Geography at Cambridge
The Department at Cambridge is a flourishing and expanding academic community committed to high standards of teaching and research across the whole field of Geography: our concerns and methods embrace the philosophies and techniques of the natural, social and historical sciences and also engage us with other disciplines grappling with the challenges of a changed and changing world.
Geography has a long tradition at Cambridge. The first University Lecturer in Geography was appointed in 1888, the first Reader in 1898. Teaching was initially for a special examination leading to a diploma in geography. The Geographical Tripos - the examination for a B.A. degree - was established in 1919. In 1931 the first Professor was appointed and in 1933 the Department moved into its own accommodation. That building, which now constitutes the eastern end of the Department, was considerably extended in the 1930s, with the construction of new lecture theatres and laboratories. In the 1980s, the building was further extended with the addition of a top floor to provide a new laboratory for computing, remote sensing and geographical information systems. In 1999 the Department expanded again, to occupy two floors in an adjacent building where new laboratories, seminar rooms and offices are housed.
Since then, the Cambridge Group for the History of Population and Social Structure (2001) and the Centre for Gender Studies (2008), have been integrated into the teaching and research activities of the Department and the Scott Polar Research Institute has become a sub-department (2002). The Department currently has 36 academic staff including eleven Professors and four Readers.
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. Research is represented by our main research clusters - Regional Economy and Society, Society Environment and Development, Historical and Cultural Geography; Environmental Processes, and Glaciology and Quaternary Change. In 2008, staff in the Department produced more than 150 separate publications, and attracted research funding from a wide variety of sources. There are currently around 60 PhD students and 35 students on Masters programmes.
Geography has been researched and taught at Cambridge for more than a century; during that time both the world and geography have changed immensely. Geography at Cambridge has a remarkable tradition and also a great future. Join us – and become part of that tradition and help make the future of geography at Cambridge.
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, 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 effect, the Tripos system is a compromise between the continuous assessment favoured by some universities and the emphasis placed on ‘Finals’ by others. Each examination is self-contained, with a separate result at the end of each year: there is no averaging out at the end. This means that it is easy to combine one subject with another, because you can change Triposes between one year and another. Whether you join us for one, two or three years, direct from school or having studied part of another Cambridge Tripos, this brochure, together with further information on our website will describe for you the kind of Geography we teach throughout our undergraduate course.
In the first year of the course there are two compulsory papers which reflect the breadth of the discipline. Topics taught span contemporary human, historical, environmental and physical geography, and are as follows:
Paper 1: Human Geography: People, Place and Politics of Difference
- The Historical Geography of Globalisation
- Economic Globalisation and its Crises
- Geographies of Risk and Insecurity
- Contemporary Urban Geographies
- Society, Environment and Sustainable Development.
- Understanding Cultural Geographies
- Geopolitics and Political Geography
Paper 2: Physical Geography: Environmental Processes and Change
- The Earth
- Atmospheric Processes and Climate
- Oceans and Coasts
- Land and Water
- The Cryosphere
- Life on Earth
- Environmental Change during the Quaternary
- Environmental Processes and Change: Recent and Future
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
- Documentary and Archival Data
- Spatial Data Analysis and GIS
- Introduction to Human Geography Methods
- Field, Laboratory and Desk-based Skills for Understanding the Physical Environment.
In the second year you begin to specialise, but we expect you to maintain an interest in the discipline as a whole. All students will take the core paper, “Living with Global Change”. Divided into three sections this paper will explore “Core Ideas” and “Core Themes”, and will deliver “Core Skills”. The overarching theme of the “Core Ideas” is “Living in the Anthropocene: geographical thought on the nature-culture divide” These lectures review the various meanings of ‘culture’ in relation to ‘nature’, and how these meanings have been constructed within a Western world that is continually in flux and has become increasingly more globalised. The second part of the paper, Core Themes, aims to provide more detailed material on four subjects relating to ‘global change’. The final part, Core Skills, aims to teach students vital methods and skills for exploring geographical topics. In addition, students will choose any three from a choice of six option papers: three of the option papers will focus on human geography topics and three will cover topics in physical and environmental geography. All of the second year papers will involve an element of coursework which is assessed alongside end of year examinations. The paper titles offered each year may vary, the papers listed below will be offered in 2012-13:
- Economic Geography
- Development Theories, Policies and Practices
- Citizenship, Cities, and Civil Society
Physical and Environmental Geography
- Glacial Processes
- The Coastal System
All students are currently expected to participate in a week’s field class. Recent destinations have included: Berlin, Dublin, Mallorca, Morocco, the Algarve, and Arolla in the Swiss Alps. A piece of submitted work produced on the field class forms part of the assessment in the second year.
