Picture this: it’s quarter to ten in the evening. You’re sat in the library, surrounded by the furious clickings of essay crises and apology emails being typed. You stare silently at the page in front of you and the question at the top glares mockingly back.
You’ve been like this for two hours; the problem sheet was due hours ago and you’ve just finished your fourth coffee. The fourth coffee was probably a bad idea. You try again, this time you’ll get the solution, you’re sure of it, you’ve had an idea that will definitely work…but no.
Maybe maybe another coffee will help?
At some point your brain shuts off and you concede, even Stack Exchange didn’t have the answer. You hand in what you have managed to do and drag your caffeinated corpse to bed.
That describes one of many nights I had during my first year of maths at Oxford. They were mostly self-inflicted, whether that be due to disorganisation or general lack of self-care, and were never worth it. (One of the many things I learnt was the value of a good night’s sleep. I also learnt that a surprising number of maths lecturers have strange taste in footwear, ranging from flipflops, to wellies, to slippers and the shockingly common woollen socks and sandals combo.) Notation consistency across lectures is minimal and from maths to physics (which I had studied at A-level) non-existent. Zeta and xi look the same, their subtle differences will vary from lecturer to lecturer and eventually you may take to writing exasperated squiggles and hoping for the best. For every bad lecturer (who simply copies their lecture notes onto the board) there is an exceptionally good one (who probably also copies their better notes onto the board). Some people are scarily intelligent and, while many are competitive, the excitement students have for mathematics is infectious.
Maths at Oxford is hard, challenging, and you are continually pushed. First year is especially gruelling because of the sheer volume of content you are studying. While, in theory, a broad first year of study seems incredibly useful, in reality it means that some of the modules are densely packed and slightly all over the place (think Geometry). At one point I had 9 problem sheets due every two weeks, roughly ten lectures and two or three tutorials a week. Looking back, the modules are not massively difficult, and many were a great foundation for second year. However, the jump from A-levels to undergraduate maths was more of a perilous leap. It is surprisingly difficult to suddenly not be able to instantly answer a question in a subject that you had, up until then, found easy. Realising that this is the norm is another concept to get to grips with.
After the trial by fire of first year, the second and third are considerably more enjoyable. Aside from the three core modules, second year courses are entirely optional, whilst third year is entirely optional and class based , rather than with tutorials. Modules are slightly dependent upon what you took in the previous year, and if you’re doing the integrated masters you do have to think ahead a bit more before making any decisions. This immense flexibility overall is perhaps one of my favourite things about the degree, the fact you can do modules that you are genuinely interested in and the diverse range of choices is genuinely fantastic.
Despite the intensity of first year, it does help you find what areas of study you enjoy; I’m doing mostly applied courses this year – something my 17-year-old self would’ve rolled her eyes at – and am loving it. Naturally, you still get occasional nights like the one mentioned earlier, but you learn to relax a little bit more. Unlike essay-based courses, where a bad essay is still an essay, a bad problem sheet is a piece of paper with blanks on it. If you found the question hard other people will have too! Tutors will not hate you for not completing a question and they won’t think you are stupid for not being able to do it, provided you tried.
When I was asked to write about my degree, I asked a few of my peers what they thought of studying Maths at Oxford University. “It took something I thought I loved and showed me I hated it” was one nihilistic response followed by a sputter of wry laughter from the group, before moving on to a discussion about a question raised in that morning’s lecture. As with any degree you will have moments where you wonder what possessed you to do it in the first place, what mania overtook you when you hit that send button on UCAS and why did your naïve 17/18-year-old self believe that it was a good idea. Maths is no different.
Mathematicians, however, are very good at complaining about it. They can go from ranting about their degree to excitedly talking about group theory or topology and are completely blind to the paradox.
We all secretly love mathematics, but not as much as we love pretending not to.