I’ve received quite a lot of questions about Sherlock (and Mycroft’s) respective universities. Lots of fans want to write stories of Sherlock’s university days at either Oxford or Cambridge. This is a short resource for fanfiction writers who would like to describe a realistic account of Sherlock at Oxbridge.
Timing is All Important
Just to clarify for people unfamiliar with the British education system: students usually go to University at 18, directly after finishing A-levels.
Students can start university later. There is a long tradition of taking a “Gap Year” and travelling the world getting drunk, lost, sick, moved by other people’s plight etc. If you start university after the age of 21 you are designated a “mature student” (more on this later).
It is quite difficult to start university earlier. Most universities have a minimum age requirement of 18, simply because before 18 people are still legally classed as minors and that brings a whole host of legal issues that the universities don’t want to deal with. Cambridge requires all students to be 17 years and 6 months on matriculation (which usually happens in the first week of October).
There are cases of teenagers starting Cambridge younger, but these are exceptions and not the rule. Case are decided on an individual basis and special arrangements may have to be made so that the teenager can still live with their parents instead of at university. Recently these exceptions have become rarer, probably because the staff have been more attune to the psychological impact of university on children. Child prodigies are now encouraged to take an extended version of the “Gap Year” – and come back when they are the same age as everyone else.
Oxbridge – Camford?
“Oxbridge” does not exist; it is a literary amalgamation of Oxford and Cambridge, used to describe the two of the oldest universities in the world (Norwoodbuilder helpfully pointed out the University of Bologna is the oldest!). They are also the most prestigious universities in the UK (and some might say the world). Just to clarify, I had never heard “Camford” being used until I went on tumblr but I definitely like the sound of it.
Oxbridge usually conjured up connotations of tradition, excellence and for some elitist attitudes and outdated prejudices.
Side note - I would like to voice my personal view: that Oxbridge today is not intentionally elitist. These institutions have had to fight very hard to stay at the top of the University league tables. They are both public, state sponsored universities (as are nearly all universities in the UK). Unlike Harvard, they do not have the option of charging higher tuitions fees than other institutions to give themselves a competitive edge. They have to rely on government funding.
To maintain the quality of their graduates, they obviously look for students who have already excelled through the education system. The courses at Cambridge and Oxford are incredibly demanding – please do not believe the myth that you can get a degree just by living in college for 9 terms. If you do not have the necessary foundational knowledge, you cannot hit the ground running. The pace of teaching is incredibly fast, if you fall behind it is very difficult to catch up. This is why they need students to get top grades at A-level, if you do not know enough to ace the A-level exams you don’t much chance of passing the tripos (Cambridge exams). The sad thing is private school pupils nearly always have higher marks than state school pupils and this is completely unfair but it would be even more unfair to admit pupils who don’t have that foundational knowledge and watch them suffer.
Back to Sherlock: basically the long winded side note is to say that his “family connections” should he have any are not going to cut ice with the admission tutors. They are looking for grades and a good performance at interview. You need to have knowledge but during the interview they looked for that extra amount of critical and lateral thinking, that spark of genius if you will. think Sherlock must have blown them away at the interview rather than gained particularly stunning grades.
Cambridge or Oxford?
(The Cam and the Backs)
I personally think that Sherlock went to Cambridge:
- Cambridge allows Sherlock to take a range of different science subjects. This type of course is incredibly rare in UK universities where most people are confined to choosing one of chemistry, biology or physics. Sherlock could have taken biology and chemistry courses, or chemistry and physics courses. The combinations can be similar or entirely different (though everyone does eventually choose to focus their energies). If he went to Oxford he could do this type of thing.
- Everyone has to do some chemistry in their first year (correct me if I’m wrong) – which will be incredibly helpful for any forensic science Sherlock undertakes in his home-baked lab. He might have continued chemistry in later years too.
- Cambridge is traditionally the place to be for scientists. There are many famous nobel prize winning labs and innovative leaders in every field. I think Sherlock might have had an idol he wanted to meet at Cambridge, or perhaps he just wanted to find like-minded scientists.
At Cambridge: Natural Scientists are called NatScis, mathematicians are call mathmos and medics are called crazy.
As a Natsci, you have a lot of timetabled hours of lectures and practicals. Usually about three full days and three half days - yes, there are lectures on Saturday mornings - and one or more supervisions per week for each subject they take. Supervisions are small group tutorials (nor more than 5 people) were your supervisor is supposed to give you additional teaching. In reality it sometimes turns into an interrogation. All supervisors hand out homework: usually a long essay a week for each subject or a worksheet of questions for maths and physics. If you are doing four subjects you will be writing four essay every week for the eight week term
In first year Natscis take four subjects: three experimental and one mathematics from the list below:
- Biology of Cells
- Computer Science
- Earth Sciences
- Evolution and Behaviour
- Materials Science
- Physiology of Organisms
- Elementary Mathematics for Biologists
- Mathematical Biology
In second year they take three subjects and there are some restrictions on the combination but that is more due to timetabling issues than the establishment forcing you to conform to one science. You can take medically related subjects including: physiology of the human variety, pharmacology, neurobiology, pathology and psychology.