In your third year you can choose whatever combination of papers you like, so that you can either specialise further or maintain a balance across the subject as a whole. You have to select four papers from those on offer in a particular year, and you also have to research and write a dissertation of up to 10,000 words: here too, the choice of subject is up to you.
In the third year, twelve papers are offered in each year. The precise papers on offer vary from year to year; in 2012-13 the following will be available:
- The Geographies of the British Economy
- Changing Cultures of Risk
- Science, Policy and Travelling Knowledges
- Contemporary India: The Politics of Society, Environment and Development
- Modelling the Earth's Atmosphere
- Glacial Environments
- Quaternary Environments
- Biosedimentary Coastal Systems
- Enviornment, Society and Policy in Sub-Saharan Africa
- Historical Geographies of Food, Famine and Power
- The Political Geography of Postcolonialism
As part of the third-year examination, students submit a short dissertation (not exceeding 10,000 words) on a subject of their choice. Members of staff and research students are available for preliminary advice on appropriate topics and procedures, and there is some supervision during the third year.
The basic 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 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
- International Volunteering: The Balance Between Commercialism and Development
- Living in the Valley of the Shadow of Death? Management and Risk Perception of Volcanic Hazards near Mt Rainier, WA
- Sex, Space and Social Controls: The Geographies of Fear in Contemporary Britain
- The Coffee Landscape of Honduras: Biodiversity and Fragmentation
- Sulphur Dioxide and Hydrogen Sulphide Emissions from Mutnovsky Volcano, Kamchatka, Russia
- Historical Geographies of Community Centres in Singapore: Entanglements of Power in the Constructions of a Postcolonial Nation
- Recent Temporal Changes and Spatial Trends in the Dynamics of a Shrinking Valley Glacier: Haut Glacier D’Arolla, Switzerland
- Observing Surveillance: a Cultural Approach to Police Surveillance of New York
Some students choose to do the research for their dissertations abroad, whilst others stay in the British Isles. Some funding is available from the University, via the Department and a number of travel awards for which there is open competition amongst undergraduates. In addition, some Colleges are able to make travel awards. However, the potential costs of fieldwork have to be carefully considered at the planning stage to ensure that the dissertation is feasible.
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. Teaching occupies the first two terms, together with the first two weeks of the third term: the remaining six weeks are given over to revision and examinations. 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. In the summer vacation after your second year you will work on your dissertation.
In Part IA, students can expect 10 supervisions per paper for which material is provided to the colleges. In addition, students can typically expect 2 hours extra study skills in year 1. For the Part IB core paper, 6 supervisions are recommended with material provided to the colleges as for the Part IA papers. Supervisions for the optional papers in Part IB and II are coordinated by the Department although they remain a formal responsibility of the college. Papers with a plus one element will typically offer 3 supervisions; every other paper will normally offer 4 supervisions. Students may also be offered revision supervisions during the Easter term. 2 hours dissertation supervision are available in Year II and 1 hour in Year III. In addition, technical support for dissertations is available as required.
You will also have to keep up with the reading for each course, but unlike some universities you are not required to study a subsidiary subject.
Is the course arts-based or science-based?
All first degrees awarded by Cambridge are Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) 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.
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; and wherever your interests lie, a working knowledge of a foreign language will help you to keep in touch with developments in what is, after all, an international discipline.
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. A compulsory general field course for second year students gives rise to a piece of assessed practical work. Some specialist field courses are also associated with second or third year lecture courses; locations have included Dublin, the French Alps, and the south-west of Switzerland. Students need to make a contribution towards the cost of residential fieldwork, which is also heavily subsidised by the Department.
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.
What is CUGS?
CUGS (Cambridge University Geographical Society) is organised and run entirely by undergraduates. Its activities include lecture meetings at which members have the opportunity of meeting Geographers from outside Cambridge, plus social and sporting events.
College admissions and teaching
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 (as do the vast majority of applicants) 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 the internet, and if possible, try to visit a couple of Colleges, by booking a place on one of their Open Days: dates are given in the Cambridge Admissions Prospectus. In general, all Colleges select candidates on the basis of school reports, interviews and results in public examinations.
Almost all Cambridge Colleges that admit Undergraduates will accept applications for Geography, with the exception of Peterhouse and Pembroke.
