Master’s Degree
10 min

What Doing Master’s at Oxford Gave Me

Alina Liubimova graduated with a Master’s degree in applied linguistics at the University of Oxford. StudyFree asked Alina to tell what studying at one of the best universities in the world is like, and to give some advice to prospective students.

Why I Decided to Study at Oxford

I completed a bachelor’s course in theory and methodology of teaching English at Moscow State University. Soon I realized that I had a knack for research work, and started to search for a top British university where I could continue my work. I specifically chose British institutions, because my specialization is teaching practical phonetics of English based on the British pronunciation standard. 

I liked the description of the Applied Linguistics and Second Language Acquisition at the University of Oxford, and that’s the program I eventually graduated from.

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Was it Hard to Enter? 

It’s a tricky question. I still don’t know for sure why I was selected among the other candidates. I could boast with the following accomplishments when I submitted my application:

  1. “Excellent” marks for all exams in all my years of studying at MSU.
  2. Two published papers on the research topic.
  3. Several awards for best reports at conferences, a scholarship for academic merits granted by the university.
  4. Cambridge Certificate (CPE, C2 level) — Grade A, 97%.
  5. State scholarship for scientific research awarded repeatedly for several years.

For entering, documentary proof had to be given for each of these accomplishments. Also, I had to provide an essay on a given topic and an academic paper on a free topic. 

All this was to be accompanied by a motivation letter, a CV, and recommendations given by three of the University professors. After the selection procedure, the best candidates were invited for an interview over Skype.

I had my interview held in early December by the program director and the statistics professor (I wanted to do quantitative research). To this day, I remember all questions and my answers to them and don’t understand why I got accepted. For example, when I was asked about my expertise in statistics, I honestly answered that the only book on this topic that I had read is called “Statistics for Dummies”. 

To the standard question, “why did you choose this particular program specifically in Oxford?” I answered that I looked at many programs in the UK and made a list of places to apply to, and the Oxford deadline arrived first, that's why I submitted my documents at once. Then I added “Besides, Oxford is Oxford, you know”, which made everyone laugh.

But something about me appealed to the acceptance board, and by late December I already received the official offer. Later I learned that many of my coursemates received identical letters: “We will inform you of our decision after assessing other applications”. They got their offers only by late spring – meaning that I was one of the first to be accepted.

What Master's Degree Studies in Oxford Look Like

Our workload depended on how committed we were to the educational process. We had no tests or obligatory exams during the year. No one checked whether you came to the class prepared or not. To be evaluated on how well we had understood the material, we had to write three essays during the vacation after each semester. 

On average, we had six two-hour classes per week: two on special subjects, two on research data processing, and one lecture for the whole department on educational issues. All the classes were organized as workshops, not lectures. No one took attendance, but I did not miss a single class during the whole year.

Before each class, we were given a list of recommended readings. We spent a lot of time in the library – if you didn't read the material beforehand, you would not understand what was being discussed in class. 

We also had Lunch seminars and workshops dedicated to publications analysis, library lectures on literature search, plagiarism, etc. 

You could live and study without leaving the faculty building at all. That was a major difficulty, as many students “burned out” trying to grasp everything at once. On the other hand, some students could not make themselves study without a degree of external control.

How Realistic is it to Receive a Scholarship?

I would like to highlight that the competition for a scholarship starts after you've been sent an offer. Thus, it is a big mistake to think “Oh, if only I had heaps of money I would have been accepted, too”. 

I took part in a competition to receive a scholarship before starting to study, and sent the same documents as were needed for enrolment application, but did not get it. Out of 25 people that were in the same class as me, only three received a scholarship. 

In 2018, the tuition fee for my Master’s program was £20 000. Plus accommodation, food, and other expenses for 12 months (that’s how long my program lasted). 

During my studies, I received a Research grant. It covered my research expenses, including a flight to Moscow and back needed for gathering data – I conducted my experiment at MSU. 

