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Studying Geography at Oxford: Lessons from your Third Year Geography Aunty

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By Eleanor Luxton – 6th November 2023

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You might be taking Geography at A level, just one subject alongside a few other sciences, or perhaps English or Economics. All of these other subjects are good choices, of course, but can you see yourself learning about them for another three years? Lots of students take Geography at A level (it’s the sixth most popular subject to take) but many consider STEM subjects to be better degree choices. Well, as I’ve written before, Geography has something of an image problem. But don’t let this deter you - a Geography degree can lead to immense careers and has loads of other benefits too…

Bonus 1: You won’t have to spend hours in lectures

Geography at Oxford requires you to be quite independent, which I really love. It means that I can structure my time carefully, meet friends for coffee or lunch (while STEM students are snaffling sandwiches outside a lecture theatre) and have plenty of social time in the evenings. First year Geography at Oxford requires you to attend about eight hours of lectures a week - which mostly run between 11am and 1pm - plus some practicals and briefings. Practicals are often really fun, helping you to get to grips with everything from ArcGIS to satellite imagery and the Schmitt Hammer. You’ll practice interviewing and go on a few field-trips (Dorset and Wytham Woods, normally) too. This all proves really useful when you have to collect data for your dissertation!

Bonus 2: You get to cover a lot of drama…

First year is all about introducing you to the basics of the discipline - human geography and physical geography - as well as geographical techniques, like statistics and questionnaires. But geographical controversies is undoubtedly the most interesting part - a series of 12 lectures, you’ll learn about beef in geography. Drone warfare? Colonial statues? Desertification? It’s all contested and all super engaging. Even better, you write an extended essay on one controversy of your choice at the end of the year, so be prepared to get nerdy about it.

Bonus 3: …and study your favourites in depth

In my second year, I took a module all about childhood geographies - something I didn’t even know existed. We learned about how children protest, how colonialism has impacted our notions of childhood and why the category of the ‘child’ is controversial. You’ll take three optional modules over second and third year, which often include courses about the geographies of war, development, the quaternary period, climate change, geopolitics and transport. This means that, if like me you cannot stand physical geography, you can specialise and forget about it (kind of).

Bonus 4: The college system takes some getting used to, but it’s perfect for geographers

Oxford is divided into 43 colleges which all have their own unique atmosphere and vibe. I’m at Mansfield, which admits over 90% state-educated students each year, and we have a cohort of around eight geographers a year. St Catherine’s admits a similar amount to us, but some colleges - like St Hilda’s and Christchurch - accept only a few geographers annually. This means that your year group isn’t huge, and you get to know the geographers at other colleges easily through team-building activities and lectures.

The tutorial system is awesome for geographers, since we can discuss and debate our ideas in small groups. Discussions like this are how new sub-disciplines and movements within geography emerge, but it also helps you make friends in those tricky first few weeks. Whilst initially a bit scary, geography tutors are generally really nice, normal people, who want you to think critically about what you’ve been taught. This can be eye-opening - for example, I learned that El Nino is very different to what we’re taught at GCSE, and we’ve also talked about what nationalism means to us. Chatting about your subject also helps to shape your own opinions and interests, and you can ask your tutors questions too.

Bonus 5: We write epic dissertations

At some universities, geography students are only allowed to do ‘desk-based’ dissertations, meaning that they don’t go ‘into the field’ to collect data. However, Oxford encourages you to choose your own topic and it can be almost anything you like. My dissertation (which I’m supposed to be editing right now…), is all about Afghan women’s experiences of gender, migration and settlement after the fall of Kabul in 2021. I got to interview twenty people from across the world, attended events in Parliament, and was introduced to academics I hadn’t encountered before. Colleges often provide funding for you to travel for your dissertation too - for me, this amounted to a few train tickets, but you can go abroad as well!

I hope that this helped to convince you to apply for Geography at Oxford, but if it’s not enough then check out the Geography Society’s alternative prospectus here.

Keen to study Geography at Oxford? Join Zero Gravity today to make your ambitions real.