Earth Sciences (Geology)

Matthew Brady

I have always been interested in the physical sciences and I love being in the outdoors, Earth Sciences offered me the chance to combine these two things into a degree! For me, the most enjoyable aspect of the course the the diversity of the subject areas covered. In first year in particular, there are lecture courses on such a variety of topics from the structure and geology of the solar system’s planets, to oceanography, and we even had a course in cell biology.

The best memories of studying has to be the two field trips a year! Although they are intensive weeks away, they are fantastic fun, with my biggest highlight being climbing Goat Fell of the Isle of Arran in glorious sunshine even though I got a little sunburnt (completely unheard of on the trips to Scotland!).

Matthew, St Peter's, 4th year

The combination of the sciences and nature, along with the possibility of travelling led me comfortably into the subject of Earth Sciences. In all honesty, my passion is not for rocks. This could make studying geology difficult but, apart from the incessant pun-based jokes, this hasn’t been my experience. I’ve really enjoyed the breadth of the subject and have been able to appreciate the intricacies of physical oceanography when caged in by mineral structure, or the physics of earthquakes when buried in sedimentology.

If field trips are the Earth Scientists’ precious gems, then the independent mapping project must be the crown jewel – six weeks, in a location entirely of your choice, exploring the local rocks (and cuisine) with friends. However, if you get lured to Scotland for the geology, prepare for midges, rain and a great deal of whisky (a necessary amenity).

Jon, Worcester, student from 2011

In first year you’re not expected to know anything specific about geology or the wider earth sciences. This means that the units you take are designed to get you up to speed on everything you’ll need throughout your degree! The course has an incredibly large basis in mathematics, so in your first year, a lot of your time will be spent honing your mathematical skills, and then applying them to the Earth in a variety of ways! There are also much more qualitative areas of study, including looking at fossils and paleobiology, learning about crystals and minerals, and the evolution of the planets in the solar system. We are also fairly unique in Oxford as there are lots of field trips in the UK and further afield. This means that you get to know everyone on the course, and your professors, really well. Some of my best friends are from the department!

In the first year, the course is quite intense with around 11 hours of lectures per week, with 7 hours of labs on top off this. The labs are varied and wide-ranging. They can include looking at geological maps, looking down a microscope at rocks, and fossil examination and sketching. You will have one maths tutorial a week (based on problem sheet work), and one more set by your tutor on something they feel is applicable to the course.

What makes Oxford different?

Oxford is different as we study Earth Sciences (as opposed to Geology, Geophysics or Physical Geography) whilst still being accredited by the Geological Society. This means that you study a much broader range of topics (including Oceanography, Climate Science, and Evolutionary Biology) whilst still being able to follow a career in geology or geophysics, if you choose to, when you graduate.

What helped inspire your love of the subject?

Matthew Brady

I listen to a podcast called Frontiers, produced by BBC Radio 4, and one episode in 2012 really inspired me to study Earth Science over geology. It was entitled Anthropocene, and outlined how some scientists had started to define a new geological time period based on the actions of humans on the planet.

There are lots of good popular science books which give a good introduction to the Earth Sciences which I’d read before I came to Oxford. Of particular note is called T. Rex and the Crater of Doom by Walter Alvarez. Also good, are Supercontinent by Ted Nield and The Goldilocks Planet: The 4 billion year story of Earth's climate by Jan Zalasiewicz and Mark Williams.

Matthew, St Peter's, 4th year

How to Build a Habitable Planet (Broecker & Langmuir): probably the most comprehensive book on the subject you can get that's accessible to secondary school pupils. It's a tough read but it covers almost all aspects of the Earth Sciences in a great amount of detail and as someone who hadn't formally studied the subject before, I thought it was a really good introduction and overview of the subject.

The Two Mile Time Machine (Alley): Probably the most influential book for me when deciding to study Earth Sciences. In the area of Climate Change, most people are only really aware about the last century when humans got seriously involved but The Two Mile Time Machine introduces you to the bigger picture of paleoclimatology and shows just how extraordinarily dynamic, volatile and complex the climate is capable of being. I can't recommend this enough!

The Goldilocks Planet (Zalasiewicz): A great summary of how the earth's environment has changed since its formation 4.5 billion years ago, and how the conditions required for life have been maintained in a careful equilibrium. This is more accessible than How To Build a Habitable Planet.

Grantham Institute (Imperial College London) seminars and lectures: Imperial's Grantham Institute hosts regular seminars and lectures that anybody can attend for free and all of the events that I have attended have been great. Most of them are Climate Change focused. Details are on their website, along with recordings of lectures.

Geological Society of London lectures: The Geological Society hosts one (free) public lecture per month. They're also generally quite good. Details are on their website but you need to book a few weeks in advance. Videos of past lectures are available online.

New Scientist: This isn't Earth Sciences specific but I think it's important and useful to know what's currently happening in science. There are other ways of staying in the know but New Scientist presents the news very well.

2nd year St Anne's student

Tell us about your interview?

The best advice I could give anybody facing an Earth Sciences interview is to keep engaging your passion for, and interest in the subject. If it’s clear that the enthusiasm you’ve tried to communicate in your personal statement is genuine, you’ve immediately got a big advantage in your interview. Of course they’re looking for academically capable students but they’re also looking for people who genuinely love their subject. It is definitely worth practising discussing scientific issues with others because that’s essentially what you’re going to be expected to do in your interview. Knowing lots of stuff isn’t particularly useful if you can’t articulate your thoughts in an interview environment but this is something you can improve by maintaining an active interest in science and talking about science with other people.

In both of my interviews, I was asked why I wanted to study Earth Sciences and was given the opportunity to talk about the areas that particularly interested me, such as the topic I had covered in my EPQ. In my first interview, I was asked to expand on certain topics that I had mentioned in my personal statement and was asked questions that I didn't necessarily immediately know the answer to, but I got there eventually through a dialogue with the interviewers. I was then asked questions on a variety of totally different, unfamiliar topics, not spending more than a few minutes on each, so I’m guessing they were trying to see how I could cope with lots of unfamiliar material rather than going into a lot of depth in a single topic. The second interview was more in-depth, I was asked a variety of mathematical and physical questions on the topic of fracking, using a geological sample as a starting point.

I want to stress that you do not have to be an expert in geology! I have never studied the subject in school and honestly knew very little about rocks and minerals at the time of the interview, but this isn’t a problem. They’re not expecting you to say “Aha, that’s rock X”, instead I think they’re looking for detailed, thoughtful and precise observations. If they want you to go further, they will guide you, as the tutors did in both of my interviews. To reiterate, they’re not going to expect you to know anything beyond what you should know from your school work and from what you’ve declared in your personal statement. You will definitely be asked questions on unfamiliar topics but that’s because they’re trying to see how well you can adapt what you already know to new situations.

2nd year St Anne's student

Applicants that might be offered a place are invited for interview in December.

Find out more

Course length: 3 or 4 years (you choose)
Students per year: 30
Typical weekly contact time in first year: 11 hours lectures, 7 hours labs, 2 tutorials

Make sure you read the official prospectus entry for the course which contains entry requirements, full course structure, additional interesting resources and full details of the application process.

If you're going to apply, you'll want to check which Oxford colleges offer this course.

You might also find it helpful to hear from students studying Biology, Chemistry, Geography, Human Sciences, Materials or Physics (or even consider applying for those courses!).