Tips on Applying: Spotlight on Oxford

Application and admission season is upon us. This next spotlight comes from Daniel O. McClellan, a master’s student at Oxford. Enjoy.

Would you recommend Oxford to other LDSs? If so, what advice would you give them in applying to a program there?

I would definitely recommend Oxford to other Latter-day Saints. It’s a great experience, the city is wonderful, and the education is world-class. There are only a handful of LDS students here at any given time, but the ward is diverse and a lot of fun. The weather can be pretty drab, but we have almost six weeks off for Christmas and another five for Easter. The professors are all incredibly nice and most ask you to call them by their first names. The traditions are pretty exciting, and the history is incredible. The Ashmolean Museum just reopened after almost 40 million pounds worth of renovations.

For those interested in applying, I would say getting in touch with the faculty you’d like to work with is a huge priority. I spoke with Martin Goodman, who runs the Jewish Studies unit, before applying. Everyone else in the program spoke with someone on the faculty, and currently a couple students are discussing PhD (DPhil at Oxford) options with professors. Many who do the masters program stay for the DPhil, and if you have a topic and an adviser lined up, it’s quite easy to go straight in.

What is the funding situation?

Funding for American students has gone down considerably in the last few years. Five years ago you were automatically given a full ride upon acceptance. Two years ago half of tuition was covered. This year 1/8 is the standards scholarship. For UK students there are many more scholarships available.

What is the intellectual environment like?

The professors here at Oxford are, for the most part, among the most highly respected scholars in the world. There are seminars and lectures throughout the terms from local and visiting scholars that generally represent the most authoritative voices in the field. The lectures generally include refreshments before or afterward that allow plenty of opportunities to speak personally with the scholars. Masters programs and DPhil programs each require dissertations of 10-15,000 words and around 100,000 words, respectively. These dissertations are supervised by an adviser that the student chooses during the first term. This is a good opportunity to work closely with a scholar that you like.

Are there other strengths or challenges you’d like to mention (college location, spirituality, future job prospects, etc.)?

For the Jewish Studies degree the program is located at Yarnton Manor, about 4 miles northwest of Oxford. Accomodations, irrespective of the individual college assignments, are provided at the manor. This is nice because it’s a quite and beautiful estate in the country, but it’s quite annoying to get around since most don’t bother buying a car. There’s a shuttle that runs several times a day, and on shopping trips twice a week, but the times can be quite inconvenient. The accommodations for married students are much bigger than for single students (single rooms with shared bathrooms), but it’s still pretty small.

The Bodleian is one of the biggest libraries in the UK and students will pretty much have to use it for their classes. It’s tricky because you don’t check books out. You request books and go read them there in the library. It can get aggravating, but they are a copyright library and so have (or are supposed to have) a copy of every book published in the UK. Each college then has its own library and there are libraries connected with different departments across campus. There are over 100 in Oxford.

Being a Latter-day Saint here is not incredibly difficult (well, for me as a married student, anyway). Most people are Church of England or Jewish (especially in my program), and very few are antagonistic toward any faiths. Every event sponsored by the University, the individual colleges, or the Centre (for Hebrew and Jewish Studies) will serve wine, but they also have orange juice and apple juice (it’s the same university-wide). Going to pubs is a popular activity, but no one has ever gotten on my case about not drinking, and it’s often an interesting conversation piece, since they don’t know much about Mormons.

  • smallaxe

    Daniel,

    The challenges you mention are, for the most part, occasions for some social differences to arise. Would you say that there have been any intellectual/spiritual challenges? Is there anything in your classes that you feel has been particularly difficult for a person of faith to accept?

  • http://www.bycommonconsent.com Ronan

    The intellectual environment at Oxford, and the circle of Mormon friends I had there in 2000-2, count as one of the best things ever to have happened to me. Those were days never to be forgotten. The ward there is fab.

  • http://abev.wordpress.com john f.

    I was happy to see this post because I would encourage any Latter-day Saint student to consider Oxford as an option. Both my brother and I loved our experiences there. The ward really is wonderful although I believe there are fewer LDS students there than when I attended a decade ago.

