Matt is from Guernsey in the Channel Islands, and has just finished the fourth year of Computer Science here at Christ’s College, Cambridge, having changed from Natural Sciences (Physical), which he studied for the first three years. At school, Matt sat A-Levels in Maths, Further Maths, Chemistry and Physics.
How easy did you find it to choose a university course?
Very hard! I had to choose between Natural Sciences and Computer Science, and I probably made the wrong choice (I switched to Computer Science after third year). However, as weird as it sounds, I wouldn’t change it! If I’d chosen Computer Science, I probably wouldn’t have known that I preferred it to Physics, and I might have always been left wondering. I don’t think it matters too much what you choose, as long as it’s something you like - you might love it, or you might find it’s not what you expected, but things always seem to sort themselves out in the end.
The Computer Science course at Cambridge is more theoretical than at other universities. If you study Engineering, you can choose to specialise in “information engineering” in later years, which is more applied, although the Computer Science course still teaches you the skills most employers look for: programming, presenting your work,and you might even work with a company in your third year. If you want to go on to further study (such as a PhD), then you’ll need to do a Master’s because this gives you experience of completing an independent research project. The Master’s course is heavily research based in that you have to write a dissertation, which leads naturally into more substantial projects such as a PhD.
I chose Natural Sciences (Physical) because I liked the freedom to take combinations of subjects. I really had no idea which parts of science I liked most, so it was nice to be able to take Physics, Chemistry, Maths and Earth Sciences (which I took on a bit of a whim) in the first year. Most universities make you choose one, so if you find out that you don’t like a subject, it’s harder to switch. You might find that you really like something you’ve never considered before. For example, I realised that I loved Earth Sciences, and I ended up spending half of my second year taking it!
The process of changing courses depends a lot on the courses in question. Some of them are quite ‘standard’ swaps (quite a fewpeople swap from Natural Sciences to Mathematics, or vice-versa). For these swaps, you first need to ask your Director of Studies (DoS, the person who is in charge of coordinating your subject at your college). When you swap courses (or “change tripos”), you’re starting the subject from scratch, whilst everyone else has been studying for at least a year - it means that you need to demonstrate that you will be able to cope with the material. They might set conditions; you might need to do well in the exams, or do a lot of reading over the summer to catch up.
Swapping to Computer Science is fourth year is a bit trickier. I had to ask my Tutor (who is the academic in charge of your pastoral needs), who then arranged a meeting with the Computer Science DoS at Christ’s. As with any other swap, I had to explain why I wanted to change, and why I thought this wasn’t a terrible idea. Having met with the DoS, he agreed that he was happy with the idea and applied to the Department of Computer Science. Though the Department wasn’t keen initially (some departments are less open to swapping), once I’d got the grades I needed they couldn’t actually stop me from changing!
Why did you choose Christ’s?
I couldn’t visit Christ’s before applying, so I chose Christ’s based purely on a list of pros and cons which I found on The Student Room. I didn’t want my College to be too small, but I also didn’t want it to be enormous, which left me choosing between Pembroke and Christ’s. I’m glad I chose Christ’s in the end, but I’ve visited most of the other Colleges for supervisions, meeting friends, or just to explore, and I’m sure I’d have been just as happy at most of them!
When applying, I knew that your College was where you lived and worked, but it’s actually much more. Your College gives you a sense of identity, a team to root for and a group of people you can sit next to in lectures - it’s just a nice place to call yours.
"Your College gives you a sense of identity, a team to root for and a group of people you can sit next to in lectures - it’s just a nice place to call yours."
What advice would you give students considering applying to study your subjects?
First of all, for Natural Sciences interviews, just make sure you’ve revised your school stuff, think out loud in the interview, and be friendly. There are no particular books that you need to read beforehand. The first year reading lists might give you some inspiration, and anything which shows you’re interested in your subject is useful. If you come across as someone who the interviewers would like to teach, you’re much more likely to get a place. Remember that they’re just normal people who love their subject, so just try to relax, and have a chat.