I examined how intelligibility and comprehensibility of speech influence the perception of the professional level of an English language teacher. For this, I conducted a quantitative survey and interviews with MSU bachelor students. They listened to audio recordings of “teachers” (actors, actually) provided by me and rated their professional level and speech parameters on several grading scales. 

After returning to Oxford, I performed the analysis of quantitative data. It showed that an image of a highly professional teacher of English strongly depends on whether their pronunciation is similar to native speaker pronunciation. Based on the experiment results (published here) I drew a conclusion that the English practical phonetics training in Russian language educational institutions needs to be updated. This conclusion provided a basis for my Ph.D. thesis that I’m currently working on. 

What Are The Living Conditions at the University of Oxford?

Oxford and Cambridge have a unique system of colleges, just as in the Harry Potter world. The kids in, say, Gryffindor and Slytherin lived separately but attended the same classes. The Oxford system is the same: each student is a member of one college (where they live, eat, socialize, etc.) and one faculty where they study and meet their research advisor. 

Each college sets its own rules. Some are swanky and snobbish, like, for example, New College. They pick their members based on special criteria. Others are more liberal. Almost every college has its own “perk”. The college I lived in, Lady Margaret Hall (LMH), was the first women's college in Oxford. Now it admits students of all genders. 

Living conditions depend on the college. In LMH each Master’s student is given their own room with a shower, but bachelor students share rooms and have a common shower on each floor. We had recently furnished rooms, but colleagues from other colleges frequently complained about dilapidated walls and decrepit furniture. 

In our college, bachelor-level students lived separately; we even did not see them at all. But in some colleges undergrads and postgrads  live and socialize together. 

I recommend reading about the particular college conditions beforehand. You apply after enrolment and may choose several priority options. Then the colleges decide whether to accept you or not.

What I Did After Graduation 

I had an option to stay in Great Britain: I got enough points to enter a Ph.D. on the same faculty and was awarded the highest grade (А*) for my Master’s thesis.

But my primary goal was to research how English phonetics is taught in Russia, so I came back, and was invited right away to work at MSU. Presently I teach practical phonetics, English, and my own course on linguistic research. On a parallel track, I’m writing a Ph.D. thesis which I hope to defend soon. 

What Studying at Oxford Gave Me

Studying at Oxford gave me unique knowledge, skills, and expertise. Now it allows me to be published in top foreign journals listed in Scopus. But what really made difference is not studying at Oxford, but the privilege of learning from some of the greatest linguists of our time. Many of them teach in not very prominent educational institutions, so the human factor is often of larger importance than the “big name” of the university. 

A distinct feature of studying in Oxford or Cambridge is the chance to feel like Harry Potter in Hogwarts. Historical buildings that you had a chance to see only in movies. Ancient lecture halls where great scientists worked. Formal dinners to be attended only in evening gowns or tuxedoes, balls, brunches… The events culture is unparalleled by any other university in the world. In Oxford, you feel truly special.

Is it Really That Important to Study in a “Top” University?

The status of the university is important, but not paramount. The important thing is what you learned there. I know people who were completely disappointed by their program, and after graduating from Oxford moved to a completely different field. 

There is a belief that studying in a top university is especially important for “tech geeks”. In the modern world, this is a highly debatable point. For example, I am a teacher and a linguist, but I’m engaged mostly in quantitative research and statistical data analysis, and I have a Master of Science degree. Who am I – a humanitarian or a techie? 

If You Wish to Apply to a Top University

Give it a try. Some of your competitors will drop out at the «I’m not worthy enough to submit an application” stage, others will not get over the «it’s too hard to prepare all these documents” threshold, most of the rest will find an excuse to fall behind, too. Never give up at the start line. 

In your application, you should mention not only your accomplishments but also your goals. Don’t feel shy about telling about your dreams and plans in the motivation letter and in the interview. When we almost graduated from Oxford, we were told in secret that the applicant's potential is valued more than their current accomplishments.

Don’t choose a university by its prestigious image. Instead, look for a program that suits your interests best. Think of the scientists and professionals who inspire you, and find the universities where they teach. It doesn't matter how fashionable the university is: you should find the one that is fashioned for you.