    As to this: Funding for American students has gone down considerably in the last few years. Five years ago you were automatically given a full ride upon acceptance. Two years ago half of tuition was covered. This year 1/8 is the standards scholarship. For UK students there are many more scholarships available.

    I do not think this is correct. This might refer to the situation in Daniel’s Jewish Studies program out at Yarnton. My sense a decade ago was that there was very little funding for American students in most faculties outside of the core scholarships (e.g. Rhodes, Marshall etc.). Aside from small scholarships here and there available through the faculty or through your own specific college (I’m talking about £150 here or £300 there), you’ll be on the line for the full tuition with limited or no recourse to public funds in respect of such fees. If I remember correctly it was in the ballpark of £8,500/year a decade ago (that is just tuition, not including other fees and housing and living) — so still a substantial savings on an American Ivy League, with the exception of living costs (but you can get good subsidized accommodation through your college if you pick the right college).

    There at least two significant disadvantages that any US student with academic goals in the United States should be aware of when considering Oxford. First, graduate work at Oxford for UK students comes as the culmination of a somewhat different educational process. As such, you are not really involved in coursework for the first part of your work as in US graduate programs. You are immersed in the Oxford “tutorial” system — of course you have certain “courses” that you need to or are recommended to attend in conjunction with the essays that you need to write for your supervisor, but you do not necessarily come away with a grade in individual courses. The system is more lecture based and aside from a handful of “courses” and seminars you need to take as degree requirements, you simply go to all the lectures and courses that you want to attend that you think will enrich your research. For the independent minded, this is wonderful. I genuinely loved the tutorial system and made liberal use of the open lecture format — I found they helped me focus my research independently and write stronger essays for my supervisor’s evaluation. However, the downside of this, which is a significant downside for American students with future academic ambitions in the US, is that there is no “transcript” to speak of, at least in the way that American universities are used to seeing them, once you are finished with your Oxford experience. This could be detrimental because as you begin applying for faculty positions at US universities upon completion of your DPhil, you don’t have a piece of paper summarizing the courses you took and how well you did in them. You can compensate for this in other ways but you should be mindful that it is an issue in advance if you are studying at Oxford.

    A second related downside for the US student also stems from graduate work at Oxford being a culmination of a different educational system and the resulting lack of coursework in the same sense as at a US university. The DPhil is a research degree — you are expected to have done your coursework as an undergrad, i.e. someone who has done their undergraduate degree at Oxford in some senses has already completed what would normally be the first year or two of “coursework” associated with a PhD track at an American university. This is because the undergraduates have come to Oxford upon completion of their A-levels, which are roughly equivalent in terms of rigorousness of approach and result of the first year or two of university in the United States. So the undergraduate work, in theory, is beginning at a higher level and by the time undergraduates have completed their degrees, they are expected to be conversant in their fields of study so that, if they choose to pursue a DPhil, they come in at a higher level. This is a major generalization, however, and often students will do an MPhil to transition if they are expanding somewhat into a different field, but even the MPhil is considered a research degree rather than coursework.

    I would not let that deter anyone from applying to Oxford and living the experience of studying at such an amazing center for learning. It’s just something to be aware of as one goes through the process. As mentioned in the post here, the libraries are great, as are the various colleges. I spent most of my time in the Taylorian Institution Library, which is the library of the Faculty of Medieval and Modern Languages, and often think back fondly on those long days of research and writing.

  • http://juvenileinstructor.org Ben

    Thanks, Daniel, for the post. While I ended up at the University of Edinburgh, Oxford was on my final list of choices this last year.

    I also echo John F’s caution about graduate work out here in the UK, especially if one plans to eventually teach in the states. One can definitely get an American faculty position after obtaining a degree from a UK institution, but a lot of that will ride on your own. The PhD or DPhill’s programs are often 3-4 years (with a strong emphasis on 3), as opposed to the 5-6 most US programs have due to coursework. In my own individual case and circumstances, I decided the best decision for me is to return to a stateside PhD program after this year abroad, even if it ends up being a less-renowned school than Edinburgh. But, it is definitely more of a individualistic situation, as the circumstances will literally differ from student to student and program to program; this type of decision, more than many others, is based more personal preference and need.

