Geography at Cambridge: Student profiles
Finishing school with A Levels in Maths, Physics, Chemistry and Geography and a very broad range of interests meant choosing a course to study at degree level was tricky. After much research and deliberation, and a gap year taking part in the Year in Industry scheme and travelling in South East Asia, I concluded that it was geography that offered the unique combination of the sciences and humanities which I was looking for. Having finished my first year as a geography student at Cambridge, I am confident that I made the right decision.
One of my initial concerns when applying for the course was the fact that it has a lot fewer contact hours than something like the Natural Sciences Tripos. Before university I was also not the most avid of readers and was a bit worried that I would find myself with hours on end trying to read piles of books. Fortunately, I have found the work-life balance of a Cambridge geographer to be very manageable. Reading lists for supervision essays and lectures make it easy to select and find texts to read which are both fascinating and useful. The essay turnaround of about one a week each on a different topic also helps to structure your time and terms. Reading widely helps to explore the interlinking concepts throughout both human and physical geography as well as discovering what really interests you most about the subject. I have valued the equal mix of human and physical modules in the first year, which has opened my eyes to fields I didn't even know existed, and I aim to maintain this balance in my second year of study.
Alongside my studies I have also enjoyed making the most of some of the many opportunities Cambridge has to offer, in particular rowing for my college and organising the College winter ball. There are also a range of grants available from college to university level to support students with additional travel abroad. This summer a college grant enabled me and two fellow geographers to travel to Iceland and see the natural wonders the country has to offer. A fantastic experience! I am also looking forward to future travel opportunities as part of the Geographical Tripos, including the second year field trip to Tenerife and a dissertation research trip next summer.
Second Year Undergraduate
Even after finishing A-level geography I was unsure of whether I was a human or physical geographer and had always enjoyed both aspects of the subject. Consequently, I was reluctant to choose a degree which might force me to pick between them. I was attracted to the Cambridge geography course because of the diversity of human and physical modules offered. However, it was not until I started my first year that I really appreciated the enormous breadth of topics encompassed by the subject of geography! My first year has provided an introduction to a very broad range of topics: covering areas from the geography of subprime mortgages and the financial crisis, to sustainability and biogeography. I am now planning on continuing to study a mixture of both human and physical papers in my second year.
I have found the geography department, both staff and other students, to be a welcoming and friendly place. When I arrived in Cambridge I was nervous and daunted by the grand buildings, traditions and other students who I thought must all know more than me. However, I soon found that my Director of Studies and other supervisors were always willing to help me and they have all guided me through my first year, providing the support I needed to find my feet.
Supervisions provide an amazing opportunity to engage with academics and this contact time is one of the features which sets studying at Cambridge apart from many other institutions. In my first year I have typically had one supervision a week, usually in small groups of no more than three. Initially I worried that supervisions may be a scary experience where the supervisor would ask impossible questions and expect me to have all the answers. However it isn't actually like that at all. Supervisions are a chance to discuss and debate the material you have been studying and also to improve your understanding of things you may have struggled with. I have found that supervisors are always happy to answer my questions – no matter how obvious the answers!
During my first year I have also enjoyed being able to get involved in a wide range of activities beyond my studies. This has included events run by CUGS (The Cambridge University Geographical Society) and also college rowing and other university societies. In my opinion geographers are some of the most active and sociable people in the university. The relatively flexible nature of our timetables means geography students can manage their studies around an incredible range of other activities and societies.
I have found that the fantastic teaching, contact time with academics and the friendly and sociable atmosphere make the Cambridge geography department a great place to study.
