming with a Family
Oxford Scholarships & WHT
Computer Science MSc (with Review of Courses!)