9 Careers That Oxford Is Famous For
Being a student at the University of Oxford is the launchpad for an incredible range of careers.
Oxford alumni seem to find success in almost every walk of life. No fewer than 12 Christian saints attended Oxford (how many universities can make that boast?), as did one antipope. 5 of the British Museum’s Principal Libraries have been Oxford graduates. Chefs Rick Stein, Nigella Lawson and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall also all went to Oxford. It’s hard to know where else you might find such a diverse group of notable people.
A great education along with valuable connections parachutes many an Oxford graduate into a top job in a range of different fields. But there are certainly some career paths that are more strongly associated with Oxford than others. In this article, we look at some of the top picks.
1. Prime Ministers (and politicians in general)
If you’re trying to decide between Oxford and Cambridge, you’ve probably realised there isn’t much between the universities in most areas. But there are some fields where one or the other university does much better than its rival. Cambridge graduates have significantly more Nobel Prizes than their Oxford equivalents (91 to Oxford’s 64). But Oxford unquestionably leads in terms of the number of British prime ministers it’s produced: 27 (14 of them at Christ Church), compared with only 14 from Cambridge. And chances are, the next one will be an Oxford graduate too; of the five candidates leading betting odds for the next Prime Minister (Boris Johnson, George Osborne, Theresa May, Jeremy Corbyn and Michael Gove), four are Oxford graduates.
It’s not just British prime ministers, either; it’s a whole swathe of politicians, both in the UK and internationally (including 5 prime ministers of Australia, 2 of Canada, 2 of India, 4 of Pakistan and 3 of Thailand). But what makes Oxford such a key destination for anyone who wants a career in public life? One factor is the degree that a disproportionate number of these people studied: Oxford’s famous Philosophy, Politics and Economics degree (or PPE for short). It’s a course that is broad rather than deep, producing graduates who are conversant in a wide range of disciplines. At the same time, its workload is punishing and the norm for degrees at Oxford, that students are constantly required to justify their own opinions rather than regurgitating the works of others, is doubly true for those studying PPE – which seems like perfect training for the work required of politicians.
2. Spies and intelligence services
Cambridge’s spies are undoubtedly more famous than Oxford’s spies (though at this point, it would be remiss not to say that a spy who is famous isn’t exactly a successful spy). While the Cambridge Five were recruited during their time at university and passed information to the Soviet authorities throughout the 40s, 50s and 60s, the British civil servant Arthur Wynn was trying to establish much the same sort of network in Oxford. The Cambridge spies were detected one by one, and defected to the Soviet Union to escape being prosecuted for espionage. But as his glowing Guardian obituary makes clear, Arthur Wynn was not suspected until long after his death.
Double agents aside, five of the 17 heads of MI6 have been Oxford graduates (and the majority of the earlier heads went straight into the military rather than going to university), as have four of the 17 heads of MI5. David Cornwall, who writes under the pseudonym John le Carré, is an Oxford graduate and former spy who turned to writing espionage novels full-time after Kim Philby, one of the Cambridge Five, betrayed his cover. And even Nigella Lawson was offered the chance to join MI5 while at Oxford, based on the fact that she was a former pupil of Elizabeth Manningham-Buller, who later became head of MI5. Her father, then Chancellor of the Exchequer, advised her to turn it down.
There are countless films set in Oxford, from the cosiness of The Golden Compass to the debauchery of The Riot Club. But Oxford isn’t just great for producing films; it’s also quite remarkable at producing actors. Here, again, Cambridge is arguably more famous, with its Footlights amateur dramatic society producing several generations of Britain’s finest actors.
Despite its own dramatic societies not reaching the heights of Footlights’ fame, Oxford still seems to produce as many notable thespians. There’s Harry Lloyd (of Doctor Who and Merlin fame), Rosamund Pike (now best known for Gone Girl), Rowan Atkinson (forever Mr Bean), Benedict Cumberbatch (easier to list the films he hasn’t been in), Hugh Grant (every 90s romantic comedy and most of the 00s ones) and Emma Watson (Harry Potter, of course) – and that’s just a small selection.
Oxford and acting is a surprising combination. It’s not as if the world’s other top universities are known for the number of actors they produce; the idea that there might be legions of Hollywood stars who went to MIT seems laughable. Yet Oxford doesn’t even offer drama as a degree. Perhaps it is because seeking out an acting career is always a gamble – it might mean years of pennilessness and roles as an extra before success arrives, if it ever does. Having a degree from Oxford means having a very solid foundation to fall back on if it all goes wrong, making it less risky to take a chance on your ambitions working out.
If you think about what was studied at Oxford in the Middle Ages, you might not have thought of science. But one of Oxford’s most famous graduates (and later, professors) was Roger Bacon, who came about as close to our modern idea of a scientist as anyone from his period could. Drawing on learning from the Classical period and from his Islamic contemporaries, he promoted the use of the scientific method. He contributed to a revision of the university curriculum, encouraging the study of optics, in his time covering the study of light, vision and the development of lenses.