In the third year they study one subject in great depth. In fourth year you usually do a research project in one of the departments as well as taking lectures in your chosen field.
At the end of this students get a BA (not a BSc). All degrees apart from Masters of Engineering are BA.
I personally think Sherlock did these subjects over three years (but not all at once):
- chemistry (able to identify trace elements TRF),
- physiology (able to understand how a normal human body functions helps you understand how you can kill people),
- pharmacology (drugs, toxins, poisons etc)
- pathology (able to recognised Clostridium TTG)
- psychology (understanding human behaviour, addiction, obsession and emotion is very useful for a detective).
Biological Sciences at Oxford
If you, as a writer find the idea of Sherlock going to Cambridge unconvincing or distasteful, you might want to have Sherlock doing biological sciences at Oxford. I say biological sciences rather than chemistry because this course would give Sherlock all the experimental skills he has but allow him to have the fundamental understanding of human biology that he needs as detective (and to have fun with cadavers) and allows him to identify various geni of clostridia (TTG).
This is a three year single honours degree that gives students a good grounding in animal and plant biology. You have no options in first year and have to do Cells&Genes, evolution, organisms, and quantitative methods. Second year you have two compulsory subjects: evolution and quantitative methods again and get to choose from a long list from other topics including:
- Adaptations to the Environment
- Animal Biology
- Cell & Developmental Biology
- Plants and People
- Infectious Disease
In third year the there are around 20 specialist options. Students are free to select any combination from the options, but most choose to select 6 related options. You also take active part in research in the lab.
Oxford and Cambridge are made up of constituent colleges. Like houses in Hogwarts, your college is where you live, eat, make friends and have your social life. Cambridge has 31 colleges, a handful of which only accept graduates or mature students. In general the vast majority have undergraduates, graduates and faculty members called Fellows (the equivalent of the Oxford Don). Colleges vary in size from Peterhouse who only take 80 new undergrad a year to St. John’s who take about 400.
Each college has its own bar, most are student run and quite cheap. It’s a good place to relax, play some pool and unwind with your friends. As such, I doubt Sherlock ever set foot in his college bar and if he did it was probably to purchase alcohol for his experiments.
Living in college is like being at boarding school. There are bedders who empty bins, clean personal rooms, kitchens and bathrooms. Bear in mind that some of the colleges were built in the medieval times and aren't allowed to alter their architecture. Some times you have to share a bathroom with the whole floor or climb three flights of stairs after a shower
Students don’t have to cook and some colleges don’t provide hobs for cooking anyway. Each college has a “great hall” some of which looked even more majestic than Hogwarts. Usually you can get two meals: lunch and dinner in hall, served cafeteria style. There’s also formal hall, usually three times a week where for a price you can sit down for a waiter served three course candle lit meal.
(Trinity college dining hall)
If you’re having formal in your own college you also have to wear your gown – it basically looks like Severus Snape’s outer robes. Guys look rather handsome in their gowns but it doesn’t flatter women.
(See the third person in the procession - he's wearing a student gown)
In terms of Sherlock’s university experience – many people have written about how lonely he must have been because of his terrible social skills. The truth is university can be difficult and lonely for many people with perfectly normal social skills.
I think Sherlock would not have found university any harder than school, in fact I am quite sure he must have enjoyed Cambridge very much compared to what he had endured at secondary school. There is less pressure to conform – just a lot of pressure to do well in exams. If you want to be a loner, no one is going to pick on you because there are plenty of solitary geniuses dotting the college grounds.
Sherlock’s slightly Asperger’s like behaviour isn’t going to be seen as anything unusual. One very nice mathematics supervisor said that just about all his students have some Asperger’s traits; some of them have been formally diagnosed. I have personally met many people who would make Sherlock look like the paragon of social eloquence. On the spectrum of Cambridge students Sherlock’s social skills are not quite as extreme as people might think.
For everyone who wants to write Sherlock as a university drop out. Here are some of my thoughts of how to make it realistic.
Firstly I think Sherlock has this strong streak independence – wants to do his thing at his pace. This is not a good way of approaching the Natsci course. The essays that are set have to be written, the lecture materials have to be memorised that practicals have to be attended. If you stop doing any of these things your supervisors will notice and so will your director of studies (DOS). There are quite serious repercussions for not completely the work set or consistently failing to get acceptable grades.
Tripos exams do not test how intelligent you are, they are a test of how much material you’ve managed to cram into your head over the last year. If Sherlock hasn’t bothered to revise very hard he’s not going to pass any exams.
When you fail tripos, whether you can continue to the next year of study is at the discretion of the master of your college and your DOS. Ultimately they may decide to “persuade” you to leave and not come back.
The other way in which Sherlock can get kick out of university is for bad behaviour. Each college has a strict set of rules and regulation including no walking on the designated patches of grass unless you are a fellow
Breaking these rules incurs punishment, the most severe of which is being sent down or kicked out. There's also a joke at Jesus that if you try to ride the horse statue you will be sent down from the horse and the college. Stealing equipment from labs and performing risky experiments is a sure fire way of getting yourself kick out.
If Sherlock was kick out of Cambridge or Oxford for bad behaviour, it’s unlikely he’d be wanted anywhere else
Other Parts in the Series: