Balliol College crest

David Wallace's homepage

Physics and Philosophy

The Physics and Philosophy (P&P) degree course in Oxford is virtually unique in the world: there are other places where you can study both Physics and Philosophy; there are other places where you can study the philosophy of physics; but this is one of the very few undergraduate courses where the two halves are thoroughly integrated. This means it's possible to study philosophy of physics in a way that's sensitive to the actual details of real physics.

This page gives only some very brief information about the course; follow the links to the University and College pages for much more.

The course

The capsule summary: You study about half the main physics course, concentrating on the more theoretical aspects of the subject and doing relatively little on applications. At the same time, you study a range of topics from Philosophy. In each year, you do one course in philosophy of physics: philosophy of spacetime in the first year, philosophy of relativity in the second year, philosophy of quantum theory in the third year, and (optionally) a variety of advanced topics in the fourth year. You have fairly little choice of topics in the first two years, quite a lot of choice in the third year, and a completely free choice in the fourth year. You can stop doing one or other subject in the fourth year (but not before).

For lots more information, see the course pages and the frequently asked questions on the Physics website.

Physics & Philosophy at Balliol

My college, Balliol, has significantly the largest number of Physics & Philosophy students in Oxford: we take 4-5 students per year. You'll also be part of two much bigger communities: the Physics community (with 9-10 undergraduate students admitted per year, and four full-time tutors) and the Philosophy community (with about 25 undergraduates admitted per year, and four full-time tutors). On the Philosophy side, the college is also very strong in Maths & Philosophy, which overlaps quite a lot (especially in the first year) with the Physics & Philosophy course: Balliol is by far the largest college for these two subjects together.

I hope that Balliol succeeds in creating a genuinely integrated atmosphere, where the two parts of the degree course are each taught by people who understand and are sympathetic to the other half, and where you find it easy to get into interesting and helpful academic discussions with P&P students, physicists and philosophers in your and other years. To find out more about Balliol, see here.

That said, there are more than thirty colleges in Oxford, the majority of which admit for P&P, and their similarities outweigh their differences - college choice is much less important than your choice of university or subject. In particular, it's very important to realise that your choice of college doesn't affect your chance of getting into Oxford (see below for more). Further advice on college choice is available in the list of frequently asked questions about the course.


Official details about the application process can be found here. But I've found in open days that two worries come up especially often, so I'll comment on them here.

  1. Applying for Physics and Philosophy, instead of Physics, doesn't affect your chance of getting in. The physics tutors (across all colleges) will consider you alongside straight Physics applicants. If they think you are a sufficiently good candidate for Physics, you will be offered a place. If the physics and philosophy tutors think that you are suitable for Physics and Philosophy, and if there are enough places, that offer will be for a P&P place; if not, it will be for a Physics place. So whether you are offered a Physics place depends on how you compare with all applicants for Physics and for P&P - regardless of which course you apply for. Of course, if you would rather do Physics & Philosophy somewhere else, rather than pure Physics at Oxford, that's entirely up to you - you don't have to accept the offer.
  2. Your choice of college doesn't affect your chance of getting in. Every candidate gets interviewed at a second college as well as the college they applied to, and then all the information from both lots of interviews (as well as lots of other data about your application, like your test results) goes into a central database that tutors from all colleges can access. This makes sure that no good candidate misses a place just because their chosen college is full - in fact, it's fairly normal for candidates to gain places at colleges that they weren't interviewed at, on the basis of the database. So don't bother trying to fine-tune your college choice to maximise your chance of getting in - it really doesnt' make any difference.