Natural Sciences (Physical): Oliver Jackson, First Year

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Name: Oliver Jackson

Subject: Physical Natural Sciences

Year: 1st

A levels taken: Maths, Further Maths, Physics, Chemistry, History

So what’s Physical Natural Sciences then?
Essentially it’s a combined subject containing lots of different courses, perfect if you (like me!) can’t really decide what to specialise in yet. At the moment I’m taking Physics, Chemistry, Maths and Computer Science, whereas if I’d gone somewhere else I would have had to drop some of those in order to focus more heavily on one particular subject, which I might have decided I didn’t really like after a few months studying it exclusively. I came to Cambridge thinking (like a lot of the other scientists) that I was going to be a physicist, but now I’m here I’ve found that Chemistry is good fun as well. Choosing what to specialise in at the start of second year is going to be really difficult! Another good thing about the Natural Sciences course, practically unique to Cambridge, is that even if you apply as, say, a physicist, you can still take courses in biological sciences if you so wish – perfect for those with a broad range of interests, or for people who are just completely undecided as to what they like the most!

Why did you apply to Christ’s?
Christ’s is a big college for the sciences – typically around 30 students (out of a year of 125) will be biological or physical scientists. So while that was one reason I applied, the main one was that I came for an open day the summer before A levels and had a really nice time chatting to both the students that were already here and other potential applicants. The atmosphere was really great – it felt like a place that you could work in if you wanted to (now’s the right time to name-check the 24-hour library!) but then have an amazing time socially as well. Of course, the accommodation, food, facilities and suchlike (which are all pretty awesome) helped, but it was the people I talked to that made the difference for me.

What’s the work like?
The work is not as bad as everybody makes out – I have 2 lectures every morning (including Saturdays I’m afraid), which means that in each of my 4 subjects I will be having 3 lectures every week. This does mean that the pace is fairly quick, and you have to stay on top of the work. The good thing though is that for the first term all the lecturers spend some time going over A level material, making sure that everybody in the class (there are over 500 people in Chemistry lectures, for example) is at the same level before they move on to something new. This also allows you to get used to the workload for a few weeks, reminding you of everything that you forgot over an epic summer holidays, before you move on to new stuff. Practicals run on a fortnightly schedule – Physics one week and Chemistry the next (Physics is 4 hours and Chemistry 5 hours) with a weekly Computer Science session of 2 hours every Thursday afternoon.

What about supervisions?
Ah, yes, the famous supervisions. I have a single one hour supervision with just one other student in each of my subjects every week, totalling 4 hours a week of face to face contact time with people who are world leaders in their subject. At the start everyone thinks it’s going to be really scary, but once you walk in and get chatting about whatever it is that’s going on in lectures you realise that they’re actually really good fun. Typically, at the start of every lecture course the lecturer will hand out a question booklet that follows the structure of the course, starting out fairly easy and getting very hard by the end. Your supervisor will then set you about 6 questions a week from these booklets, you hand them in a day or two before your supervision, he/she marks them, and then you go over what you got wrong in the supervision. It’s an amazing way to learn, and if you’re ever struggling (which I was) you can arrange extra supervisions, 1-to-1, to make sure that you really understand what’s going on. You learn very quickly that nobody, and I mean nobody, ever gets everything right, no matter how clever they are or how hard they work. That’s probably the main difference from A levels – you have to get used to making lots and lots of mistakes!

So your total working time is?
Lectures: 12 hours a week.
Practicals: 7 hours a week.
Supervisions: 4 hours a week.
Set work: About 4 hours a week in each subject, so 16 hours a week.

That seems like a lot! Can you fit anything else in?
It may seem like a lot, but in reality once you get into the working mood again after the summer it’s not that bad. Most people manage to do quite a lot of other stuff aside from work. I sing in the college choir, play in the University’s second symphony orchestra and get quite involved in the Union, going to debates and committee meetings two or three times a week. There are others who love their sport, playing Rugby and Football at the weekends while rowing on weekday mornings, and still others whose passion is drama, whiling away their hours strutting the stage at the ADC theatre or the Corpus Playrooms. And then there are those who will happily spend a few hours sitting and chatting in their rooms over tea and biscuits, having a whale of a time watching everybody else try to fit everything in and just about stay alive in the process. The good thing about Christ’s though is that no matter what people are doing during the day, from about 10:00 pm onwards everybody gradually assembles in the buttery to sit back, relax and have a drink (at a discount price, of course!).

So what would be a “day in the life” then?
Right, a typical Thursday:
8:00: Wake up, shower, breakfast. Might be a bit late if we’ve gone out the night before.
9:00: Maths lecture. Only a 2 minute walk from college!
10:00: Chemistry lecture. Down the road from Maths.
11:00: Return to College. Work for a bit until
12:30: Lunch. Sit and chat with friends over food in Upper Hall for a while.
2:00: Computer Science Practical. Cycle to the Cavendish to spend some time learning how to program computers. On most other days this is typical supervision time.
4:00: Return to college. Try and finish whatever work it was I was doing (On a Thursday I’ll normally be doing Physics at this time).
5:45: Choir. Rehearse in the college chapel, with a service at 6:45, until
7:30: Debate at the Union. Listen to celebrities argue about Foreign policy (for example)
9:30: Bar time. Head back to college to sit, drink and catch up in the bar/ someone’s room.
11:00: Either work time, with bed around midnight, or go out clubbing. Thursday is a good night for going out – typically a group of about 20 of us will go from Christ’s each proper night out. After all, all the main clubs are just over the road!
2:00: If I’ve been out clubbing? Bed. If not – still bed.

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