The concrete rituals of an Oxford education are easy enough to describe, though their significance is less clear: one or three or more years spent laboring over books or lab equipment, rushing to lectures and tutorials, and returning books late to various libraries. But the nucleus of what it means to learn here is perhaps easier to understand comparatively, especially when related to a core set of experiences and educational principles as distinct as those inherent to an American university education.
Graduate students from the United States have the benefit of being able to articulate a conception of the Oxford model that is derived from the practical knowledge of difference. Their Oxford degree stands in contrast to a more holistic American system that they say stresses heavy extracurricular involvement and workload, student initiative to develop close working relationships with faculty, more casual student events and a more active student political scene, but also a more pre-professional focus that might result in a lack of fidelity to intellectual inquiry. These broad strokes of dissimilarity translate into wholesale shifts in modes of daily life.
The change from an American undergraduate education manifests in some ways that are obvious and related to the transition to a graduate education. There might be freedom to set the entirety of a personal schedule in a way that was not always previously possible.
“I’m a 3am to noon, 4pm to 3am guy, there are just days where like that’s what I want to do,” says Phil Maffetone, a Marshall Scholar from the University of Buffalo completing his DPhil in Chemistry. Because of the nature of his graduate research, he can plan for chaotic days with spurts of sleep interspersed with long stretches of research. He eats when he wants to, meets with supervisors every so often, and can choose to develop a relationship with his college, Corpus Christi, that is so distant he eats in the hall about once a term.
“You have a lot more freedom to define your own project, define your own goals, define your own academic progression,” says Sai Gourisankar, a Rhodes Scholar at St Anne’s working on an MA in public policy. He did his undergrad at the University of Texas-Austin, a public research university with about 51,000 students.
Gourisankar says his educational experience has been molded by the newfound autonomy of being able to construct his own reading list and research priorities, and organize his day around balancing those goals and a personal calendar of cafe and gym visits and cricket practices. According to Gabriel Delaney, a DPhil student in comparative politics at Christchurch College, increased freedom to direct free time is one of the central means by which Oxford creates an atmosphere ripe for intellectual curiosity.
“Among the graduate community the big thing is talks, going to a pub, having a deep conversation late into the night,” Delaney says. The American undergraduate experience and the social sphere outside of the classroom can exude fundamentally different values—often career-oriented, and Delaney says avid intellectualism for its own sake was something that he had to actively seek out while getting his undergraduate degree at the University of Pennsylvania.
Maffetone says that his time as an undergrad was characterized by figuring out “let’s see how much beer I can pour into this funnel and then where I wake up in the morning,” but graduate life at Oxford offers other, more meaningful forms of relaxation—from extended philosophical debates with his peers in the Marshall program to practices, games and drinking sessions with the other players on the Blues rugby league team. Gourisankar too treasures the casual community of college sports as a member of the St Anne’s cricket team, as well as the opportunity to listen to eminent international figures speak. They both see Oxford as a place committed to a rich tradition of provocative dialogues about the spectrum of human thought and the responsibilities its graduates have to the world outside its campus.
“Intellectual conversations drunk at parties are a dime a dozen here where they might not have been [elsewhere],” Maffetone says. From arguments with fascists and communists to interrogating his own lack of familiarity with intellectuals of faith, Oxford has enabled him to question his own critical assumptions and to start to think in more meaningful ways about the duties he owes to the public as a scientist. But Maffetone, Gourisankar and Delaney have not necessarily seamlessly integrated into Oxford life and its concomitant ever-evolving discourse – there have been real roadblocks to assimilation.
“A lot of us, me included, came in with not a realization that this would be a culture shock. We thought ‘We speak the same language, we’ve got this special relationship that goes back several centuries,’” Gourisankar said. He quickly apprehended some of the UK’s distinct cultural traits.
“The Great British Bake Off, which is a reality cooking show, apparently the most popular show in Britain or something, and it doesn’t have a prize at the end of it. Like you do it for nothing. And that’s just deeply—it’s so strange,” he says, laughing. The essential absurdity to him of a game show without a prize was compounded by smaller differences, like reduced food portions, room sizes, and more positive changes like the increased walkability of Oxford. Other cultural shifts bear more directly on what happens in the classroom.