To do well at Cambridge, try to work out how you learn best, and bear in mind that you don’t need to understand everything anywhere near as well as you do at A-Level. Don’t try to develop an encyclopaedic knowledge of the course - it’s pretty much impossible to learn all of the material perfectly, and a lot of the stuff doesn’t actually come up in the exams anyway, so focus your learning on the important bits (which you can usually identify by using past exam questions and talking to your supervisors).
What was being in the final year of the course like?
All three years of Natural Sciences are more or less the same. You choose a set of modules to take, and they become more specialised each year, until the third year where you’re so specialised that you’re taking just one subject. In my third year, I took Physics, but I got to choose the subjects I wanted to study within this field.
Lectures start in the morning, and practicals are dotted around along with supervisions (small group sessions with academics). The amount of time spent in lectures and practicals stays about the same each year, although the practicals become longer but less frequent as the projects become more involved.
After the third year of Natural Sciences, I switched into the fourth year of the Computer Science course. Computer Science is more research-based, so my fourth year was very different from the previous three years. There were only a few hours of lectures per week, chosen from a huge range of courses, and a much bigger individual research project component.
What modules did you study in your final year(s)?
I chose my final year Physics papers based on what I enjoyed most - I was more into applied and computational physics, and I didn’t want to go near the hardcore theoretical physics. My fourth year (Computer Science) courses were a different kettle of fish. Because I didn’t have the previous three years’ experience of studying the subject, I chose courses based on what I could do, as well as what sounded most interesting (I think for most people these two things tend to be the same).
To come up with the idea for my Computer Science dissertation, I asked two academics who did research into interesting things if they had any ideas, and looked at their websites for inspiration. I met with both of them, and decided to take one of their project ideas (which were very different from my original ideas). I then had further meetings with my supervisor to make some changes and nail down the details, and ended up with a great project working on simulating autonomous vehicles.
The most interesting thing I worked on this year was a mini-project developing some software which helps autonomous drones to decide which areas of the ground below look most interesting, and fly to map those areas, without any human interaction. The drone runs some object recognition code, and has an on-board camera, so if it ‘sees’ objects such as people, buildings, or livestock, then it flies to the area to survey it. These drones are useful for keeping track of animal populations and nomad communities in hard-to-reach parts of developing countries. It was an interesting challenge which actually had an impact, which felt great!
Have you been able to manage a reasonable balance between work and other aspects of your life?
In first year, everything was hectic. I was ill, I struggled to meet deadlines, I messed up supervision work, and I fell asleep in lectures. After that, things became much better; I spent less time doing nothing, and I actually joined more societies. I find that getting involved with extra-curricular activities actually makes you work more effectively, whilst also giving you a nice break from work. In third year, I took on even more responsibility outside of my academic work, but I actually did better in the exams than in the previous two years. Essentially, I found that if you do lots of things outside of academic work, this keeps you happy and healthy, whilst forcing you to use your time more effectively, and your work actually improves for it.
"Getting involved with extra-curricular activities actually makes you work more effectively, whilst also giving you a break from work."
How did you approach exam revision?
When revising for exams I’ve tried several ways of managing the stress. The big ones are to make sure that you get enough sleep, and whatever happens, keep doing other things. Do some exercise, meet with friends, help out with a society every now and then. Don’t try to learn everything - there simply isn’t enough time. Look at past exam papers and revise the stuff that comes up a lot, but don’t bother so much with the stuff that never shows up.
Exam term as a finalist was the same as the previous years, but slightly more stressful, because there is so much riding on it (I had to do well in the exams to be allowed to move to Computer Science). That said, the first two years prepare you well, so when exam term hits, you know what to expect and you’re ready for it.
What have you most enjoyed about your time at Cambridge?
