Undergraduate course guide — Geography at Cambridge
- Cambridge University Geographical Society also publishes an Alternative Prospectus.
Cambridge is an outstanding place to study geography. The Department of Geography is a flourishing academic community committed to high standards of teaching and research across the expansive range of issues covered by this discipline.
From polar studies to poverty reduction, we focus on delivering high quality, research-led teaching that is stimulating and challenging. This commitment to teaching has consistently been recognised by external league tables and accolades.
Geography has a long tradition at Cambridge. The first University Lecturer in Geography was appointed in 1888 and the Geographical Tripos - the examination for a BA degree - was established in 1919. The Department of Geography today is a vibrant academic community committed to high standards of research. The questions we ask, the philosophies and methodologies we draw upon, embrace the natural and social sciences as well as the humanities. In 2014 staff in the Department produced more than 180 separate publications, and attracted research funding from a wide variety of sources. There are currently 87 PhD students and 38 students on Masters programmes.
The department thrives through the high quality of students that come to study with us. The traditions, teaching and research endure on the basis of the undergraduate students that study in the Department. Join us: and be part of this community and shape its future.
Undergraduate studies: the tripos
Each year about 100 undergraduates are admitted to the University of Cambridge to read Geography. Geography at Cambridge involves undergraduates in a wide range of lectures, supervisions, practical classes and field courses, organised around a three-year course -- called the Geographical Tripos -- which is divided into three parts, with an examination at the end of each year.
In this way the Tripos involves elements of continuous assessment through practical classes and written coursework while retaining an emphasis on examinations at the end of each year. The results of each year are self-contained: there is no averaging out at the end.
In the first year of the course there are two compulsory papers (the Tripos term for modules) which reflect the breadth of the discipline. Topics taught span contemporary human, historical, social and cultural, environmental and physical geography, and are as follows:
Paper 1: Human Geography: People, Place and Politics of Difference
- Geopolitics and Political Geography
- The Historical Geography of Globalisation
- Understanding Cultural Geographies
- Society, Environment and Sustainable Development
- Unequal Geographies
- Economic Globalisation and its Crises
- Contemporary Urban Geographies
- Current Issues in Human Geography
Paper 2: Physical Geography: Environmental Processes and Change
- The Earth
- The Cryosphere
- Atmospheric Processes and Climate
- Oceans and Coasts
- Environmental Change during the Quaternary
- Life on Earth
Geographical Skills and Methods
In addition to these two courses, all students follow a course in Geographical Skills and Methods. This course involves lectures, laboratory and computer practicals and fieldwork, and covers the following areas:
- Statistical Methods
- Working with Geographical Databases
- Cartography and GIS
- Introduction to Human Geography Methods
- Field, Laboratory and Desk-based Skills for Understanding the Physical Environment.
In the second year students begin to specialise, but are expected to maintain an interest in the discipline as a whole. All students take the core paper, Living with Global Change. This is divided into three sections:
- Core Ideas: Living in the Anthropocene: geographical thought on the nature-culture divide reviews the various meanings of 'culture' in relation to 'nature', and how these have been constructed within a globalizing world.
- Core Themes: provides more detailed material on subjects relating to 'global change'. Recent examples include climate change, volcanic hazards, migration, crime and disorder, biodiversity loss.
- Core Skills: teaches students vital methods and skills for exploring geographical topics, with a particular focus on dissertation methods.
In addition, students choose any three from a choice of six option papers. All of these second year papers involve an element of coursework which is assessed alongside end of year examinations. Papers in 2015-16 are:
- Austerity and Affluence
- Development Theories, Policies and Practices
- Citizenship, Cities, and Civil Society
Physical and Environmental Geography
- Remote Sensing
- Glacial Processes
The Department recognises and values the central role that fieldwork plays in Geography. The skills you learn are invaluable and can extend beyond the subject to future careers. All students are therefore expected to participate in a week's field class during the second year and produce a report that counts as part of their assessed work. The practical experience also forms an important part of introducing students to methods that they can use for their third year dissertations. Recent destinations have included: the Algarve, Arolla in the Swiss Alps, Dublin, Berlin, Mallorca, Morocco and Tenerife.
