My Honest Experience of Studying PPE at Oxford

The PPE degree at Oxford is highly prestigious, but it can be hard to separate the fact from the fiction when it comes to figuring out whether it’s the best course for you.

 

Sun rising over the Bodleian Library, near Radcliffe Square, Oxford city centre.

There is a lot of mythology surrounding the PPE course at the University of Oxford, making it hard to figure out whether it is the right degree for you (photo by Pajor Pawel/ Shutterstock.com)

Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE) at the University of Oxford is a course that has quite an odd reputation, surrounded as it is by a lot of mystique and hype. Some have called it “the degree that rules Britain.” Others think that studying PPE at Oxford is something that’s designed specifically for those who want to become Prime Minister. Many people assume that taking this course is a surefire gateway to working in an investment bank for the rest of your career.

There are plenty of myths and misunderstandings about PPE. For that reason, prospective students can find it quite difficult to understand exactly what they’re getting themselves into before turning up on campus in the October of their first year. 

In this article, I hope to give you my honest experience of studying PPE at Oxford. I’ll talk about what it is like to study this well-known course at a world-renowned institution. 

I’ll be as honest as I can about the challenges that I found when taking this degree, and I’ll also look at the aspects of the course which I enjoyed and found especially fulfilling. 

Hopefully, by sharing my experiences as an Oxford PPE student, I can help prospective applicants to figure out whether this particular course is the right one for you. 

“This Feels Right”: Trusting My Intuition

Before I dive into the ins and outs of the course itself, I’ll lay out a little background to explain why I chose to apply to PPE at Oxford in the first place. 

Let me start by saying that I had no intention initially of studying PPE, yet alone at Oxford. I went to a state school and always imagined myself going into Physics (I don’t think I could go more than 30 minutes without mentioning something that was cool within the field. Imagine that – someone who went to Oxford being nerdy!). 

However, I started to struggle with some of the concepts in my Physics course. At the same time, my interest in Politics and Economics (my other A-Levels) was developing the more I studied them. One of my teachers then said to me that I should look into doing PPE. I didn’t know what that subject was, but I did some research and, on reflection, I realised that this course might be perfect for me. 

Despite my initial intuition, I put that thought on hold and carried on assuming I was going to do Physics. However, another teacher at school mentioned that Oxford ran a summer school for disadvantaged students. I applied for the PPE programme and managed to get in. 

Truth be told, I was intimidated by the other students at that summer school. I also had food poisoning so was very sick for the majority of my time there. But during the parts that I could participate in, there was one resounding thought going through my head. 

“This feels right.”

Keep in mind, this was during the summer of year 12, so it was quite late in the game for me to change what I wanted to do and where I wanted to do it. Typically, you start preparing for Oxford far in advance, but I only made the solid decision that I wanted to go there in early August, a month or so before the interview stage. 

After a lengthy admissions process (which I am sure I will touch on in a future article), I conducted more in-depth research into what the course was like. 

However, if I’m being totally honest, a lot of the advice online is put forward by people who either:

  1. had been asked to speak about the subject in a university video, so they might have been biased, 
  2. had a YouTube channel, so they filled their days with way more things than the average student does because they want the views (their content is great though), 
  3. looked back on their time at Oxford with rose-tinted glasses. 

Studying PPE at Oxford University: My Personal Experience 

Here is what my experience studying PPE at Oxford was like.

A Degree of Separation

The first thing I want to make clear is this: the three subjects are separate. 

They intersect with each other in various ways that can be quite interesting. But there aren’t any tutors that teach across all three subjects. So, unfortunately for those people who might think that they get a completely integrated experience, this isn’t the case. The only thing that the departments tend to have in common is you, the undergraduate student. The departments don’t communicate that much between themselves. 

A Prime Degree for Future Heads of State 

The second thing I want to say is that I can understand why people say that this is the course for people who want to be the next Prime Minister. 

During my time at Oxford, I did meet people who were very invested in a future political career and quite a few of them were studying PPE. Some of the skills you learn and the way you learn them would definitely fit the bill for what a Prime Minister does. 

For instance, the course teaches you how to think critically, understand data, as well as how to construct and deconstruct arguments. 

However, this is just the beginning when it comes to PPE. If you are even remotely academically curious, then what you’ll end up valuing the most on this course is learning about new ways of looking at and understanding the world. 

Studying PPE at Oxford: Engaging With a Wide Variety of Content 

You’ll engage with a huge breadth of content in your first year at Oxford. The degree does look at the big questions. I will do a deep dive into specific subjects at a later date, but here are the key things to get across, subject by subject.