“I don’t want to put anyone in a monolithic group—but this is true for the German students in my class, the French students in my class, the Spanish students in my class, and the British students in my class. There’s a very big hesitation to be seen as being direct,” Delaney says. European students in his experience are more likely to qualify their statements or cite different authors’ views instead of stating their own outright. “Americans are far more direct in their communication and if they disagree with something based off of what they think and what they believe, they’re more willing to say it.”
Indirectness and formality as perceived staples of English culture might play a role in what the American graduate students also articulate as a more distant relationship with their graduate supervisors. The close cooperation that Maffetone, Gourisankar and Delaney all experienced while doing undergraduate research in the United States is juxtaposed with a relationship with British faculty that they say is formal for many graduate students, although they have had positive experiences with supervisors to varying degrees.
“When I’ve had British supervisors I think it would be a stretch to call them mentors,” Gourisankar says. “Because they were very, very helpful when I talked to them, and very nice people, and I had great conversations, but there was no active mentorship.”
Maffetone also thinks that the closeness of personal relationships within the Oxford system is highly dependent on the discipline. As a physics tutor, he acknowledges the structural limitations the tutorial system in the sciences places on his ability to develop close relationships with students, especially relative to full-time professors.
“They actually have meaningful insight to the character of the students that I really don’t get from interacting with them a couple of times a term for an hour and a half, besides reading their work and knowing that “you clearly don’t give a shit about what you’re doing, you spend way too much time on a physics assignment, and you are clearly working right next to them,” he says.
Albeit Delaney does not wax lyrical about the comparatively poor WiFi at Oxford, all of the students are enthusiastic about the resources Oxford provides them and especially the comprehensiveness and accessibility of the library system. “So for example, I wrote a little bit on the Caribbean nationalist movements after World War II. There’s access to all these newspaper records from the time. And microfilms of various Caribbean newspapers of the time, the Barbados Advocate, The Nation,” Gourisankar says, praising the extent of the library’s historical documentation.
Oxford’s enormous resources, extensive archives, and ongoing exchanges with American scholarship might limit actual differences in how much disciplines themselves diverge across the Atlantic. As Maffetone says, he would not be able to tell from reading over a transcript whether he had been having a conversation with a British or American graduate student. But there are nonetheless meaningful shifts in the way subjects are taught, particularly in the humanities.
“Those who study politics back home experience a much more positivist numbers-driven, data-driven sort of discipline,” Delaney says. He thinks that limits the sorts of conversations that political scientists like himself can have. “How many political theories do you know predict outcomes exactly as they are? Certainly every theory that held about campaigning, about polling, even how you just run for political office, didn’t hold this election.”
The focus on developing a particular expertise in theory that he says he has encountered at Oxford has enabled him to refine his understanding of the subject and to avoid some of the pitfalls he believes were endemic to American political science. “Politics is nonlinear and I think pretending that it is linear back home I think is kind of a problem.”
Maffetone agrees that Oxford’s emphasis on thought processes rather than a relentless focus on drilling down mastery of specific skills has been a valuable aspect of his education here. “It’s the soft skills, it’s the autonomy, it’s the ability to tackle complex problems, to hold on to a three, four year project that you want to get out of a PhD,” he says.
That said, these American graduate students do not have an entirely rosy view of Oxford. They see it as a complicated institution that is to an extent mired in traditionalism that might not be acceptable in the United States. Delaney frequently finds himself defending the presidential system against an onslaught of comparative politics peers from Europe who tend to assume the superiority of their own parliamentary model. More insidiously, he describes his suspicions that there are international students at Oxford who are deprived of participation in opportunities like podcast hosting because of their accents – something he believes would not happen in the U.S. due to its history of immigration.
The formalism of the Oxford experience, especially at meals, is also something that all three have both enjoyed despite deep reservations. Black tie events, formal dinners, and balls all feed into an ostentatious and privileged lifestyle that Gourisankar says demands more introspection from students here. Delaney says that his New York City upbringing makes him very conscious of the difference between Oxford and real working life, and Maffetone says that a lingering sense of guilt has led him to attend less formal events.