It’s a cliché, but the people are probably the best part - what I’ve enjoyed most are all those times where my friends and I have been doing something really dull, like eating a meal, cycling to lectures or even struggling with a nasty problem sheet together. Even if what we’re doing has been hard or boring, the people make it great. The best thing is that most of university life is made up of little, inconsequential things like these, and these are the things that I’ll miss most!
During the holidays, I sometimes went away with my friends: for example, we once went walking in the Outer Hebrides. Christ’s has a brilliant scheme through which you can apply for funding to go places and do things over the holidays, even if it’s got nothing to do with your studies! There is also the book grant, which is really useful - make sure you get a few good books on the basic material in first year, but also try to choose books which are good enough to be useful in later years. Get a good Maths textbook - I really liked ‘Mathematical Methods in the Physical Sciences’ by Mary Boas. It’s more wordy than some, but it gave me a nice, intuitive understanding of the concepts.
Where is your favourite place in College?
I have two favourite places: the Fellows’ Garden and the Porters’ Lodge. The Fellows’ Garden is a lovely place to go, whether you feel like wandering, relaxing, or finding somewhere quiet to listen to a podcast. It’s really nice in summer, when it’s closed to the public, but it’s also great in winter, when there’s nobody else around. You can go from the hustle and bustle of the city centre to absolute, still quiet in under a minute.
My other favorite place is the Porters’ Lodge, because the porters are always up for a chat or a bit of banter, and no matter how great or terrible your day has been, they’ll make it better.
Coming from overseas (the Channel Islands) I’ve stayed at Christ’s over a few holidays, so I’ve lived in most of the blocks in College. I can safely say that the best accommodation I lived in was in Staircase 4 (New Court), which is set up very much like a hotel. The outside looks a bit like a typewriter, but inside there are high, modern ceilings, en-suite rooms, and even rooms with two floors spread over a mezzanine. If you opt for a non-en-suite room there, it’s especially cheap!
"Christ's accommodation has high, modern ceilings, en-suite rooms, and even rooms with two floors spread over a mezzanine."
What did you do during your spare time in the final year?
In my third year I was co-president of the science outreach society Cambridge Hands-on Science (CHaOS), so quite a lot of my spare time was taken up running meeting and organising science outreach events. It was quite a big commitment, but I think it actually improved how well I did that year. To keep fit, I did a combination of running, playing squash (Christ’s has a squash court on site), and bouldering (similar to climbing but lower and without ropes). I also went to small social events within College every now and then, such as attending the board games society or going to JCR quiz nights and barbecues.
There are various student initiatives around, including the Students’ Union Shadowing Scheme, where a school student shadows you for a couple of days, to experience life at Cambridge. I think I heard about the scheme at the Freshers’ Fair, and I’d highly recommend it. My only advice would be to go to the Freshers' Fair and sign up for everything that interests you. Get on all the emailing lists (you can always unsubscribe) and then whittle it down to a few things which you can keep up all year.
What would you say to a prospective student about Cambridge traditions?
Traditions are fun: they’re fun to take part in, fun to tell others about, and fun to make fun of. I didn’t really know what to expect, but the cheap formal meals (students can book into “formals”, which are three course meals where you have to dress in an academic gown, for less than £10), the pomp and ceremony of matriculation (when you arrive at the start of first year and have to sign a book) and the grand architecture of the Colleges was never a bad thing.
One of the biggest traditions at Cambridge is “May Week”, a week in June (it used to be held in May!) when you relax with friends after exams. There are also May Balls (night-long parties with unlimited food and drink included in the price of your ticket), which are held by most Colleges during May Week. I have attended a ball each year, and although they are great fun, they are not what I enjoy most about May Week. In first year, I decided, for no apparent reason, to apply to work at Jesus College May Ball. This was probably one of the best decisions that I made during my time at Cambridge. I quickly discovered that, although attending the May Balls as a guest is fantastic, working as an “Ents Runner” is even better. My job as an Ents Runner was to meet musicians, acts and performers at the gate to the May Ball, and show them around the ball, where they are performing, and to help them whilst they prepare and perform. It’s a great way to meet some lovely people, whilst experiencing the ball (you can still eat the food and have non-alcoholic drinks, and obviously you can watch the acts!). To top it all off, you get paid at the end! Needless to say, I have worked at more than one ball every year since.
