What’s it like to apply for Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford?

Applying to Oxbridge can be intimidating and to some extent each course and college is different. Here, Scott, an Oxford University graduate, talks about applying for Philosophy, Politics and Economics from his state school. 

What made you want to study Philosophy, Politics and Economics? 

I was actually set on studying maths at university. I had self-studied A Level maths in Year 10 and Year 11 alongside my GCSEs and I had done very well. It was actually in the summer between Year 12 and Year 13 that, at the last minute, I changed my mind. 

The idea of studying maths made me a little nervous because it was an implicit commitment to a STEM based career. What I liked about PPE was the flexibility it would give me to pursue a whole range of post-graduate courses and careers. 

What were your three favourite subjects at school? 

In my first year at college I took further maths, physics and French, studying both AS and A2 further maths in one year (complicated, I know!). To that extent, the decision to switch to PPE was quite risky because at that point I was not studying an essay-based subject. 

It was the last week of school before the long summer break and I had a meeting with the school’s head of history. I convinced her to let me join her A2 class in September, and that I would self study the AS material of the summer holidays. That meant in my second year of college, I studied A2 history, French and physics. I also picked up an EPQ about a topic in philosophy that I found interesting. 

Of all the subjects in this strange combination of A Levels, my favourites were maths, history and French, in that order. At that point, maths was really my bread and butter, but in history I loved the freedom that came with writing essays. As long as you can argue convincingly, an essay can go in any direction you want. Often, I would intentionally go against the grain in my essays, and see it as a challenge to make unconventional arguments convincing. 

Were you following a family tradition in making your choice?

No, my parents left school at 16 and 17 respectively, and neither went to university. Instead, they both joined the Navy. When my mum left the Navy she enrolled in a part-time degree at the university in my hometown. 

Do you think there’s an ideal age for making a degree subject choice?

I am actually quite a fan of the US style of degree, where students spend the first year or two taking required subjects before settling into their majors towards the second half of their programme. 

As someone who has a broad range of academic interests, I found it hard to commit to any individual subject. PPE worked out well in the end because it kept as many doors as possible open in terms of future study and careers. In particular, given my maths background I specialised in mathematical economics and econometrics, and this training gives rise to the option of doing a masters in statistics, data science, machine learning, etc. 

However, because of the nature of the degree, I have also had hours and hours of practice essay writing, debating my ideas with tutors, and reading books on topics ranging from Descartes to Thatcherism and Marx. 

Apart from your A level curriculum, in what other ways did you acquire knowledge and understanding of PPE?

Because PPE is such a broad subject, almost every interesting sounding book can be justifiably read by a PPE applicant. 

As a result of my strange A Level combinations, in the summer before applying to Oxford I read as many books as possible in a bid to display my motivation for the subject. I read books about the rule of the law, about Saddam Hussein, capitalism, the Great Depression and many other weird and wonderful topics. 

What I soon realised at Oxford is that PPE is more about learning transferable skills than it is about learning some predefined syllabus or material. Namely, PPE is the best training you can receive in how to think critically. For three years you will read the opinions of academic experts in fields across P, P and E (and often you have these experts as your own tutors). You will be asked to critically evaluate their arguments and say what you think they get right, what you think they get wrong, and how we might improve, refine or add nuance to their position. 

In no other subject are students so empowered to think for themselves. All of the reading I did over that summer therefore started me on the path of critically thinking about what I am reading. 

PPE is offered by several universities in the UK and abroad. How did you decide which universities to apply for?

When it comes to PPE, Oxford’s course is entirely unique in so far as it has been around for years and years and it has a very strong reputation with employers and other universities. Most importantly, because Oxford does not offer P, P or E as single honours subjects, PPE students follow core sequences in each subject, covering the essential material that single honours students in those subjects would study at other universities. At many other universities, PPE students will study streamlined “Economics for PPE students” courses, whereas at Oxford students study a full course in each subject. If I had been unsuccessful in applying to Oxford, I would have likely taken a gap year and reapplied for single honours subjects at other universities. 

Was your main motivation in choosing PPE driven by the prospect of career prospects or not by employment considerations at all? 

Oxford PPE has a bit of a confusing reputation in the UK. On the one hand it is respected by employers and academia, but on the other it has become increasingly popular to undermine the subject by virtue of a few of its former students who have gone into politics in the UK. 

Ultimately, I think pursuing a certain subject in the hopes of it landing you a good job after graduating is in general a bad idea. Three years is a long time, and at Oxford you will spend hours and hours in the library, reading books and writing essays about your subject. If you do not pick that subject that you are truly fascinated by, prepare for a pretty miserable three years. 

What advice would you give someone before deciding whether to do a degree in PPE? 

Don’t study PPE just because of the prestige or allure of the degree itself. Try and familiarise yourself with the first year course content, and read some of the material you will encounter. Many students are surprised and struggle with the maths required for the first year economics sequence, and many students are surprised to spend the first term of philosophy studying logic. A few names of authors to look into for the first year are Mill, Lijphart, Rousseau, Descartes and Tilley. 

As I have to borrow tens of thousands of pounds to get my degree, would you say that choosing PPE is likely to help me repay the loans comfortably? 

As a domestic UK student I had a government loan which I pay nothing back for until I earn a certain amount of money. Once I pass that threshold, the loan operates as a slight increase in my income tax. Do not be put off by this, most students do not pay back their student loans in full. PPE opens doors to lots of high paid jobs in the City, but again, pursuing such jobs because of this is likely not going to end well. I speak from experience!

You have now graduated from Oxford University. What was your experience of studying PPE there? Did it meet your expectations?

Studying at Oxford was intense, rewarding and stressful all at the same time. Oxford itself is a pressure cooker of academia, nightlife and libraries. It is such a unique city and student experience. 

From what you’ve heard since going there, might another university have been better for you? If so, how might you have found out in advance?

For me no, because I benefited from being able to follow a rigorous economics sequence in my second and third year that would be equivalent to single honours economics degrees at Cambridge, LSE and elsewhere. 

What can you tell me about the kind of job that studying PPE might lead me to?

Lots of graduates go into both public and private sector work. On the public side, the Civil Service is common and they have a well-oiled graduate programme that lots of students apply to across the country. On the private side, many graduates work jobs in the City, from consulting to investment banking and law. Some students will complete a GDL and become barristers. Some students will do none of the above and stay in academia. It really is a mixed bag. 

Lots of people say that a bachelor’s degree isn’t enough these days, that to get a good job, you need to get a masters too. Do you agree?

No, I do not agree. In my experience, a masters degree can be a useful signal for students who have come from less well known courses and universities. As an Oxford graduate though, I am yet to feel the pressure to get a masters in order to be competitive in the job market. Of course, some jobs explicitly require the further training offered in a masters programme, but I find this to be rare. 

If you were to do a masters, does it have to be in the same subject as your bachelors?

Masters are a bit of a different breed when it comes to applications and offers. Typically universities will admit pretty much anyone who meets the prerequisites, but only the most competitive students will be successful in receiving funding. Of my friends who are self-funding a masters, I don’t think they faced much difficulty getting onto their courses. 

What are the opportunities for doing research in PPE? 

At Oxford you spend the second and third year studying the eight papers you will set at finals at the end of your degree. You can substitute one of these papers for a thesis, and this is advisable if you already know that you want to stay in academia. You will have to find a tutor who is familiar with the topic you want to write about. 

An MPhil is basically what Oxford and Cambridge call a masters, although they also specifically include a research based thesis. A plain Msc might not require a thesis. Some Oxford MPhils are two years, where the second year is more of a transition year towards a PhD. It can all be quite complicated.