“There is a very stark difference between the overt show of opulence there is at Oxford and the very lack of that at least at the public state school that I went to,” Gourisankar says. “I cannot imagine as an undergrad going to three course meals in formal halls and being served wine by waiters who barely spoke English. That is just like a caricature of an Oxford that I think is somehow still true.”
Delaney volunteers at a local homeless shelter every Saturday and says he was shocked to realize how disconnected the relationship was between students and Oxford residents, which he says is the opposite of how Penn organized its engagement with Philadelphia. He says undergraduates act like because they are “an Oxford student, this is basically my playground. Whereas there are other people who live and work here.”
The culture of privilege, according to Gourisankar, extends from formal halls to the numerous cricket pitches found around Oxford, and the expenses some colleges are willing to authorize for sports and amenities. “Some of these colleges are completely the opposite and they just have the basic minimums,” he says. “There’s no attempt to be egalitarian.”
Gourisankar thinks that Oxford’s unexamined assumptions can even lead to problems with its scholarship, like the Eurocentrism he argues pervades the history curriculum. He gives specific examples of ways he thinks that information in the classroom here is filtered through a European lens, affecting course reading lists and discussions in the classroom.
“Last year when I was doing my masters in history, there was an elective called History of the Islamic World. This is a massive, over a billion population history of the Islamic world. But there were also all these smaller electives on like Italy in 1535,” he says. “One particular town in Spain during like the sixteenth century. And that was very surprising to me, in terms of there’s this much of a difference in the scale in which you teach things.”
But for all three Oxford has still been in important respects a formative intellectual experience. Delaney says that he sees Oxford as part of an invaluable British educational model that has no direct parallel in the United States.
“Very few places are ever as conducive to learning as Oxford or Cambridge are. Just constructed for that reason, and they fulfill it very, very well,” he says.
Delaney thinks that the insight he has gained into the internal mechanics of states here has equipped him to better succeed in his future goal of a career in public service, as he hopes to combine an MPhil or DPhil in comparative politics with a JD in law in the United States. Gourisankar plans to use his two MA degrees in history and public policy to bolster a PhD in chemical engineering, and Maffetone has gone so far in his commitment to interdisciplinarity as a chemist that he has drafted an application to work in the EPA for the Trump administration to use his scientific background to mitigate the possible effects of a reversal in US policy on climate change.
Coming to Oxford allowed Gourisankar to do interdisciplinary work that he hopes to help use to contextualize innovation to ensure technological developments ultimately help people in practical ways. “In the U.S. there is a culture of work and immediate specialization to some extent, and this was an opportunity to step back from that,” he says.
Meanwhile, Maffetone talks about how Oxford and the Marshall program have facilitated a personal reconceptualization of basic ways that science can reach people, such as a recent dinner hosted by a friend on the topic of death and dying.
“All we did was just eat dinner and talk about death and dying. From a religious perspective, from a philosophical perspective, from a what do we do in terms of the ethics of it, and legal codes surrounding how we die, what’s an acceptable way to die, how do we plan for death? Do we fear death?” Maffetone says. “Those kinds of discussions don’t happen in a laboratory, they just don’t. It’s more like, Oh my God, the science is killing me just now.”
Maffetone appreciates the conversations that he has had at Oxford, and believes that more scientists need to engage in similarly far-reaching dialogues. But ultimately in retrospect, due to what he calls his “affection for modernity,” he thinks he would have preferred to get his D. Phil at a northern university like Leeds or Manchester. Gourisankar is grateful for having had the opportunity to experience both an American education and a British one at Oxford. Meanwhile, Delaney cherishes Oxford’s commitment to intellectualism despite whatever flaws the university’s culture of privilege might support.
“Even though I loved Penn and I really do still love it, I would love to have spent more time in a place like this where you can get a little deeper in terms of the conversations,” he says. “Oxford is very different in that there is a greater focus on learning ideas, sharing ideas, debating ideas, learning how to think.”
Delaney thinks that by having conversations with their tutors and their peers inside and outside the classroom, students here learn frameworks of thinking that enable them to tackle intellectual challenges that would have been impossible to overcome with a pre-professional education focused on rote memorization. He thinks the ability to think and talk freely at Oxford can move mountains.
“You can engage your fellow students in conversations you couldn’t do that in before. And that matters. It matters a hell of a lot.”