“Express your thoughts, whether they’re right or wrong” – Jossy Russell (Mathematics, St Hugh’s College)

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I’m Jossy, a mathematician at St Hugh’s1 (on the left in the picture above). Apart from being a mathematician, I love Jazz and doing silly (sometimes intoxicated) dancing with my friends. I am a massive Dua Lipa fan, and topology is my favourite area of maths so far!

Why did you decide to study your subject at Oxford?

I always felt so satisfied and happy after putting effort into completing any interesting maths argument, so it seemed natural to take this love further. I figured this out mainly during my school exams, but I’d say some of the great maths YouTube channels, like 3blue1brown and Numberphile, were also very important in opening my mind to all the crazy and wonderful things mathematics deals with. Then choosing to apply to Oxford was very easy for me as I had visited in the past and always loved the place!

What was your experience of the application process?

Although the personal statement is important when applying for maths, I think it was ultimately the least significant part of my application. As long as you get a reasonable mark on your entrance test, the interview is a much bigger deal. In a maths interview, it really is about them trying to test your problem-solving skills, not your knowledge.

I don’t think it’s worth worrying about revising specific content, and much better preparation to hone your general problem solving skills, which you can then apply to novel questions. I had been unable to revise much before my interviews, but in the end it made no difference as arguably my best interview moment occurred when dealing with something I had never seen before.

What were the first weeks of your ‘Oxford experience’ like?

Although I had always known mathematics at university would be more rigorous than at school, I suppose the first few weeks were definitely somewhat of a shock. Very quickly you get introduced to some basic logic and set theory that can take a while to really sink in. Otherwise, I was just generally impressed by how absurdly “Oxford” a lot of experiences like matriculation were. Truly settling in did take a longer time, as the first few weeks can be very weird and hectic. Nevertheless, I eventually found myself happily in a great group of friends, which drew its roots from a bizarre spring day out into town where we pretended to be tourists!

What does a typical day during term look like?

On a typical day, I have a few lectures in the morning and then a tutorial or two in the afternoon, before exercising and working on a problem sheet. I am definitely not the most organised of people, so I’m mostly trying to catch up when I can. I set aside the evening for other activities, such as going to the pub with my friends, attending the Jazz society where I play piano, or simply just having tea in someone’s room and chatting. I like staying up late but that is unfortunately limited by how early my lectures are the next morning. Fairly regularly my friends and I will decide to drink together in various capacities, and often my week seems to revolve around that!

What is your experience of the Oxford tutorial system?

Maths tutorials are entirely based on the problem sheets. At first they can definitely be intimidating, and your tutors often have to coax thoughts out of you. However, as you progress through the year and become more confident, the true value of tutorials is revealed when you feel able to express your thoughts, whether they’re right or wrong, and engage with a fulfilling discussion with your tutor. Although debate does not necessarily occur in maths, deep and useful discussions can take place. I’ve found I get the most value out of tutorials when I ask questions that look beyond the immediate matter at hand.

What skills will you gain from your course?

Many aspects of maths, like statistics or fluid dynamics, have lots of real-world applications. As a committed pure mathematician (maths for the sake of maths!), this doesn’t affect me much but, nevertheless, I think the basic skills of mathematics are certainly applicable throughout life. In university maths you often have to break down your old intuition and rebuild it anew to apply to more and more complex and diverse situations. Such a skill is a good thing to have in life, full stop. Furthermore, despite the fact that pure maths is mostly disconnected from ‘real life’, learning it will gain you a life-long appreciation for both how much humanity can achieve and how little we truly know.

What is college life for you?

I live on the St Hugh’s campus and am often going to the various social hubs in college, such as hall2, the bar, and the JCR3. For me, college is one of the most important aspects of my social life at university, and it just feels so nice and enjoyable to have a large group of people around who you know to varying extents and can have fun with. Of course, college is really what you make of it – many mathematicians I know are more disconnected from college life and prefer the social circles that arise from other situations. College life is a great extra opportunity, but not something to be stressed about if you find that other spaces are better for you.

How is life outside university & college?

My number one hobby is playing music and, for that, Oxford feels like it must be one of the best universities in the world! There are so many different people who are into so many different niches! As a Jazz fan, I am involved in Oxford’s quite large Jazz scene which centres around the amazing Jazz Society. The Jazz Society is hosted at a bar and involves both an excellent live band and an open Jam session, so it can function as a good night out and an opportunity to practice! Beyond music I love socialising and dancing with my friends. For that Oxford is also excellent, as it contains a wealth of nice bars alongside quite a few clubs. Formals are also an amazing way to get slightly tipsy in front of your tutors while dressed rather ridiculously!

Anything else you would like to add about your student life at Oxford?

I think the one thing that I really didn’t anticipate fully was just how exhausting and full every term is. It is good because it makes me feel like I am living my life to its absolute fullest, but nevertheless the constant churn of work, social life, and hobbies all crammed into a mere 8 weeks is truly something else. Memories of my first long night of sleep home after term are always particularly sweet.


Glossary:

  1. St Hugh’s College is an Oxford College on St Margaret’s Road to the north of the Oxford city centre.
  2. ‘Hall’ refers to the dining hall of the college.
  3. ‘JCR’ refers to the ‘Junior Common Room’, which describes both a physical space for the undergraduate community of a college as well as the college undergraduate community itself.

Sources:

All photos provided by the author.


This article is part of our series of ‘Student profiles’ where we explore the student life at Oxford. Did you ever wonder how students come to study at Oxford and how the application process feels like? What about all the quirky Oxford traditions, the college system and tutorials? And how does all this ‘Oxford experience’ differ between natural and social science courses? In this series we ask students to tell us about their experience. 

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