Stratis is from Athens (Greece), where he took the International Baccalaureate, including Maths, Physics, and Chemistry at Higher Level. He has just finished his third year here at Christ's College, Cambridge, now studying Natural Sciences (Physical), though he did Engineering in first year.
What attracted you to your course?
I should first of all explain that I've changed courses, so I applied for Engineering but changed to Natural Sciences after first year.
When applying for university, I wanted to follow a course which combined Maths, Physics and a bit of Chemistry, which I got a kick out of in school. Engineering sounded like a good choice for striking the balance because it is a highly interdisciplinary course – in first and second year, Engineering students take several highly diverse papers.
During first year Engineering, I found I was missing out on a number of topics that interested me, like quantum mechanics, and relativity etc., so I decided to swap over to Natural Sciences. In retrospect, Natural Sciences would definitely have combined the Maths, Physics and Chemistry which I was initially looking for much better, but Engineering was very fun and interesting too and I don’t regret starting my degree with it.
Both the Engineering and Natural Sciences courses are very different to their counterparts at other universities. Cambridge Engineering starts out very diverse and narrows down from third year onwards. For example, in first and second year all students take the same subjects except for some minor choices in second year. This forces students to learn about engineering specialisations which they would not otherwise have encountered if they followed a course which is specialised to begin with (e.g. Aeronautical Engineering). Specialisations are introduced at Cambridge in the third and fourth years, when students pick their courses (under certain constraints). As well as broadening their field of knowledge, students might find that they enjoy topics in the first couple of years which they dismissed as uninteresting at the outset. Therefore, this is a benefit for most students except those who are absolutely certain about the specialisation they want to follow.
Cambridge Natural Sciences is also a different course from pretty much every other science degree in UK universities. In first year, students pick four courses, one of which is Maths (for which the choice is one of depth - you can choose more or less intense maths). The other options include Physics, Chemistry, Materials, Biology of Cells, Earth Sciences, Computer Science and others, so students get a shot at trying out different subjects and focus progressively in subsequent years, again being forced to take a variety of different courses initially, which might reveal unexpected preferences. In second year, Natural Sciences students pick three subjects (I picked Maths and the two Physics courses), which are more focused and pave the way towards a further specialisation in third year. Again, Natural Sciences offers breadth and flexibility which is not found in most other science courses at other universities.
"Students might find that they enjoy topics which they dismissed as uninteresting at the outset. "
Why did you choose to apply to Christ's?
When I visited Christ’s during the open days I found that the student-guides were very friendly and informal, the College was pretty, and the size not too big or small (which I thought would help me strike a balance, meeting many different people without feeling a stranger). The Student Room internet forum also had a lot of positive feedback about Christ’s, e.g. good academic reputation and better food than other Colleges.
Christ’s has definitely lived up to my expectations: other students have been super-friendly and approachable (I think more so than in other Colleges), the atmosphere here is very welcoming, and the College porters are terrific. I’ve also enjoyed College food, having only cooked about five times in three years. If I had to pick one thing that I've enjoyed the most, it would be the friends I’ve made here. We’ve had some great times and I have learnt an unexpected amount from them.
"I’ve enjoyed College food, having only cooked about five times in three years."
What advice would you give to prospective students?
The same advice applies to both Engineering and Natural Sciences applicants. Before you finalise your choice of course, take some time to look through the curricula of other courses, even if you are strongly inclined towards a particular choice. You might find that various factors might tip the scales in the opposite direction, such as one course having a structure which suits you better than another.
My second tip is: remember that good marks are a necessity but not a guarantee for admission. If you develop your academic interests further by exploring relevant maths/science concepts in your spare time or getting involved in projects, this can be a key indicator that you are not just a good student who reads the books and solves the problems, but a curious scientist-to-be who can’t keep the excitement in. Read about the topics that interest you most and perhaps start a project like building a computer game or an RC car (alone or with friends from school), or go after relevant summer experience to get a feel for the field you’re about to go into and naturally add to your bio – this should be fun and interesting for you regardless of your CV and Cambridge application. Some students also take extra qualifications - I personally wanted to increase the amount of maths I'd done so I did some further maths.
"Remember that good marks are a necessity but not a guarantee for admission."
Are there any books / resources that you’d recommend for prospective students?
Yes! I have quite a few suggestions:
- ‘Structures: Or Why Things Don't Fall Down’ by J. E. Gordon
Both for NatSci and Engineering. Extremely interesting introduction to structures. Involves Newtonian mechanics and a straightforward technical progression. It flows really nicely and naturally and presents a number of historical examples of interest (fighter planes, ships, bridges) as case studies. A pleasure to read.
- ‘The New Science of Strong Materials’ by J. E. Gordon
Both for NatSci and Engineering. The equivalent of ‘Structures: Or Why Things Don't Fall Down’ for materials. Again this is a gentle introduction to materials science with a bunch of interesting examples and case studies, which you can read without great effort.
- ‘Surely you’re joking Mr. Feynman’ and ‘Why do you care what other people think?’ by Richard Feynman
Both for NatSci and Engineering. Collections of autobiographical anecdotes from Richard Feynman’s life - completely non-technical. These are hilarious and engrossing, and I’m glad I read them before I came to University. If you’re interested in Physics/Maths/Science (or scientists) these are terrific reads.