    Oh, and funding. It sucks. Up here, I bet one in 15 has a scholarship from the school, and that scholarship probably covers 1/10 of tuition.

  • http://abev.wordpress.com john f.

    Ben, what are you studying?

  • http://juvenileinstructor.org Ben

    Historical theology. Hence the appeal of Edinburgh. Not only the access to unrivaled Enlightenment sources, but they have a “Theology in History” programme.

  • http://www.bycommonconsent.com Ronan

    I did my PhD in the US after Oxford because I wanted a broader education in Near Eastern Studies than my MPhil in Assyriology was allowing, so I concur with the limitations raised about the British system. Having said that, Oxford is Oxford, and just having that on my CV has opened doors and been a real gift for me on both sides of the Atlantic.

    I repeat, Oxford is Oxford.

  • http://abev.wordpress.com john f.

    Agreed Ronan, and it is simply a wonderful experience as well.

  • oudenos

    john f.’s and ben’s comments made me curious about whether there are Oxford trained professors (with DPhils not BAs or MAs) at my current institution. I did a rough survey of professors in Near Eastern Studies, Classics, and Relig./Divinity and out of about 115 professors currently listed (most active, a few emeritus), 2 took their doctorates from Oxford. I have no metric to judge whether this is high, low, or average for an American research university. Most of the the professors (no surprise) were trained at the big name American schools (Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Penn, Stanford, Chicago, Michigan), a handful at Toronto, a few at the big German universities, and then a scattering of other European schools. Two were trained and Cambridge while Edinburgh was not represented at all nor were any of the other Scottish schools.

    As I said, none of this means anything really, I was only interested to look at my own school after reading the comments. I would love to spend some time at Oxford, but I think that I would be a terrible student there since I need some of that American-style structure in my schooling.

  • http://juvenileinstructor.org Ben

    Oudenos: your stats don’t surprise me. Another major pull is the fact that many that attend the likes of Oxford or other UK schools may, well, fall in love with the British system and stay out here. I know that is the case with several (many?) of my professors here, especially those from the states.

    And I do agree with Ronan: Oxford is Oxford. While I still hold to my statements concerning difficulty landing an American job with a UK degree, schools like Oxford and Cambridge will obviously be the most likely to be the exception in many cases. They are still flagship institutions for the world of academia.

  • g.wesley

    i don’t know what this means either, but at my small current institution there are about 12 faculty in religious studies, 25 in history, and 7 in classics, all US Phd’s excepting one assistant professor from Toronto and a lecturer from Cambridge.

  • http://danielomcclellan.wordpress.com Daniel O. McClellan

    smallaxe-

    I don’t think anything has really come up that’s been an issue, but my view of scripture is not as conservative as it may be for some. The ANES degree at BYU attempts to confront the problem of liberal scholarship in a few different ways, and so students who have gone through it should be prepared to participate in and digest it without compromising their ideologies.

    john f.-

    I was indeed referring specifically to my program. I know it’s different from program to program, but UK students generally get much better funding across the board (internally, at least). The MSt is a unique masters program, too.

    I’ve discussed the overseas/US doctorate problem with a number of different people here and, most recently, as SBL in New Orleans. While some like to think that a DPhil at Oxford is awesome enough to make up the difference, the US institutions with which I’ve interacted have consistently been of the opinion that a US PhD provides a much broader foundation that is going to make a graduate more marketable in an economic climate where jobs are going to go to the instructors who can teach more, and more general, courses. Three recent DPhils from Oxford who work at the Oriental Institute told me they all applied to Yale’s recent opening for a Hebrew instructor and none of them were even called for interviews.

    Ronan-

    I feel the same way. When I was first applying to graduate schools I got in touch with Edinburgh and they said I probably had enough experience to go into a PhD. I thought it woud be nice to be in and out with a PhD in just three years, but then I realized I’d have a PhD and not really know that much more than I knew with just a BA (outside of my dissertation topic, of course).


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