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The dissertation

As part of the third-year examination, students also submit a 10,000-word dissertation on a subject of their choice.

Starting in the second year, students work with a dissertation supervisor to develop their research topic, in an area of their interest; this is an opportunity to put into practice what has been taught in lectures, supervisions and practical classes. Data collection usually takes place in the summer vacation at the end of the second year.

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

See where our students have been in recent years

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 University travel awards for which there is open competition. Many Colleges also provide generous financial support for travelling during the vacations.

Busking, regulation and public space politics in Camden, London

For me the dissertation was the most meaningful component of the Geography course, because I learnt so much simply through working on a project of my own interest and design from start to finish. This independence means you have to organise everything effectively by yourself, but is also freeing in how you have lots of choice and control over your work. You can explore topics on the fringes of the Geography course in more detail, and even connect your work to interests outside Geography. My topic, for example, looked at the regulation of busking, which not only allowed me to connect my research to my love of music and interest in politics, but also allowed me to consider a niche subject area that had hardly been explored before in Geography.

My research was largely interview-based, which presented a fair few challenges but was also the most enjoyable part for me. Finding enough contacts for each group implicated in my research (buskers, councillors, and residents) – and getting them to reply to emails – was perhaps the hardest aspect of this! But once I was in good correspondence with a few individuals in each group they were happy to give me more contacts. It was especially heartening to see people’s interest in my research topic, and how willing they were to give their time and help me. Meeting such kind and engaging people from all walks of life, and having the privilege of hearing their stories and outlooks, is what gives me such fond memories of my dissertation fieldwork. Many of these people I’m still in touch with now, and they are helping me with new ventures post-Cambridge.

Jack Lowe, Girton College

Urban Climate Change: investigating climate variability in Greater Tokyo

Unlike some other departments where the student is allocated and assisted by a supervisor to guide through the dissertation process, the Geography Department takes a much more individualistic research approach. The department can assist financially and faculty members are able to provide some guidance, however, much of your dissertation is your own work. Whilst this may seem daunting at first, you get the full research experience from planning to execution and the write-up.

Benefiting from the extremely broad spectrum of fields that Geography covers, the choice of dissertation subject is infinite. Furthermore, topics are not limited to what is covered in lectures, in fact, most decide to conduct independent research on a topic that interests them, which is usually beyond what is taught in the department. My dissertation was in the field of urban climatology, something quite different from what is offered in lectures.

With the progression and acceleration of urbanisation on a global scale paralleled with on-going climate change, I investigated how urban environments played a role. My study was based in Tokyo and encompassed the Greater Tokyo area which covers a range of urban and rural areas. I received various grants from the Geography department, university and college which allowed me to fully fund the research. I conducted a time series analysis into trends and variability using JRA-55 reanalysis data and ground station temperature measurements across 29 stations in the Greater Tokyo region from 1958-2012 to show how urban environments influence local microclimates. The handling of >2,000,000 data points was certainly a challenge, however, exploring a topic of interest to such detail as part of an independent research is a highly rewarding experience and is certainly one of the most memorable component of my Geographical Tripos.

Tomohito Shibata, King’s College