- ‘Six easy pieces’ and ‘Six not so easy pieces’ by Richard Feynman
Mainly for NatSci. Gentle introduction to a bunch of different interesting pieces of physics, which are highly recommended for people with an interest in physics. Feynman is an inimitable storyteller and teacher.
- The Feynman Lectures on Physics
Mainly for NatSci. Thorough treatment of most of the physics in an undergraduate degree. Do not expect to read all of this. Instead, go through sections which capture your interest.
- ‘Div Grad Curl and all that’ by H. M. Schey
Mainly for NatSci – might be a bit too mathsy for Engineers. Technical but accessible book on vector calculus. The material inside the book is covered in first year NatSci maths and would give you a bit of a head-start. Also, if you’re Physics/Maths oriented, vector calculus will seem like an eye opening tool and I wish I had read this book earlier on.
What was being in the third year of Natural Sciences like?
Third year was very different to first year, not only because I did Physics instead of Engineering, but for many other reasons: the final mark on a B.A. degree is entirely determined by performance in the third year so this year was much more intense than previous ones. The third year Physics curriculum is much broader and more challenging than in other years and this is reflected in both the amount of progress I feel I’ve made as well as the hours put into the course.
In third year Physics there is a limited choice of courses: Relativity, Thermal Physics, Advanced Quantum Mechanics, Electrodynamics & Optics are compulsory in Michaelmas term (the first term). In Lent/Easter terms we choose three out of four options: Astrophysical Fluids, Soft Condensed Matter, Particle & Nuclear Physics (my three choices) and Quantum Condensed Matter (which I didn’t follow). I dropped Quantum Condensed Matter after attending a couple of the first lectures, based on my slight preference on the other three courses and also because I found other lectures more intriguing.
Timetable-wise, this year we had roughly fourteen contact hours per week, and two experimental pieces of work I opted for in Michaelmas and Lent terms each siphoned about 100 hours over the span of three weeks. For comparison, in second year we had about ten contact hours a week and a more balanced lab schedule (about eight to nine hours every Thursday). In first year Engineering we had more contact hours and practicals than in Natural Sciences, however these were of lower intensity.
What was the most interesting thing that you worked on this year?
This year I worked on a research review on aperiodic crystals, where I had to read up on the literature and write a review on it. The topic was very interesting to start with and got progressively more intriguing.
How have you balanced work and your social life?
My organisation is quite poor, and my way of coping is to work on the thing that needs the most immediate attention and do it well so I don’t have to revisit it later. This has worked quite well for me from the start, and so I haven’t changed this approach. I have been able to balance both work and social life, although in first year I put in much more work time than I needed, which obviously detracted from free / activity time. In second and third year I think I’ve had a more balanced schedule, including foreign languages and sport.
How did you approach exam revision?
During the year I read the material thoroughly and made sure I understood everything as it came, avoiding sloppy studying, so when exam term came, I practiced mainly exam technique and made sure that I didn't leave myself with blind spots in the syllabus. The exams went quite well in the end – although I muddled one up and was a bit too pessimistic about it up until results came out.
"In second and third year I think I’ve had a more balanced schedule including foreign languages and sport."
Where is your favourite spot in Christ's and why?
That would be Third Court. It’s great for hanging out throughout the day and since virtually everyone walks through, people usually join in (when they’re not busy working).
This year I also lived in Third Court - I was in T8: two rooms with a shared bathroom and kitchen (shared between two). The room was great: spacious and with good lighting throughout the day and also a good view of third court and the College (T8 is a top floor room).
Looking back over your time at Cambridge, what do you feel like you have gained from being here?
Apart from the academic growth, the most valuable thing I gained from Cambridge and (Christs in particular) is the people I’ve met, the friends I’ve made, and all the things that come with that: great conversations and support, encouragement to explore things I haven’t tried or read about before, and the great supervisors and academic mentorship which I’ve received.
There is one thing I would have changed, which is worrying and studying less during first year. Not only was that super-tiring, but as soon as I relaxed a bit, my performance went up. So if could advise my past self (and new students) I would say: do the work well but don’t worry about it – this can be hard.
"As soon as I relaxed a bit, my performance went up."
What are your fondest memories?
There are a bunch of those, but a two which spring to mind are: unwinding with friends after exams and flying above Cambridge with a glider!
Do you have any plans for what you’ll do post-graduation?
Next year I will return to the Engineering department to take a Masters’ course in Machine Learning. After that I might be looking for a PhD if we haven’t yet started a company with my friend from Christ’s. Many other students in my year will be continuing for a fourth year in Physics for a Masters’ degree, and the most of the ones who don’t will be taking up jobs. Out of seven physicists in Christ’s (not counting me) I think five will be staying in the Physics Masters’, one will move to Computer Science and another is taking up a job.
Cambridge has a Careers Service offering advice and resources, which in all honesty I have not used yet, but which I suspect is useful – it organises a number of activities to help students find jobs and internships. The Engineering department also offers great help with finding internships and potentially jobs through its advice service and through the opportunities database – both of which I have used a lot.
What will you miss most about Christ’s?
My friends and a few brilliant academic advisors / supervisors. However, I’ll be staying for a Masters’ so I won’t be missing anything for at least one more year!
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