Second year undergraduate
I've always felt that the breadth of Geography is one of its greatest assets – the ability to study numerous different topics and how they interact with one other is something unique to Geography. This is one of the things that particularly drew me towards reading Geography at Cambridge – the course is mixed, meaning you're not forced to choose to study just one of Human or Physical. First year is split evenly between both disciplines, whilst you can then specialise (or choose to retain breadth) in 2nd and then 3rd year. As a result, I've been able to explore how Human and Physical Geography relate to, and often overlap with, one another. Geography at Cambridge - more than just a continuation of A Level - has actively encouraged me to explore. Units are diverse and include topics I hadn't previously even considered to be part of geography, encompassing everything from Remote Sensing and Biogeography, to Development and Political Ecology. Whilst lectures provide a framework, learning is primarily through exploring associated literature (though fieldwork is also important, with fieldtrips each year), with the supervision format encouraging you to formulate your own opinions and ideas about articles or books you may have read and to discuss these.
This notion of exploring Geography is exemplified by the dissertation, where you're given the opportunity to conduct your own research about a Geographical issue (that can encompass almost everything in reality). Funding is readily available from across Colleges, the Department and the University as a whole, providing you with the opportunity to pursue any topic that interests you. I opted to stay in the UK, travelling to North York Moors for 3 weeks, but other friends studying Geography secured funding to go to abroad to locations as varied as Spain, Norway, the USA and Argentina. My dissertation has provided an amazing opportunity to see a part of the UK I hadn't visited before and to utilise the skills from the first two years of my degree to conduct my own, independent research about a topical issue in a huge amount of depth.
You're expected to work hard at Cambridge (which can seem daunting), but reading Geography (aptly named) leaves you with ample opportunity to explore everything else Cambridge has to offer too, with an emphasis upon literature affording great flexibility in structuring your day. During my time at here, I've attended numerous events run by CUGS (the Cambridge University Geographical Society) and other university wide societies, been heavily involved in (and now am running) my college's Music Society, and recently have even been able to take up rowing (something that I'd never even considered before starting at Cambridge).
Studying Geography at Cambridge has given me an opportunity to study a huge array of different issues from across the globe, and has allowed me to develop an enormous repertoire of skills as a result. I'd recommend anyone with a curious mind, interested in tackling real-world issues to consider studying Geography – my only regret after two years is that I only have one year left!
Third year undergraduate
I think the thing that attracted me to the Geography course at Cambridge was the variety on offer in the first year. I left school interested in all aspects of the subject and didn't want to be pigeon-holed too early, especially as there were so many topics in the prospectus that I had never studied! Now going into my final year, I'm so happy with my decision. I would never have touched on topics such as biogeography and political ecology, which I have become particularly passionate about. That's the fantastic thing about studying Geography here, you are inspired to try something different and branch out into anything you want to do. This, together with being taught by prominent researchers, ultimately keeps you intellectually challenged. Many of my friends complain about the long hours or boring compulsory modules in the course, but here at Cambridge I wouldn't want to study anything else.
Not to mention the fact that we get to go on field trips and have the chance to travel quite extensively to conduct our dissertation research. I spent 4 weeks in San Francisco looking at the city's urban nature, and without funding from the Department and College grants this would not have been possible. This may sound daunting, but not many other subjects have the opportunity to delve into the discipline in such a way. It's your chance to pursue an area that you love – or at least have questions about – and it may also help cover lots of key texts you'll need for our final papers anyway. It's also a pretty good start if you are thinking about a research-oriented career.
Looking back at my time at Cambridge, two things really stand out for me. Firstly, the amount of incredible stuff I've got involved with. Whether that has been as president of my College's Geographical Society or representing the college in sport, I have learnt a great deal outside of my immediate studies. It has been challenging at times to fit it all in, but you'll be amazed at what you can achieve in such short terms. You definitely learn how to time-manage, and it's a skill employers tend to love. Secondly, the friendly nature of the academics means that you really build up a rapport with your Director of Studies and supervisors, despite not having as many contact hours as other subjects. I think my time at Cambridge would have been significantly less fulfilling if I hadn't studied Geography.
Even if you're a bit apprehensive about studying Geography at Cambridge, and admittedly at times I was. I would encourage you to apply. Don't be put off by thinking that the course will just be an extension of A level; even though you might study similar topics, the scope, depth and emphasis are pretty different (and more interesting). It's a holistic degree which, if you're curious about the world, I'm sure you'll love.