  • Economics 

The Economics part of the PPE degree at Oxford is far more Maths-orientated than you might initially think. 

I did Maths at A-Level, but it was never my strong suit. As we reached the end of second year, there was a significant spike in the difficulty of the Maths. 

Whilst we also wrote essays and they had a lot of weight grades-wise, professors placed a large emphasis on solving mathematical problems. 

Another aspect that people don’t realise about the Economics side of things is how traditional the course is. Whilst I loved Economics, there was a clear sentiment that the course was teaching us very classical theories. 

Some of the most interesting questions you might have about the subject are likely to not be answered. For example, I found that the teachers barely touched upon fascinating concepts like Behavioural and Environmental Economics.

If you want a more modern and innovative course, rather than a classically-leaning one,  you might finish the Economics section of the PPE course wanting a bit more. 

Having said all of this, I did enjoy the course a lot, despite its challenges. I loved the subject matter enough to pursue further study in the area after my undergraduate degree.

  • Politics 

My experience with studying Politics at Oxford was quite different from what I initially thought it would be. Like a lot of people, I thought that studying Politics was all about learning how to develop arguments about the way that the world should work. 

As I soon found out, this was only partly true. 

If your image of studying Politics at Oxford is that of sitting down with a professor and another student and debating how we should understand how concepts like freedom of speech should work, then the reality will surprise you a bit.

It is true that you can take Political Philosophy modules that look at things such as freedom of speech, communism, and social equality, the vast majority of the Politics units are driven by either the historical method or data analysis. 

You will spend considerable time reading papers and journal articles that look at empirical evidence. For example, I was given several research papers by my professors and asked to determine what factors triggered certain voter patterns.  

There is even a mandatory Politics unit that has you analysing data (by learning to code) in order to answer a question. Overall, I enjoyed studying Politics greatly: however, at times I found the data and evidence-style line of questioning a bit dull. 

  • Philosophy 

Philosophy was the dark horse of the PPE course for me. I had no clue what to expect going in, as I had never done this subject before. I found the subject extremely challenging, for a number of reasons.  

A lot of people have a misconception about Philosophy. They think you can just say whatever you want, and you spend your days sitting there thinking about nonsensical things. 

This could not be further from the truth. 

The subject is very technically demanding, it can be very abstract, and you have to learn to write in a completely different way. Entire arguments can hinge around certain words you choose to use or not to use.

In fact, some theories are so abstract that you will have to spend quite a while wrapping your head around them. The course is very rigorous, and you’ll have to undertake a mandatory formal logic course. 

However, I also feel like this was the course in which I developed skills the quickest. If I look back at my essays in the first year compared to the last year, the progress in quality of writing is particularly marked. 

My ability to think critically, grapple with abstract theories, solve problems and evaluate arguments is significantly better now when compared to my first year of studying PPE.

So, long story short, don’t sleep on Philosophy!

What’s the PPE Workload Like? 

OXFORD - JULY 11th, 2014: Oxford graduates walk past Hertford College, Oxford city centre

OXFORD – JULY 11th, 2014: recent Oxford graduates walk under the Bridge of Sighs after their Trinity term exams (photo by iLongLoveKing/ Shutterstock.com)

The workload of PPE can vary quite a lot depending on some of the module choices you make. However, in general, it probably won’t shock you to find out that the workload for this course is VERY high. 

Here’s a quick breakdown of what you’d be expected to do for PPE in a typical week: 

  • Normally, you’ll need to write two essays a week (each about 2000 words long) or one essay and then an economics problem sheet (which normally has a mini essay at the end anyway). 
  • Keep in mind you have to do a lot of reading or textbook note taking to complete these tasks, so you are looking at tens of hours of academic work per week.

This level of intellectual intensity might well inspire academically curious minds, but it can have some negative ramifications. 

There is not a moment in time where you don’t have something else that you need to be doing, and being mentally overstretched like this might lead to you feeling a bit guilty or burnt-out. 

One of the best ways to stave this feeling off is by picking topics and subjects that interest you when it comes to your PPE module choices. 

Try to figure out what you like and focus on picking modules related to that. Of course, there are going to be times where you are going to have to grit your teeth and just work through it. 

You are learning a new topic every single week, so you are going to have to be quite a fast learner. If you like having a deep dive, and taking your time, then this might not be the course for you. 

If you aren’t interested in the subject but think you could tolerate the course enough for a few years, make sure that you really can do this! I loved all three subjects, but there were moments where I wanted to tear my hair out. I don’t know how doable the degree would be if you didn’t find any of the component subjects remotely interesting. 

What About the Subject Choices? 

