Course structure

The three degrees differ in their organisation in important aspects.  Human Sciences and Biological Sciences are three year degrees leading to a BA.  Biochemistry is a four year degree which leads to a MBiochem.  There are, however, overlapps among the three courses especially in the first year, where, for example much of the genetics teaching is the same.

Biological Sciences

Biological Sciences is a single honours degree course taught jointly by the Departments of Plant Sciences and Zoology. The course combines fundamental, underpinning topics such as animal and plant systematics and relationships, 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 in its widest sense are completely unavailable to our undergraduates and all the major research areas in the Departments of Plant Sciences and Zoology contribute to the Biological Sciences course.

Although everyone leaves with the same degree, a BA (Honours) Oxon, because of the extremely diverse nature of the courses taught and the option system in the second and third year, our graduating students can 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.

Biological Sciences at Oxford is a three year Honours degree course. 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. To many, the transition from A level (or equivalent) biology to first year university biology is a surprise which takes some coming to terms with. We take you back to basics, and reintroduce you to the essential excitement of living things.

All topics in the first year of the course are compulsory, to provide you with a broad and solid background for further specialised study. The first year lecture courses include “Cells & Genes”, “Ecology”, “Organisms” and “Quantitative Methods”. Alongside the lectures, there are compulsory practical classes that focus on providing the practical skills relevant to modern biology. Additional to this, you will attend a week long field course in Wales in the summer term.

In the second year the depth of material covered increases in preparation for the third year. Here you will be able to specialise, pursuing the latest research, both pure and applied, in those subjects that interest you most.

The final year the course broadens into a choice of around 20 options (including two overseas field courses). 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.

There are examinations in each year of the course. At the end of the first hear, are ‘Prelims’ which comprise an examination paper in each of the first year courses and wish must be passed to continue the degree, although these do not contribute to the final degree classification. The second year exams, taken just after Easter, contain three papers (Evolution, Quantative Methods, and an Essay Paper) each of which is 10% of the finals marks. There are three elements of assessed student-chosen course work: a project (15% of finals assessment) and an essay and presentation (each contributing 7.5% of the final assessment. In the final term of the course four papers are sat (General Paper, Short Essay Paper, Long Essay Paper and Data Handling), each worth 10% of the final degree. This varied assessment is a major strength of the course.

More details on this course are to be found at:


The Biochemistry degree course is designed and administered by the Biochemistry Department situated in the multi award-winning New Biochemistry building, opened in 2008 ( The unique selling point of Oxford Biochemistry is that it is a 4 year integrated Masters course, leading to the advanced MBiochem degree. As academic competition intensifies, many graduates feel that a Masters degree affords enhanced opportunities, and this course is a unique way of achieving this “in one go”. The fourth “masters” year is spent doing a research project as a full-time member of one of the many research groups either situated within, or affiliated to, the Biochemistry Department. This period provides real-world training and experience – another essential component of today’s graduate’s portfolio.

In their first year, Biochemists study five different subject areas. The most important of these is molecular cell biology (MCB), which provides a firm foundation for much of the rest of the course. This course is studied in a combination of lectures and practical classes organized departmentally, complemented by tutorials (usually weekly) in college. Tutorials offer an opportunity to discuss particular topics in greater detail and are usually based on an essay that the student prepares in advance. Biochemistry tutorials at Hertford are informal and, hopefully, fun, as we all share in the educational journey together. Progress in molecular and cell biology, however, is not possible without some knowledge of the chemistry and physics governing molecular behaviour. Thus, you also study biological chemistry, biophysical chemistry, organic chemistry and maths. The idea of these 4 courses is to act as foundation courses, bringing everyone up to the same level (as we do not insist on A levels in maths or physics), and acting as springboards for the development of biological concepts in years 2 and 3. Biological chemistry, biophysical chemistry and maths are taught in a combination of lectures and classes (small group problem-solving sessions), whereas organic chemistry is taught in the more traditional combination of lectures, practicals and tutorials. The first year culminates in the preliminary examinations (5 papers – one for each course studied), which you need to pass in order to proceed into the second year.

The second and third years of the course are designed to prepare you for Part I examinations at the end of year 3. All students study 4 core papers: structure and function of macromolecules (paper 1), energetics and metabolic processes (paper 2), genetics and molecular biology (paper 3), cell biology and the integration of function (paper 4). All of these courses are taught in lectures, practical classes and tutorials. There are no examinations in the second year (hurray!) but the third year culminates in six written papers – papers 1-4 plus paper 5 (the general paper, giving you the opportunity to integrate the knowledge they have gained from the 4 core papers) and paper 6 (data analysis and interpretation). This paper is not essay based like the others, but instead consists of problems based on biochemical data, giving you the chance to show-off the analytical skills you will have gained in practical classes and data handling sessions.

The fourth year of the course, Part II, as mentioned above, is very different. This year consists of an approximately 5-month full-time research project. You have a free choice of over 100 possible research projects available in the department, or in neighbouring departments and research institutes (such as the Dunn School of Biology, Zoology, or the Weatherall Institute for Molecular Medicine, the WIMM, or even one of the more clinical departments, situated at the John Radcliffe Hospital, the JR). You can even apply to do your research project at a partner European university under the ERASMUS scheme, or at Princeton in the USA! At the end of the project you write a short dissertation, or thesis, and give a short presentation of your work, both of which are examined and contribute nearly 25% of the your final degree mark. The last few weeks of the course are spent studying two advanced options, which you chose from a menu of about six. These advanced options allow you to study material that you have come to find the most interesting, and the options are taught in lectures, seminar classes and other small-group interactive sessions, examined at the end in the Part II option papers. Your overall degree class will be determined by your performance in both Part I and Part II.

Thus the overall philosophy of the Biochemistry course is to start with core foundations, with everyone acquiring similar knowledge and skills in Part I – those that we (as a faculty) consider to be the most important in order to develop both depth and breadth as a scientist. Part II is then for you to decide about – you are now in the driving seat of your scientific education and you will have the skills required to make good, individual decisions, supported by us in strong and productive partnership.

Further information on the course can be found at

Human Sciences

The degree is designed by the Institute of Human Sciences (which is administered through the School of Anthropology). All students, regardless of college, do the same core lecture and practical courses, and exams. Students at any college can also do any of the optional courses offered on the degree. The colleges all draw from a common pool of tutors for their tutorial teaching, and tutorials are mostly organised by your College's Director of Studies in Human Sciences - at Hertford this is Mr Clive Hambler.

For detailed information on the Institute of Human Sciences, and the course structure and content, your can go to the Institute's website:

Your college tutors will give you tutorials in their specialist area, but will spend a lot of effort to find you the best tutors for tutorials in other topics from amongst their many colleagues in other subjects. They can draw from a very large pool of teachers spread across the University and colleges - and indeed they also teach many students from other colleges. Your tutors guide you in study and essay technique, in exam preparation, and are your general academic mentors. College tutors are able to provide you with detailed references on your progress to help when you apply for jobs, further research or study.

Tutorials are given where the individual tutor finds most convenient - sometimes a college, sometimes a Department. Most of your tutorials will not be in Hertford: we only teach the subjects we do research in (such as ecology, conservation and genetics). You also get feedback from your Director of Studies on practise exams ('collections') in a wide range of subject, supplemented if required by marks and feedback from specialist tutors elsewhere. Three tutors in Hertford are likely to be involved in your admissions and tutorials: Clive Hambler, Martin Maiden and Alison Woollard.