Studying Philosophy at Hertford College

If you are considering applying for a Philosophy-related undergraduate degree at Hertford College, Oxford, then this is the place for you! My name is Peter Millican, and I am Gilbert Ryle Fellow and Professor of Philosophy here. You can find out more about me and my research elsewhere on this website, and also about Dr Paula Boddington, who is College Lecturer in Philosophy. All students and applicants are encouraged to call us just “Peter” and “Paula”, so there’s no need to worry about stuffy protocol!

Degree Programmes

Hertford College welcomes applications in the following degree programmes involving Philosophy:

  • PPE (Philosophy, Politics, and Economics) – 8 places per year
  • Computer Science and Philosophy – 4 places per year
  • Mathematics and Philosophy – up to 2 per year
  • PML (Philosophy and Modern Languages) – up to 2 per year
  • Physics and Philosophy – up to 2 per year

In the last three of these, applicants for the joint degree are effectively in competition for places with the relevant “single subject” degree (e.g. PML applicants are in competition for Modern Languages places). This is the typical situation at all Oxford colleges for most joint Philosophy degrees (excluding PPE), and Hertford is unique in having a quota of 4 places for Computer Science and Philosophy, since we are specialising in the joint degree and do not accept applications for Computer Science.

Note that we do not accept applications in Philosophy and Theology, nor – at least for the present – in the new degree programme of PPL (Psychology, Philosophy and Linguistics), though we have students who entered in its predecessor, Psychology and Philosophy.

Lectures and Tutorials

Most teaching in Philosophy at Oxford takes the form of lectures (which are organised centrally by the Philosophy Faculty) or tutorials (which are organised within the College, but often involve specialist tutors from other colleges). The tutorials are designed to fit with the lectures, but their scheduling may depend on your choice of courses (so you might study a course through lectures in one term and tutorials the next). In the first year these are more closely coordinated, and indeed in the very first term, both your Philosophy tutorials and many of your lectures will be with me, since I give the University lectures for the core course in General Philosophy (older versions of which can be found on iTunesU and YouTube

                Lectures provide a general understanding of an area, and the chance to hear a personal perspective from someone who at Oxford is likely to be a world expert and author of books and research papers on the subject. Tutorials get you thinking for yourself at a much deeper level, in response to your own reading (for which recommendations are provided, though you are welcome to seek out more for yourself). Usually you will be expected to write an essay which is submitted in advance and then discussed – often together with another student’s work – at the tutorial (usually 1 or 1½ hours). Most tutorials are paired, and most students seem to prefer this, but I am always happy to give individual tutorials to students who want to work more intensively, or to explore in different directions. In practice, Hertford students who really get the Philosophy “bug” have tended to choose individual tutorials in their upper years, often leading to keen and extended discussions!

What Makes Oxford Special

When I came back to Oxford after more than 20 years elsewhere, what most attracted me was to teach bright students in a context where I could get to know them as individuals, and see them develop over the three or four years of their course. At most top British universities, this is impossible: decades of financial cuts to teaching, and strong incentives to focus on research, mean that senior academics do little undergraduate teaching, while “tutorials” can involve a dozen students or more, with little chance to have their own ideas heard (let alone discussed). Oxford provides a completely different experience, more enjoyable and also far more effective, because you will develop much better philosophically from the opportunity to think up your own ideas (rather than just learning about other people’s) and to have them explored and discussed in depth in the company of highly experienced teachers and researchers.

                The workload at Oxford is demanding, both for students and tutors. You will typically be expected to do the equivalent of 36 essays over the year (three every two weeks of term), and the tutorials will give you swift individual feedback on every one of them. This is far more work, and vastly more feedback, than you would get at almost any other university. So if you love learning and thinking, then Oxford is a wonderful place to be. Oxford is also very unusual (perhaps unique) in the extent to which teaching is done by senior academics: most Philosophy tutorials are given by established Faculty members, within what is generally reckoned to be one of the two strongest Philosophy Faculties in the entire world (the other being New York University, which however is much smaller). A small proportion of your teaching may done by Philosophy postgraduate students, but these are all extremely good – likely professors of the future – and are allowed to take on undergraduate tutoring only after they are well on the way to achieving their doctorate.

The Hertford College Experience

Being at Hertford combines a friendly and relaxed environment (for which the College is well known) with all the opportunities of Oxford University. Here you will quickly get to know most of the other students in your year through our Fresher’s events, but also, you will soon meet those studying Philosophy in the upper years (and as postgraduates) through the Hertford College Philosophical Society. This provides excellent dinners, typically once a term, with a speaker afterwards and intense discussion that can extend well beyond midnight with the wine still flowing!  Once a year, we also extend an invitation to old members (particularly popular with recent graduates), giving a great opportunity for you to tell them about what’s happening in the College, and in return to get useful career tips. Also once a year, just before the summer term starts, we have a Philosophical Society Retreat in the Cotswolds, staying out in the lovely countryside near Stow-in-the-Wold for three nights, walking, chatting, discussing and playing lots of games. Again, the size of the Hertford Philosophy community – around 30 undergraduates, plus a few more senior members – makes it easy to get to know everyone, across all degree programmes and years, and forms a very friendly and mutually supportive group.

Studying Philosophy at Hertford is a more personal experience than in colleges that have a large number of Fellows and Lecturers (and correspondingly more students). But you still have plenty access to tutors in other colleges, through “swaps” between colleges which ensure that you are taught by experts on every single course. Most of the first year Philosophy teaching is done within College, by Paula Boddington and me, except that those studying Mathematics/Philosophy or Physics/Philosophy will have some specialist teaching outside. Once you get to the second year, however, it’s quite likely that most of your courses will be taught by tutors in other colleges, and you are encouraged to express your own preferences (if, for example, you find a set of lectures particularly inspiring, we can try to arrange for you to be tutored by that lecturer).

High-Performing Students

No student admitted to Hertford College in a Philosophy-related degree, over at least the last ten years, has yet graduated with less than Upper-Second Class Honours, and a good number have achieved First Class Honours. Moreover over the last three years, three Hertford Philosophy students have won “Gibbs Prizes” for the best performance across the entire University, two in Philosophy (within PPE and Psychology/Philosophy) and one in Politics (within PPE). All three of these students have gone on to elite postgraduate courses at Oxford, and indeed it has been a particular pleasure for me to supervise some of the graduate study of the two philosophers, both of whom chose to continue at Hertford College. As mentioned earlier, the most satisfying aspect of my work is getting to know students and helping them develop academically over the years, and it is delightful also to keep in touch with them after they have left and gone on to employment or further study. If you come to Hertford, you will be joining a privileged but very welcoming community, which I hope will continue to enrich your life – and give you the opportunity to enrich that of others – for many years to come.