How does graduate life work at Oxford?

OxfordSU’s former Vice-President for Graduates, Lauren Bolz, on how your department, college and the wider University come together in the graduate student experience at Oxford


“With the collegiate system in place, graduate student life works a bit differently at Oxford than it does at a lot of other universities.

I like to think of the graduate student experience as being divided into three overlapping pieces.

First, there’s your department.

Your department is the hub of your academic life. It’s both a physical place and a community of academics, support staff and students who are based in your academic discipline.

(Left to right, from top) The Mathematical Institute, Department of Chemistry, Faculty of Modern and Medieval Languages and Blavatnik School of Government | Photographs by DPhil students Kristian Kiradjiev, Xuanhui Meng, Victoria Maguire-Rajpaul and Christy Edwall

This is where you might have lectures, seminars, and discussion groups with other students on your or a related course. It’s where you will find your labs and study spaces to conduct research, and it’s where your supervisor will be based.

On top of this, many departments also organise social and networking events that you can take part in.

Next, there’s your college.

Like departments, colleges are both physical spaces and communities of academics, support staff and students. However, colleges bring individuals from different departments together to create small interdisciplinary communities within the University.

Your college is there to help you meet people and to provide welfare support throughout your studies.

Every college is slightly different in what it looks like and how it operates. However, colleges are generally made up of a porter’s lodge, a dining hall, a bar, a library, study spaces, outdoor grounds, and student accommodation.

On top of this, colleges also provide graduate students with access to a common room where they can relax and host social events.

If you hear someone refer to an ‘MCR’, they’re either referring to this physical space or the broader community of graduate students at a college (although some graduate common rooms also go by names like GCR or HCR, with JCRs as the undergraduate equivalent).

Thanks to the help of students who volunteer as MCR representatives, MCRs are known to put on formal dinners, brunches, garden parties, welfare teas, movie nights, wine and cheese nights, exchanges with other MCRs, and more.

Colleges also have sports teams that you can take part in. Apart from rowing and a few others, these tend to be relatively casual and laid-back opportunities to play and compete with other Oxford college teams.

Lastly, you have the University.

The University is made up of the departments and colleges, but it also houses several other social and physical spaces that students from all colleges and departments can engage with. Here are a few of them:

Student societies

You can take part in the hundreds of student societies that exist at Oxford, which represent almost every interest you can think of.

University sport

You can try out for University sport. This is generally more competitive and a bigger time commitment than college-level sport. However, some sports, especially those that don’t exist at the college level, are very much open to beginners and novices.

The Oxford Students’ Union

You can get involved in the Students’ Union, Oxford SU, if you’re interested in representing students in the University’s decision-making structures and lobbying for the changes that students want to see.

Gardens, libraries and museums

You can visit the various University gardens and museums that are spread across Oxford. And you can spend (a lot of) time in the Bodleian libraries, which are spread out across Oxford, sometimes inside of departmental buildings.

‘Blues’ football, the University’s Botanic Garden, the Weston Library and the Oxford University Museum of Natural History | Photographs by Chris Larson, Henry Lee, Minjie Su and Ashley Tsai

While this certainly isn’t an exhaustive summary, and university spaces tend to overlap in more complicated ways than I’ve described them to here, this can hopefully give you a rough outline that you can use when you first start to navigate life at Oxford.

Good luck!”

Your own Oxford

You don’t have to wait until you’re in the city to start exploring what the University can offer you — try our virtual walking tour of the city, join a public lecture or seminar online, or hear more about what our graduate students get up to in our interview series on YouTube:



Graduate Study at Oxford
Applying for graduate study at Oxford

A perspective on masters’, DPhil (PhD) and other graduate courses from Graduate Admissions at the University of Oxford