A Day in the Life of an Experimental Psychology Student at Oxford University
Hi! I’m Kylie and I am a first year BA Experimental Psychology student at Queen’s College, Oxford.
As I write this, I’ve just finished my first two terms at Oxford, and just sat my first preliminary examinations on the 3 introductory modules. Prelims are the first formal tests you’ll take at Oxford, but they don’t count towards your overall degree in Psychology.
You do, however, have to pass them to carry on studying, so they’re still worth taking seriously!
The Experimental Psychology course at Oxford is split into 3 key components:
- Prelims (terms 1-2)
- Part 1s (terms 3-5)
- Part 2s (terms 6-9)
During the first two components, the course is pretty fixed and all students study the same modules, to ensure that the qualification achieved at the end of the degree is accredited by the British Psychological Society (BPS). In the final year, however, students are able to choose from a variety of advanced modules and conduct research projects.
Interestingly, the timeline for psychology students is slightly different from most other courses, with prelims being sat at the end of the 2nd term, instead of the 3rd (like most degree courses). While this makes the first 2 terms a bit of a stressful whirlwind at times, it also means we get an earlier opportunity to upgrade to the much-desired scholar’s gown (a longer and fancier gown bestowed upon students who have been awarded scholarships, or who excel in their preliminary examinations).
My Typical Day (during prelims)
Everyday is quite different as a Psychology student at Oxford – while you might find that other courses have a consistent number of lectures to attend per day, this is a lot more variable when studying Psychology.
During prelims, I had an average of 6 lectures per week (spread relatively evenly throughout the week), along with 3 tutorials each week.
Generally, my lectures start at 10am in the Medical Sciences Teaching Centre, which is just a short 15 minute walk away from my college, on the high street. Most Oxford students either walk or cycle pretty much everywhere, so I’m lucky that my college is central, making almost everything only a short walk away.
As an Experimental Psychology student, I study three compulsory introductory modules during prelims: Psychology (which covers a range of approaches from social and developmental to perception and psychobiology), Statistics, and Neurophysiology.
I personally found the Neurophysiology module the most challenging, as there is a lot of content to remember, and there is a lot of neuroanatomy to study! Something I found really helpful for this, though, was having a variety of printed diagrams of the brain, and regularly testing my ability to label each area.
Some days I’ll have two lectures and be there until midday, while other days I only have one and will head off mid-morning.
The modules are really well-organised, so if I have a Psychology lecture followed by a Neurophysiology lecture, for example, the content covered during one can often be related to content in the other. For example, in the Psychobiology unit, the lectures on motor planning were followed by the Neurophysiology lectures on the motor cortex and voluntary movement pathways.
My preferred methods of note-taking during lectures differ based on the module. Neurophysiology lectures tend to be very fast-paced, and there are often lots of diagrams, so I generally like to annotate the slides. I usually go back to these notes later and hand-write them, as I find hand-writing notes more beneficial for consolidating content, but the lectures are too fast-paced for me to keep up when hand-writing.
In Psychology lectures, however, I like to simply type my notes, as it allows me to follow some of my own trains of thought that relate to but are not necessarily included within the lecture. I have found this really helpful in adding my own original insights in essays and in tutorials.
After morning lectures, I typically either go to lunch with a friend or eat lunch in College (unfortunately the in-College accommodation at Queen’s doesn’t provide kitchens, but lunch and dinner are always served for an affordable price). Studying in Oxford has so many perks, but one I was not expecting was the immense variety in cafe options! There are so many great places to get a coffee and some lunch, and I really enjoy catching up with people on other courses or reading on my break.
Another important requirement for Psychology students is participating in research during our first year, so during lunch, I’ll usually check the list of studies running to see if there are any that intrigue me that I can get involved in.
The requirement for research participation is a lot more exciting when you manage to find a study for something you are interested in! For example, I recently took part in a study about how we learn emotions, and it was really insightful to be able to speak with the experimenters (who are usually Psychology students further along in their degree, or even post-grads) about their methodology and their conclusions from the results. This insight can be really helpful when you’re running your own experiments later on in the degree.
Usually my tutorials take place in the afternoons. In tutorials, myself and a couple of other Psychology students from my College discuss the content of recent lectures, which are usually closely related to the tutorial essay for that week, with our tutor.
While tutorials can be one of the most helpful sources of learning for students, they can also seem quite scary to start with, and are definitely one of the aspects of being an Oxford student that intimidated me the most! There’s no need to worry, though, as the tutors are all really friendly and encouraging, and it definitely got easier with time, as I became more comfortable with both my fellow Psychology students and my tutors.
You also start to get a general feel for how the tutorials tend to run (which is different for each module, and of course will depend on your tutor too). For example, while my statistics tutorials often consisted of doing practice questions on the topic together as a group, my psychology tutorials often involved talking through our essays, and sharing insights from our additional reading. I found that briefly going over the lecture and reading notes (or even just the essay) was really helpful for making me feel more prepared for each tutorial.
After my tutorial, I normally go to my College library to work on some reading, essay writing or problem sheets. Oxford students are spoilt for choice when it comes to study areas, with college libraries, the Rad Cam, the Bodleian library and more available.
Although there is not currently a Psychology library (as a brand new psychology building is currently being built!), most of the essential books for Psychology students can be found in the Rad Cam, as well as in college libraries, and are often available online via the online library service.
The bulk of the workload for Psychology students involves studying independently, since we don’t have as many lectures as some other students have, so it is quite important to be self-motivated and stay on top of the workload.
I personally am a bit of a night-owl, and find I work better later in the day, so I like to spend a few hours in the evening working in the library. Often the essays and problem sheets are due at the same time each week, so putting some kind of a weekly schedule in place can be really helpful.
Although the workload is heavy (as you might expect for an Oxford student), it is manageable, and I often still have free-time for social activities. In the evenings, I try to make sure to take a longer break from work, going out to dinner with friends, or to concerts and plays.
On the days I don’t have any social events planned, I like to stay in the library a bit longer to get as much done as possible, so that I can go out on other evenings, safe in the knowledge I’m on top of my workload.
I find that another perk of being an Oxford student is that there are so many peaceful and picturesque places to take a stroll throughout the day – such as the Botanical Gardens and University Parks, and even just around the city. I also like to take breaks in the JCR (a common room in College), where there are comfortable sofas to chill with friends, and even a Wii with some Fifa and Mario Kart games!
I have really enjoyed my first two terms at Oxford, and they really have flown by! The Oxford experience is so special because there is always something going on, and while it is obviously important to stay on top of your work, there are always social events being planned to get that much needed break.
Psychology at Oxford is definitely challenging, but it can also be incredibly rewarding, and although the course is quite fixed for the first few years, there are so many opportunities to get involved more in the topics you’re interested in!
We hope this insight into life as a Psychology student at Oxford has been helpful! If you’d like to gain a taste of university teaching first hand, take a look at our online Psychology and Neuroscience courses for teenagers.
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By Kylie Li
At the time of writing, Kylie was in her first year reading Experimental Psychology student at Queens College, Oxford. She is most interested in developmental and cognitive psychology, and how these can be applied to the education system.
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