Balliol College Masterfield

Having been through the hectic Michaelmas term of my first year at Oxford reading undergraduate mathematics, here are some of my thoughts about it.

Work, work, work

I consistently spent around 40 hours per week working on my tablet, which was surprisingly similar to the figure of “working time” recommended in the handbook given to mathematics undergraduates. I never thought I could spend this much time on work, yet when I got here and everyone is doing the same thing, it felt almost natural.

I suppose it goes to show how important a tablet is (If you don’t have one, get one!). It’s just so much easier editing, revising or organising everything on a tablet compared to using pen and paper.


Since the intensity of the work lasts for 8 weeks per term, the consistency of work really matters. Burning midnight fuel on any week that is not the last would not be worthwhile.

Trying to be consistent in aspects other than work is also helpful. Even though taking a day completely off is rather impossible, I still tried to make some part of a weekday (say the evening after the weekly deadlines) to be relatively relaxing. I also tried to organise some weekly hangouts with friends. It really helped a lot to have some sort of weekly routine going on.

Using something like screen time to record the time I spend working was also great at helping me maintain consistency. It reminded me to take breaks if I have been overworking and to work more if I’ve fallen behind schedule. It eliminates self-doubt about whether I’ve been working hard enough.

Getting yourself unstuck

Not only did I need to get work done, but I also needed to get it done fast. Mostly this meant minimizing the time I got “stuck” on something. It helped a lot to consider a flowchart whenever I get stuck. Have I missed something in the lecture notes? Have I tried watching the lectures first? Have I tried giving the material some time to sit in? Have I tried asking other people about it? Is the question conceptually important? If not should I just skip it and do something else? The less time I spend being unproductive, the more time I have to work (and rest).

(Edit: If you are stuck in trying to prove some claim you believe is true, you could try to leave the proof for later and continue as planed.)


It was important to stay interested in what I was working on. On multiple occasions, I was tempted to treat work mechanically and simply “get through it”, yet that would ultimately ruin my interest in mathematics, rendering the whole venture of studying mathematics pointless.

Time management

Being aware of the number of hours I had per day had been tremendously useful. To have 6 hours of productive work would probably end up taking me 9-10 hours. Since I also need 8 hours of sleep and 2 hours to eat/maintain myself, I end up with around 6 hours of free time, which really wasn’t a lot if I attended any social / sports / extra-curricular event that day.

Since ability to do any serious mathematics fluctuates greatly from day to day, it was important to give me more than a day to finish a problem sheet, or at least more than one part of the day, like working on a sheet in the morning and evening instead of rushing it through late night.


There are of course a lot more nuances to student life here, but since there’s always so much going on in Oxford, it’s more important to keep the big picture in mind.