In terms of subject choices, you have an enormous amount of options to choose between in second and third year. 

Everyone does all three subjects in the first year, and you have no choices in modules. You sit exams at the end of first year called Prelims. These exams don’t contribute to your final grade. 

In second year, you can drop one of the subjects if you want, but you can also choose to keep all three. 

One common myth is that keeping all three subjects means you’ll have to do more work over the course of second and third year. This is simply not true: in reality you just spend less time on each individual subject. 

You’ll need to pick eight modules for your final year exams, and these final eight exams will determine your degree’s final grade. 

There are a few modules that don’t have exams, but for these you’ll likely have to  write a thesis or dissertation instead.

Even if you drop a subject, you’ll still have a lot of choice when it comes to these options: each of the three departments offers a wide range of modules. You’ll need to pick a minimum number of core modules, but you should have quite a few spare modules to allocate to more niche academic areas. 

If you keep all three subjects, you’ll have less free choice. This is because you still have some limited core units to pick from and then you are left with roughly two spare modules. 

After first year you should have some sense of what you like and what you don’t. I ended up keeping all three subjects because I found them interesting, but this meant I couldn’t pick modules I would have loved to have studied. However, I enjoyed the core modules I picked, so I was very happy with the overall experience.

Studying PPE at Oxford: What’s the Tutorial System Like? 

The tutorial system was also great if initially scary. I was lucky enough to have great tutors who were clearly invested not only in their subjects, but also in my personal progress. 

As such, I found it invaluable to have these academics marking my work weekly. Every week, we’d all have an extended discussion where we talked about what I had learnt that week, with them explaining or clarifying things that I was confused about. 

I was intimidated at first by the tutorial system because these people are academics at the best university in the world. You need to know your stuff before you walk in! 

These tutors are never harsh or rude to you, but they do expect you to give it your all. If you are going to try to waffle or make a theoretical argument up, they will know. 

Chances are they have been studying the subject for longer than you have been alive. If you don’t prepare the work in advance and let them know, then you might not be invited to have a tutorial with them that week. 

However, tutors tend to be quite accommodating: whenever I have asked for an extension, they have given it to me without question. 

Does an Oxford PPE Student Have a Social Life?

OXFORD - JUNE, 19th, 2013: University of Oxford students on the grass outside Balliol College in mid-June.

OXFORD – JUNE, 19th, 2013: students make the most of the summer sun outside Balliol College, near the city centre (photo by Andrei Nekrassov/ Shutterstock.com)

When it comes to studying PPE at Oxford, you might think that you wouldn’t have the opportunity to go out or do much outside of academia. 

In reality, there were actually many opportunities to go out. Full disclosure: I did go to a college that was known for going out quite a lot, so I am sure that played a part in it!

So long as you plan ahead, you’ll have time to socialise. Before Covid happened, I would go out clubbing or to a pub around twice a week. 

This doesn’t include going out for lunch with people, casual chats in college or hanging out with people in their rooms. 

However, you do have to make sacrifices. There will be times where you will have to stay in whilst others go out, or there will be times where you are so exhausted you won’t want to go out. 

You will have to be consistently making trade-offs between work, societies, and a social life, but it can be done. There is a recurring joke at Oxford about dealing with an inconsistent triad, and I think there’s a certain amount of truth to it. 

At all times at Oxford, you can commit to two of the following three components: 

  1. A consistently thorough and high-quality work output, 
  2. A vibrant social life, or
  3. A healthy and sustainable sleep schedule.

In my experience, it was almost impossible to commit to all three at the same time. 

The two components which you will commit to at any one time will depend on the circumstances: for instance, you might well have to forgo socialising opportunities in the lead up to your exams, or when you’ve got a particularly important essay due that week. 

I only knew one person who was able to master the art of committing to all three components and she had to basically work like a machine and be ruthlessly efficient when she was doing her work. 

Final Thoughts: Is PPE at Oxford the Right Fit for You? 

This has just been a glimpse into what PPE is like at Oxford. I hope it has been useful! 

As mentioned before, I will go into more detail about certain aspects of the course and university life in later articles. 

Overall, I loved my time there and would recommend it if none of the things above would be issues for you. 

At the end of the day, you have to decide for yourself whether this course would be the right fit for you. 

Take some time to consider what it is you’re looking for from a Philosophy, Politics and Economics degree: if you’re markedly more interested in one of the subjects more than the others, you may want to look at single track degrees that specialise in that subject. 

If you want more in-depth insights into the university admissions process, from choosing the right course for you to developing your UCAS profile and writing a stellar personal statement, get in touch with our team at A&J Education to book a free consultation today.