3rd year undergraduate
The Cambridge Geography course (or Tripos, as it is known here) was perfect for me as an applicant because it meant that I could get to know my subject at degree level, before specialising. The first year is split equally between human and physical geography and over the three terms we learn 15 different topics ranging from Geopolitics, through Sustainability, to Earth Processes. It's a really varied course and it's very difficult to get bored or too frustrated with one topic because the curriculum changes from fortnight to fortnight.
When I came to Cambridge to read Geography, I don't think I fully appreciated what 'reading' a subject meant... I definitely do now! It's surprising how little I used my colouring pencils (though the jokes from other subjects didn't stop) and how much time I spent reading books and articles. However, the average week for a Geographer remains very balanced. We have daily lectures which set out the basis for the topics we cover, and the rest of the day can be spent reading and exploring the huge breadth of Geography. It's really easy to delve deep into parts of the topics that really interest you, or as the case may be, find the essential information for a *cough* less appealing assignment. I've even found some potential dissertation topics through searching out my own reading during the year. The supervision system at Cambridge is fantastic both for teasing out problems I've had with a particular essay or theory, and voicing my own thoughts to a leading academic in the field. These 2:1 or 3:1 sessions really raise the quality of the teaching at Cambridge and I always leave supervisions feeling much more comfortable with a topic, and sometimes, exhausted too! You can even broaden your learning further and very conveniently as the Department holds open seminars and workshops on many relevant topics, such as, in my first year, Typhoon Haiyan's causes and impacts.
In the past year, I've become so passionate about areas of Geography I didn't know existed before beginning my studies here, such as cultural geography, or that I even expected to dislike. Degree level Geography is a much freer and wider-reaching subject compared to A-Level. What's more is that there's still plenty of time to pursue other interests (ask any Geographer, or actually, anyone who KNOWS a Geographer). This year I've managed to start learning two languages and also be in several productions at the ADC student theatre each term. It's surprisingly easy to balance work and social life due to how flexible your timetable is which means that Geographers tend to be some of the most sociable people on campus and around college. This course has been so rewarding, I'd recommend it to anyone thinking of applying, and I can't wait to see what the next years will bring.
2nd year undergraduate
After graduating high school in Copenhagen, I felt absolutely clueless about what I wanted to do with my future. So, I started travelling for some years, and eventually I realized that I wanted an education with an international perspective. I did not feel that any university in Denmark could offer quite what I was looking for, so I decided to apply to the University of Cambridge. I was curious to find out what it was like to attend this world famous university, and, more importantly, I was curious to discover more about my own academic potential. Because I knew I was most likely not going to be the typical Cambridge undergraduate, I chose to apply to a college which accepts mature students, and where the majority of the students are of international background. I am very pleased with this choice because it turned out to be a great opportunity to meet people from all over the world.
At first, I did not feel quite at home in Cambridge. Even though the professors and fellow students all seemed very nice and friendly, there are so many things to get used to, when moving to a different country, and it took some time to figure out the UK way of doing things.
But as the course progressed, I found nationality and background seemed less and less important. The main things lectures and supervisors focused on were interest and passion for geography. It is this type of intense focus on your interest which will make you reach your goals, rather than your background. In other words, there is no such thing as a recipe for how to be a Cambridge student – except to follow your interest. So, as I learned to make the Cambridge experience my own, and to focus on the aspects of the course and the student life I could identify with, I started to truly appreciate the opportunities for academic depth, creation of knowledge and new friendships, which was offered by the university.
One of my favourite aspects of the geography course is the weekly contact with professors. Here, I do not just talk about the general concept of supervisions, because every Cambridge course has those, but in the Geography department, professors are interested in getting to know your thoughts, and taking an interest in your personal academic development. This feeling of being taken seriously from day one has been a great motivating factor for me to keep reading and engaging with the course material.
