First Year Natural Sciences at the University of Cambridge
I admit that I was anxious about starting my studies at Cambridge. Something known as the “imposter syndrome” was poisoning my mind as I was getting closer and closer to the moment when I had to leave my home country and fly to uni. Was I good enough? Was I going to fit in? I soon realized that everyone had the exact same questions in mind, because no one really knew what to expect from such a distinguished university. You expect it to be tough, and you’re not sure you can handle it.
As a Natural Sciences student at Cambridge, you get to choose which subject areas you want to study from a wide palette. I chose Mathematics (which was compulsory anyway), Chemistry, Physics, and Materials Science. Going into my third year now, I still believe I made the right choices at the time, because I gathered a huge amount of information from other fields of science and I can better understand the subject I am studying now, which is Chemistry.
All four courses started off quite slow: we were given some time to get used to the new teaching methods. For example, in Maths, we started with a basic introduction to vectors. I was familiar with most of the concepts, and that boosted my self-confidence. In Physics, we started with some straightforward Mechanics, Chemistry was all about orbitals and Materials Science offered an introduction to 3D chemical structures. The purpose of the first few weeks is to bring everyone up to speed and there is nothing to worry about during this time.
However, the skill you need to gain relatively quickly is problem solving, since it is entirely different from what you were used to. Typical A-Level problems guide you by asking questions and introducing the relevant data at the right time. A typical university-style question is giving you the information you need and asking the final question, and you have to figure out by yourself what the intermediate steps are.
Even more, you need to understand the physical phenomena behind the question. I found this quite easy to do, mostly because I love finding my own method to solve a problem. I was often thinking of different solutions just to see how far I could push my understanding of a concept. However, as every person who is learning, I sometimes needed guidance, and that’s when my supervisors were there to help me.
Supervisions are small teaching groups where you and one or two other students discuss, revise and clarify the material covered in lectures with a specialist in that subject area. Every time I walked out of a supervision, I was feeling more confident and enlightened. To be honest, I found supervisions more helpful than lectures themselves. I could easily get lost during a lecture, it happens to everyone to not pay attention in class from time to time. In contrast, I was more engaged during supervisions. I had to explain things and test my understanding of them, I couldn’t just listen. This is why these small group teaching sessions were so important for me: I never walked out of one without improving my understanding and knowledge.
Something similar happens during practicals. Because all laboratory work is closely related to the material covered in lectures, every student has to apply a set of theories and concepts to complete an experiment. I was excited about going to practicals because it was intriguing to see how the formula I had just seen in a lecture is useful in real life. Normally, it was sometimes tricky to use complicated equipment or understand unexpected results but, as in the case of supervisions, I had demonstrators to help me. They were mostly PhD students, friendly and talented, ready to answer any question I had.
What is most important when studying a course such as Natural Sciences is constant progress. Because of the large amount of information, learning everything two weeks before the exams (which are all at the end of the year) will never work. I used every day to build on my understanding and get better at solving different types of problems. Even though I couldn’t always get things perfectly, I knew I was constantly making improvements.
During my first year at Cambridge, I have learnt that it is not about how many concepts, formulas and theories you can understand perfectly or how many problems you solve. It is actually all about how well you can understand those concepts, formulas and theories, and how well you can solve those problems in the time you have. Now, that is easy to say. However, I found it quite difficult to use my time effectively and I recommend investing time in planning your days and weeks at Cambridge carefully. You won’t have enough time to do a flawless piece of work, but you have to give it your best.