More recent trailblazers to have studied at Oxford include Dorothy Hodgkin, the biochemist who won the Nobel Prize for her work on protein crystallography. In 1932, she became only the third woman ever to be awarded a first-class honours degree from Oxford; this was 16 years before the University of Cambridge even began awarding degrees to women.
5. Poets and novelists
From WH Auden’s oft-quoted, still heartrending ‘Funeral Blues’ to the curse of Berkshire’s largest city, John Betjeman’s ‘Slough’ (“Come, friendly bombs, and fall on Slough!/ It isn’t fit for humans now”), a vast and diverse amount of the writing that has come to define English literature has been produced by graduates of Oxford.
There are the writers whose works are intimately associated with Oxford, such as Lewis Carroll, Evelyn Waugh, Philip Pullman or the most famous of the Inklings writers’ group, JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis. But there are also plenty of writers and poets are much less obviously connected with the city and its university, such as John le Carré as discussed above (a graduate of Lincoln College), Seamus Heaney (who taught at Magdalen), Helen Fielding (St Anne’s), Mark Haddon (Merton), Jeanette Winterson (St Anne’s) and Dr Seuss (also Lincoln, though he didn’t finish his degree).
A little like successful actors, writers usually need a day job (or a wealthy spouse) to support them while they become established. For those relying on a job rather than a spouse, this can also take a strong work ethic, to come home from a nine-to-five job and then get back to the desk to write all evening. Going to Oxford can help with all of these: job prospects are of course very good, but it also leaves its graduates with the ability to handle a punishing workload.
It isn’t just fiction that Oxford graduates excel at. The current editors of the Sunday Times, the Guardian, the Mail on Sunday, the Morning Star, the Economist and Private Eye are all Oxford graduates, and their writing staff are disproportionately drawn from Oxford too. Broadcast media, too, is dominated by Oxford graduates; of the 18 Directors-General that the BBC has had since its foundation in 1927, six have been Oxford graduates, including the current one.
Why is this so? It’s partly because working in the media requires people who can think on their feet, thrive in a pressure environment, and produce a lot of content in a hurry – and that’s exactly what you learn when studying at Oxford. Pulling an all-nighter to get the second essay of the week ready for the deadline is closely related to the demands placed on journalists.
And there’s the fact that success in journalism and the media in general depends a great deal on who you know; as the profusion of talented bloggers across the internet goes to show, there will always be more talented writers than vacancies at newspapers willing to hire them. A recommendation, such as from an old friend at university, goes a long way. If the people at the top are all Oxford graduates (and it’s evident that they are), then that influences who gets hired at the bottom, continuing the cycle.
7. International development
The city of Oxford, as much as the university, is known for its role in international development. This has been an awkward transition. For generations, colonial administrators were drawn from the ranks of Oxford graduates in much the same way as civil servants and politicians were; for example, 10 of the 28 governors of Hong Kong, while it was under British rule, were Oxford graduates. But when the British Empire came to an end, this role was no longer appropriate. In 1954, a centre for colonial studies was established at the University of Oxford, as the result of a gift from the diamond-mining entrepreneur Sir Ernest Oppenheimer. From the 1980s onwards, such a centre seemed increasingly inappropriate, and so it was redeveloped into the Oxford Department for International Development.
Around the same time, the charity Oxfam (originally the Oxford Committee for Famine Relief) was founded to help those left starving as a result of the Second World War. Oxfam has grown and grown since then, to become one of the largest charities in the world dedicated to the eradication of poverty and injustice around the world, driven by the principles of international development. In Oxford, then, the theory and the practice of international development can both be found, to their mutual benefit.
The list of Oxford graduates who went on to become Lord Chancellors, Lord Chief Justices, Law Lords, and other judges and lawyers of note is too long even to pick out notable names. Oxford dominates the law in Britain, and has done so for many centuries.
It’s easy enough to see why. The skills required of law graduates – whether they ultimately choose the solicitor or barrister route – are those required of almost all Oxford students: precision, attention to detail, the willingness to debate a point and to stand up for your opinion, to look for loopholes and new, creative solutions, and to work extremely hard. Oxford’s celebrated debating society, the Oxford Union, is an example of this; its past presidents have included notable people such as William Gladstone, Tony Benn and Benazir Bhutto.
There’s also the fact that – as with so many of the careers on this list – connections and mentoring are hugely important for those seeking a career in law. For everything from summer internships to acceptance for training contracts, being introduced to the right networks is a significant help, and the networking opportunities for students at Oxford are second-to-none. After all, being a successful lawyer often depends on having soft skills that are hard to prove through a conventional job application, but that can be vouched for over dinners or drinks receptions.
From this list, it’s evident why Oxford is so successful at producing the top people in so many different careers; the education it provides, with its focus on intellectual rigour and a lot of hard work, is a recipe for success in almost any field.