3rd year undergraduate
The broad range of Geography offered at Cambridge and the availability of a rich range of literature is what makes the Cambridge Geography course so appealing. Almost halfway through my first year, I am well into the process of discovering which aspects of Geography interest me the most. Because the first year gives an introduction to so many different branches of Geography (many of which aren't studied at school), from historical geographies, to atmosphere and climate, to geopolitics and to the cryosphere (the list goes on), I don't feel I'm missing out. The course then gives the opportunity to second and third year students to specialise in their particular interests, while still recognising that some students may wish to continue studying topics from both human and physical Geography! I therefore know that I can truly follow my geographical interests for the remainder of my degree.
Cambridge can seem a daunting place to an applicant - full of crusty old professors who don't see eye to eye with students who want to have a bit of fun as well - however, asides from being experts in their relative fields, lecturers and supervisors are human and are always happy to point you in the right direction with your studies. It is also worth pointing out that, in my first year, older undergraduate students have also been very helpful with their advice.
And the Geography degree does not work you so hard that you can't get involved in other activities and lead an active social life. Cambridge Geographers can play hard as well as work hard, especially given the social opportunities provided by CUGS (the Cambridge University Geography Society). Apply to Cambridge if you are passionate about Geography, enjoy reading about it, like the sound of the collegiate system and are prepared to work hard (but not all the time!)
1st year undergraduate
Coming from a State Comprehensive School and Sixth Form College and having parents who had not attended University, studying at University did, at first, seem a little daunting. Fortunately, I took part in the Sutton Trust Summer School, which provided me with a valuable taster of Higher Education. Learning alongside other avid Geography students, discovering the Department's extensive library (which I came to love as an undergraduate) and outstanding Physical Geography Laboratories, and being taught and inspired by world experts in their field, I was in no doubt that I wanted to study Geography at the University of Cambridge.
I was especially attracted to the Cambridge course because it permits study of Physical and Human Geography in equal measure, with the Department recognising the interlinkage often existing between these two areas. This ability to study both Physical and Human Geography is so valuable because I, like many others, had been unsure prior to my degree which area I preferred – especially since GCSE and A-Level Geography are so different from that at University. However, I quickly realised during the broad first-year course that Physical Geography was my preference. I therefore selected second-year papers covering Glacial Processes, Biogeography, and Environmental Hazards. I also continued with Human Geography, choosing a paper on the Historical Geography of Cities. Studying modules on Statistics and Geographical Information Systems (GIS), which may have seemed tedious at the time, provided me with incredibly valuable (and employable) skills, particularly when my dissertation involved substantial GIS. In third year, there is opportunity for complete specialisation, though many of my peers did maintain breadth. Thanks to the range of papers offered, reflecting the Department's wide research agenda, I selected a diversity of Physical Geography topics: Ice Sheet Processes, Quaternary Environments, Biosedimentary Coastal Systems, and Volcanology. I came to appreciate the extent to which Geography is marvelously interlinked by the end of third year, with knowledge I had acquired throughout my time in Cambridge becoming valuable.
Students in the Geography Department are actively encouraged to travel abroad to conduct dissertation research. Funding comes from a plethora of travel grants available to Cambridge students, meaning expenses of over £1,000 can be readily covered. I thus travelled to Arctic Sweden to conduct research on the subglacial drainage system of Storglaciären, working as part of a research team. This left me in no doubt that I wanted to pursue an academic career. With this in mind, I shall remain at Cambridge University to study for an MPhil in Polar Studies at the Scott Polar Research Institute, which is a sub-Department of the Geography Department.
At Cambridge, I have learnt the importance of the 'play hard, work hard' ethic. I have been extensively involved with the University Hillwalking Club of which I was President; I took part in over 30 of the Club's trips. Another benefit of the Collegiate system is that there is never a shortage of societies: I also played for my College Badminton Team and was Co-President of the College's Geographical Society.
The supervision system provides students with the opportunity to discuss Geography topics with world experts in their field on (typically) a two- or three-to-one basis, in a wholly supportive environment. It is therefore unsurprising that Cambridge graduates are some of the best prepared for employment or for continuing with postgraduate study. I am in no doubt that the Cambridge Geography course is world-class and I would thoroughly recommend anyone thinking of applying to do so.
3rd year undergraduate