Student Blog

Studying Natural Sciences

12 Feb 2015 | Tim | Courses, Studying, Supervisions

I applied to Cambridge thinking I was a physicist. Physics was what I was best at at school, I’d read some popular-science books about physics for my personal statement, and I liked physics the most. I thought the bits of science I would do in first year other than physics would be a necessary evil of studying ‘Natural Sciences’. Upon starting my first year (taking Maths, Physics, Chemistry and Cell Biology), I quickly realised two things:

  1. Studying science at university is a vastly different experience than at A Level
  2. I was liking Chemistry more than Physics

Studying at Cambridge has a vastly different structure than to school. Private study is the bulk of your work. You have lectures to cover the material, a problem sheet to work thought, and a few supervisions a week, where you go through the course (normally 2-to-1) with an academic/PhD student (who really know what they are talking about!) and go through the questions you couldn’t manage. Moreover, there are much longer, intensive and more interesting lab sessions accompanying each course, verifying what has been learnt in lectures and learning techniques of the lab.

Whilst the Physics course was good, it was really the chemistry that took me in. The lab sessions were exciting and engrossing (working with bromine, pure ethanol, gold nanoparticles etc was exciting! In one lab, we purified caffeine from a cup of tea!), and the theory was new and changed the way I looked at the subject.

This brings to light the extraordinary flexibility within the Cambridge sciences course that few others share. Leaving first year, I had a myriad of options as to which direction I wanted to take my degree. I could stick with physics, focus more on chemistry, do a bit of both, take up chemical engineering, or even go further into biochemistry, cell biology and pharmacy. There are even options for those who decide they would prefer more of an arts-subject structured degree, who could take ‘History and Philosophy of Science’. In the end, I opted for Chemistry and Biochemistry.

One of the best things about studying Chemistry and Biochemistry at Downing, is its location:

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It took me less than 5 minutes to get to my lectures from my room (setting my alarm for 8:55 for a 9am lecture was not uncommon!), and made running home for lunch/tea/when you forget your lecture notes really easy too!

For third year, I had to narrow down my subject more, so now I’m studying just Chemistry (in fact, I’m mostly taking courses in the quantum/theoretical side of chemistry, so am returning to my physics roots!).

In my time at Cambridge, I have had the pleasure to be taught by some world leading scientists, in a university with a history of revolutionary chemists (and scientists of all kinds!).

The flexibility within the natural sciences course is a huge benefit to studying at Cambridge, and the broadness gives you a span of knowledge unparalleled by other degrees. I’ve really enjoyed being able to try out different areas of science, decide what I REALLY enjoy the most, and specialise in that.


My name is Tim. I'm a third year Natural Scientist. I went to school at a comprehensive in Oxford, where I did A levels in Maths, Further Maths, Physics, Chemistry and Philosophy. I was Downing College Squash captain last year, am an amateur magician, and play piano (although I'm not very good...!).