Table 1 (end of brochure) indicates the numbers of geography students and fellows by college for 2011-12. Recent application statistics given both by subject and by college are published.
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.
You are usually expected to have written an essay for each supervision. This is a valuable discipline, but it is intended to be 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.
Numbers of Geography students and fellows at different colleges in 2011-12
|College||Number of Geography undergraduates in all years of study||Number of fellows in Geography||Director of Studies from another college*|
|Gonville and Caius||7||0||x|
* Not taking account of patterns of leave
Careers for Geographers
No Cambridge degrees are vocational in the strict sense: even graduate engineers, lawyers and medical students have to undergo further training before they practise. But employers are very obviously 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 is open to them. It is difficult to obtain accurate data on the destinations of students, but information collected by the University Careers Service for 2008-9 gives some indication of career choices after graduation: 31% went on to further study, including PhD, taught or research Masters degrees, legal training (4%) or teacher training (8%). 56% went straight into employment, of which 13% went into ‘Public Service’ (including the Civil Service, at home and overseas), 9% went into ‘Social, Community and Charity’ work, including work in the Environment and Development Sectors, and 7% ‘Banking and Investment’. The University Careers Service assists students in finding suitable employment, and two of its careers advisers take a special interest in Geographers. The Department also now publishes a magazine Landmark for its alumni. Browsing through the pages of the magazine provides further indications of the range of directions that Geographers from Cambridge go in after graduation. See http://www.geog.cam.ac.uk/alumni/
The Library of the Department of Geography holds one of the largest specialist geography collections in the UK, comprising over 40,000 books and approximately 10,000 bound copies of periodicals, of which 47 titles are current subscriptions. There are also over 150 series of Working Papers and research reports as well as a large collection of off-prints and other ephemera. Electronic access to thousands of academic journals and a growing number of key texts is available via the main University Library (UL).
The Geography Department Library is an integral part of the wider Cambridge University library network, consisting of the UL and its dependent libraries, including Department and Faculty Libraries and also College Libraries. Many other Cambridge libraries are useful to geographers, including: the Marshall Library of Economics, Seeley Historical Library and the Central Science Library, as well as those of the Scott Polar Research Institute, Department of Earth Sciences and the Centre of South Asian Studies. The catalogues of the Department and many other libraries can be searched using an online link to the Union Catalogue of College and Department Libraries. In addition, those Colleges which regularly admit significant numbers of geographers usually have extensive holdings of geographical books and journals.
Computing resources play an important part in courses at undergraduate, Masters and Ph.D. levels. Formal teaching covers basic information technology, Geographical Information Systems and Remote Sensing. The main teaching laboratory consists of 40 Pentium PCs with printer and projector. There are also two separate smaller teaching laboratories for GIS and Research student use located in the Sir William Hardy Building. These facilities provide opportunities for undergraduate and postgraduate students alike to develop 'hands on' skills in geographical information technology. In addition the computing facilities provide the framework in which the Department carries out many of its research activities. To this end most staff members have PCs in their offices, which may be used for anything from computational modelling of ice flows to textual analysis or statistical processing of census data.
Geography Science 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 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 Cartographic Unit produces original, high quality, maps and diagrams to support teaching and research. In-house Mac and PC computer platforms enable images to be imported, edited and exported in a variety of graphics and GIS software packages and file formats. Products range from campus plans, road maps, conference material, book and atlas figures, posters, wall maps, brochures and research reports. The service is available to the academic and research community within the Department and, by arrangement, to staff from colleges and other university Departments in Cambridge.
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. A range of commercial UK street plans, administrative maps, and European medium scale topographic maps are also stocked. There is a comprehensive coverage of Cambridge and East Anglia.
The atlas collection includes national and thematic atlases, with themes such as transportation, demography, economics, climatology, history, archaeology and war.
Reprographics and Digital Imaging
The Reprographics Unit provides colour and black and white printing, copying, graphic design, desktop publishing, high resolution scanning, print finishing and binding, together with a digital photography, digital image enhancement and image repair and reproduction service. The service is available to the academic and research community within the Department and, by arrangement, to staff and students from Colleges and other University Departments in Cambridge.
Further information about Geography at Cambridge is available on our website. If you have any questions or require more information, please write to:
Undergraduate Admissions Enquiries
Department of Geography
E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org or use our contact form
The University of Cambridge Admissions Prospectus is also available online.
Paper copies can be obtained from:
Cambridge Admissions Office,
32 Trumpington Street