"Cambridge traditions are fun: they’re fun to take part in, fun to tell others about, and fun to make fun of."
Looking back over your time at Cambridge, what do you feel that you have gained from being here?
I’ve found new interests (such as climbing, arc welding, and running); I’ve gained loads of new friends, and I’ve learned a whole bunch of new and exciting things. Oh, and I also did a degree.
My fondest memory is probably the cardboard boat race. Every year a group of my friends and I took part in the annual race, held on the river Cam after exams. We’d go and scavenge cardboard from whatever shop, warehouse or industrial estate we could find, and stick it all together with a disgusting amount of duct tape. It’s great fun, and a bit of a challenge to see how seaworthy you can make it!
If there’s one thing I wish I learned earlier on, it’s that you should sometimes actually choose to miss lectures. This might sound crazy, but Cambridge terms are short, so time is valuable. This is especially relevant in exam term, when some courses are still being lectured. Although I have enjoyed many of the lecture courses I’ve attended, some lecturers aren’t actually that good at lecturing. As long as you have (and learn!) the notes, and make good use of the time, you can often get a lot more done in an hour if you don’t spend it sitting in the lecture theatre.
How has Christ’s (and Cambridge) changed while you've been here?
Not really - Cambridge, as with most old, well established, and slightly self-important institutions, is renowned for its lack of change. Many of the courses taught today are the same as they were decades ago, and many courses still haven’t started putting notes online. That said, Christ’s itself looks slightly different from when I arrived, and this is actually mostly thanks to the gardeners (who have an excellent Instagram). The third court of Christ’s used to be all grass, then it changed to a dry gravel garden, and it has now been turned into a nice combination of the two, with grass, flowerbeds, and even a little raised pond. The front gate of College has also been repainted - which even made the news!
What will you miss most about Christ’s?
Upper Hall, the College canteen, where you can go for meals every day. There is always a bunch of friendly faces to chat to while you eat your meal (sometimes the serving staff actually have to kick us out because we’ve all been chatting for so long!). The food quality is nothing to write home about, but there are unlimited sides (a genuinely significant reason to choose Christ’s over other Colleges if you have a healthy appetite!), plus it’s inexpensive and easy.
Do you have any plans for what you’ll do post-graduation?
I’m working with my supervisor for my dissertation from last year at the moment, and hopefully after that I’ll be able to get a job in a small start-up company around Cambridge. I like the idea of working in a small start-up, because you can afford to take some risks while you’re young (start-ups might not offer the same job security as larger companies), and they seem like fun, varied places to work. Plus, if I ever decide to try to make my own start-up, working in one is great training!
Lots of the physicists in my year have decided to become researchers studying for PhDs - some are staying here, and some are heading to other universities. Others have gone on to work in fields not directly related to Physics such as finance, software development, or consultancy. The Computer Scientists are going to do similar things - many are going into software engineering, some are starting companies, and even a few less “techy” jobs such as journalism.
The Cambridge Careers Service is very useful, so if you get time, it’s good to start going to their events early on. I never had a very strong opinion about where I wanted to work, but Cambridge certainly helped me to work out what matters most in a job. I learned that research probably wasn’t for me, and it helped me to find the things that I actually enjoy in life. My experience at Christ’s has definitely shaped my post-graduation plans through all the people and societies that taught me what I enjoy doing and what I want from a job, as well as through the Careers Service.
Please be aware if you're considering an application that our student writers describe their experiences. Although the majority of the information stays the same, some details may change from year to year. Do read the student profiles in combination with our undergraduate admissions pages for full information.