In the third year students study four papers from a choice of twelve. There is no requirement to balance human and physical options; it is common that students will take a mixture of both. The precise papers on offer vary from year to year. In 2015-16 the following will be available:
- The Geographies of Global Urbanism
- Knowledge, Policy and Expertise
- Political Ecology in the Global South
- The Political Geography of Postcolonialism
- Changing Cultures of Risk
- Geographies of Discipline and Social Regulation
- Historical Demography
- The Glacial and Quaternary Records
- Biosedimentary Coastal Systems
As part of the third-year examination, students also submit a 10,000 word dissertation on a subject of their choice. Members of staff and research students are available for preliminary advice on appropriate topics and procedures, and supervision is provided during both the second and third year. The research is undertaken during the summer vacation at the end of the second year: this is an opportunity to put into practice what has been taught in lectures, supervisions and practical classes. The subjects and locations of dissertations vary widely, as a few titles from recent years indicate:
- A Lost Community? Migration and Community on St Mary's, Isles of Scilly
- Saviour or Stealth Tax? Pay-by-use Domestic Waste Charging in Dublin, Ireland
- Food Access in Malawi: An Island Perspective
- Living in the Valley of the Shadow of Death? Management and Risk Perception of Volcanic Hazards near Mt Rainier, WA
- Sulphur Dioxide and Hydrogen Sulphide Emissions from Mutnovsky Volcano, Kamchatka, Russia
- Recent Temporal Changes and Spatial Trends in the Dynamics of a Shrinking Valley Glacier: Haut Glacier D'Arolla, Switzerland
Some students choose to do the research for their dissertations abroad, whilst others stay in the British Isles. Some funding is available via the Department and there are also a further series of travel awards for which there is open competition. Many Colleges also provide generous financial support for travelling during the vacations.
College admissions and teaching
Like all subjects at Cambridge, Geography involves a mix of University and College teaching. Each College has its own Director of Studies in Geography who looks after your academic progress, making sure that you keep on top of the course. College teaching is collaborative, not competitive: everyone finds different parts of the course difficult, and you can learn a great deal by listening to the ideas of others. For this reason College teaching revolves around supervisions, where a small group of students discuss a topic with a member of academic staff.
It is common that a supervision will involve writing a preparatory essay. This is a valuable exercise to develop your writing skills and as a springboard for discussion: supervision essays do not count towards your final examinations. This means that you can afford to be more adventurous than might otherwise be the case. You can read beyond the syllabus, try out your own ideas, and reach your own conclusions. Supervisions are led by experts in the field, and since no College has a monopoly on these, you can expect to be supervised by people from many different Colleges while you are here. In this way, not only do you have the chance to tackle questions at the frontiers of research; you are also exposed to different teaching styles, ideas and opinions.
Since Cambridge is a collegiate university, applications are handled by individual Colleges and not by Departments. You can either apply directly to a particular College or make an 'open' application, in which case your application will be assigned to a College by the Intercollegiate Applications Office. There is plenty of information available about different Colleges on their individual websites, and all of them hold their own Open Days which, if you are able to attend, will give you a flavour of the place. Dates for these are also given in the Cambridge Admissions Prospectus. In general, all Colleges select candidates on the basis of school and personal statements, interviews (read more and see videos) and results in public examinations.
Almost all Cambridge Colleges that admit Undergraduates will accept applications for Geography, with the exception of Peterhouse and Pembroke. In some years certain Colleges have more Geography students than others, but the pattern fluctuates from year to year.
The Library of the Department of Geography holds one of the largest specialist geography collections in the UK. Over 26,000 titles are currently held, including 23,500 monographs and 2,000 offprints. Electronic access to thousands of academic journals and a growing number of key texts is available via the main University Library. Many other Cambridge libraries are useful to geographers, including the Marshall Library of Economics and Seeley Historical Library, as well as those of the Scott Polar Research Institute, Department of Earth Sciences and the Centre of South Asian Studies. In addition, those Colleges which regularly admit significant numbers of geographers usually have extensive holdings of geographical books and journals. See more details about the Library.
Computing resources play an important part in courses at undergraduate, Masters and Ph.D. levels. Formal teaching covers basic information technology, Geographical Information Systems (GIS) and Remote Sensing. The main teaching laboratory consists of 40 PCs with printers and a projector. These facilities provide opportunities for undergraduate and postgraduate students alike to develop 'hands on' skills in GIS.
Physical Geography Laboratories and Workshop
The Department is particularly well-equipped to support teaching and research in coastal, fluvial and glacial geomorphology, and diverse aspects of Quaternary studies, with a wealth of field survey equipment ranging from powered boats to ice drills and echo sounding equipment. Environmental monitoring and modelling of all kinds is also supported by in-house design and fabrication of electronic instrumentation for use in the field. The recently refurbished Physical Geography Laboratories, together with the Environmental Chemistry laboratories, are extensively equipped to allow hardware modelling of fluvial and coastal processes and sophisticated analysis of physical and chemical properties of soils and sediments. There is also a new Teaching Laboratory located in the adjacent Sir William Hardy Building.
Cartography and Map Library
The Map Library houses a reference collection of world mapping, atlases, tide tables, gazetteers and cartographic texts. This includes a wide range of UK topographic cartography, from the Ordnance Survey First Edition quarter sheets of the 1830s to the latest open access Explorer 1:25,000 series, together with UK thematic maps at various scales. The atlas collection includes national and thematic atlases, with themes such as transportation, demography, economics, climatology, history, archaeology and war.
Some common questions... and answers
How much work is involved in studying Geography at Cambridge?
Terms at Cambridge are much shorter than at other universities, but are used intensively. Each academic year consists of three terms of eight teaching weeks. You can expect to have 7 or 8 one-hour lectures each week, though this is only a rough guide: much depends on which papers you are taking and how they are timetabled. In the first two years you will also have laboratory, practical classes or workshops each week. Depending on your choice of papers, you may also have lab classes and practicals in your third year. In the summer vacation after your second year you will work on your dissertation. This usually involves collection of data over a period of about three weeks, but the amount of time varies according to your chosen dissertation topic. In all three years you will normally have three one-hour supervisions per fortnight, but again this varies according to your paper choices. Work for your degree is therefore a mixture of contact time (lectures, etc.) and self-directed time in which you are reading for your course. This will involve reading both for essays and to strengthen and broaden your understanding of geography. While it is difficult to quantify how many hours a student works each week, as it varies between people, you can think of your studies as being equivalent to working full time. However, how you apportion that time through the week is more or less up to you and it’s important to balance work with finding time to pursue other interests and activities. This means that some students will continue their academic work in the evenings and/or at weekends in order to fit everything in. You can also expect to have to dedicate some part of each vacation to academic work. This might be to catch up on reading to consolidate your term-time work, or to complete coursework assignments which are due for submission at the start of the next term.
Is the course arts-based or science-based?
All first degrees awarded by Cambridge are Bachelor of Arts (BA) degrees - even to students studying Natural Science, Engineering or Medicine - so the name itself doesn't mean very much. In practice, Geography is what you make it: the teaching programme is broad enough to include those whose primary interests are in humanities, social sciences or natural sciences; or all three. There are also no rigid pathways within the Tripos, so not taking a paper in a particular topic in one year does not preclude you from taking a paper in a similar topic the following year.
Which school subjects are most useful?
It really doesn't matter which subjects you studied at school. It isn't even essential to have studied Geography (although most students will have done so). If you are particularly interested in Contemporary Human or Historical Geography, then Economics, English Literature, History and Sociology are useful supporting subjects; if you are interested in Physical Geography, then Biology, Geology, Mathematics and Physics are useful.
Is fieldwork an important part of the course?
Yes. Field trips form part of some practical exercises in years one and two, with trips, for example, to the North Norfolk coast, to Wicken Fen, and to important Quaternary sites in East Anglia. In addition, there are currently one-week residential field courses held during the Easter and summer vacations, all outside mainland Britain. Students make a small contribution towards the cost of residential fieldwork, which is also heavily subsidised by the Department. Some specialist field courses are also associated with second or third year lecture courses. Outside the formal teaching programme, many undergraduates organise their own overseas expeditions, often under the auspices of the Cambridge University Expeditions Society, which authorises around 25 expeditions every year. A number of University and College travel awards are also available to Geographers.
Some photo galleries of recent local field trips are available.
Is there a recommended reading list for applicants?
Remember that if you have decided that Geography is for you then you should think about reading as preparation for studying at university and not simply for an interview. Given the breadth of our course there is not a recommended list of titles, as such. Follow up on areas of your sixth form courses that you have enjoyed, and look at the topics that are covered in our first year course and keep up with the news. It is better to follow your interests, whatever they be. Reading a newspaper regularly and looking at periodicals such as Geography, Geographical, The Economist and New Scientist will also be useful.
What is CUGS?
CUGS (Cambridge University Geographical Society) is one of the largest and most active subject societies in the university, organised and run entirely by undergraduates. Its activities include guest lectures at which members have the opportunity of meeting Geographers from outside Cambridge, plus social and sporting events. Visit the CUGS website and the CUGS Facebook page.
Careers for geographers
The Geographical Tripos is an excellent foundation for whichever career you choose. The skills developed through the Geography Tripos are greatly sought after by top employers in many fields. They are attracted to graduates who have a good knowledge of the wider world and a genuine interest in economic, political, social and environmental issues; who are trained to deal with multivariate problems and to grasp their wider implications; who are used to writing essays and completing research projects on their own initiative; and who are skilled in information retrieval, data management and computing. For these reasons, Cambridge Geographers find that a very wide range of career opportunities are open to them. The University Careers Service stated that of those that graduated in 2011-12 89% went straight into employment or further study. Employment sectors included Public Service (including the Civil Service, at home and overseas), Social, Community and Charity work (including work in the Environment and Development Sectors), Media, Retail, Banking, Insurance, Accountancy and Investment. The remainder were either travelling or unavailable for work. Just one student out of the cohort of 92 was still seeking employment six months after graduation. The University Careers Service assists students in finding suitable employment, and two of its careers advisers take a special interest in Geographers.
Further information about Geography at Cambridge is available elsewhere on this website.
If you have any questions or require more information, please do contact us.
The University of Cambridge Admissions Prospectus is available online.
Photography credits throughout this document: David Beckingham, Ian Willis, Harriet Allen and Cambridge University Digital Communications.