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Rosie, third year, Natural Sciences (Materials Science), Selwyn College 

A few weeks after A-level results day, I received an email from my Director of Studies asking me to choose my subject options for my first year. I knew immediately I wanted to carry on Chemistry and Physics from my A-Levels, and I had to take Maths alongside them, so I was left with one final option to fill. The Biology courses weren’t really my thing, and Computer Science was definitely not for me, so I was left (as I think a lot of Physical Natural Sciences students are!) trying to choose between Earth Science and Materials Science. It was a choice I didn’t give that much thought to at the time, because I was SO convinced I would be doing mostly Chemistry once my degree became more specialised, but in the end I thought Materials Science sounded like it would be more current and easier to relate to some of my non-science interests. I think switching would have been possible in the first few weeks (especially as both subjects are new to almost everyone at the start of first year), but I very quickly realised Materials was what I was looking for when I had been trying to find degree courses that were somewhere between Chemistry and Physics. For anyone else making a similar choice, I’d suggest looking at the things second and third years study – an introduction to either course probably won’t make for the most inspiring reading, but seeing where the subject leads might.

Getting settled into life at Cambridge seemed a huge scary task before I got there, but it actually happened without me really noticing. Opportunities to meet new people arrived in so many forms – labs with students from across the colleges, joining the boat club and making friends with people from across year groups, my own floor and people I met in Freshers’ Week from Selwyn, friends of friends… and sometimes, just chatty people from lectures who tended to sit nearby. A college is roughly the right size for getting to know pretty much your whole year group within a year, but also for being able to find the people that you get along with best. As well as getting settled socially, at University there’s a new academic level to get used to, which the supervision (tutorial) system really helped me with. In the first year you have one supervision per subject per week – 4 seems like a lot, but they really are invaluable for developing your understanding. The Department of Materials Science’s  PhD students supervise in first year, which was amazing since many have done the undergraduate course themselves (relatively recently!) and know the parts which tend to trip people up, or link together different parts of the course. My supervision partner and I weren’t at all sure what the done thing at the end of the year was, but we bought our Materials supervisor a bottle of wine because we both agreed she’d done an amazing job at helping us both improve our understanding of the course and get used to studying science more generally.

Shortly before my second year started, I was asked to choose my options for the year – this time a choice of three, with particular options needing to be chosen in order to progress into certain third year courses. I was pretty sure I wanted to do Materials Science in my third year so that was an easy choice, and I had enjoyed the physical chemistry from my first year so I wanted to carry that on, but I wasn’t very convinced by the other Chemistry option (which had far too many hexagons for my liking). In the end I decided to try History and Philosophy of Science (HPS), something I was sure I would find interesting (having had a few taster lectures and done a bit of reading over the summer), but might end up not being any good at. I really enjoyed a bit of a change from my usual labs and problem sheets.  The critical skills I picked up from writing essays have definitely stood me in good stead this year when I’ve had to do a literature review - although I don’t really miss visiting 3-4 different libraries to get a copy of the HPS book I wanted! Before the end of second year, each student ranks a few subjects they want to do in their third year. Materials has about 40 places but Chemistry is uncapped, so I put Materials Science first (with Chemistry as a back-up plan) and am very grateful I’ve spent the last year as a Materials scientist. 

Throughout my time studying Materials, I’ve really appreciated how much the department treats its students like adults, and their willingness to help you do your best. The lab work link up with parts of the course or help you understand key practical techniques rather than just being there to give you a mark, and they take place for a few hours each week in first and second year. Second year also included a project, where we were each given an object and a few months to produce a report describing the materials in it. I loved this this task, and it was doing this that convinced me Materials Science was the subject for me. I think if you can spend a day in the lab doing something without resenting it at least a bit by the end, that’s a fairly big indicator it is right for you! Supervisions in the second year are conducted by a mixture of PhD students and academic staff - I had the Head of Teaching in my second year.  Again the time with supervisors was really valuable.  Also, in each exam paper we’ve had a choice of questions, which is great for when one topic just won’t stick, or the exam question on your favourite topic is just absolutely horrible. 

In the third year students ‘only’ study one science, but there’s far more to the course than just lectures and supervisions.  In the first term we had a day and a half of labs every fortnight, which might sound a lot but was actually really good fun and again introduced you to a new group of people. An alloy design project (our task was to make an alloy as tough as possible) was a great way of applying knowledge from across the course and seeing a project through from start to finish. Each student does a literature review on a topic of their choice – mine was initially supposed to be about the properties of spider silk, but someone else was doing something similar and my supervisor was very willing to let me adjust my work so it more closely related to my interest in sustainable fabrics. I’ve also done two terms of a German language course, a very short course on intellectual property, had a site visit to learn about crucible production, and done a tiny bit of programming.  We also had either the lecturer or another specialist supervising us for each lecture course - which I honestly can’t rate highly enough!  It really feels like the Materials Science course sets you up to be a scientist who can meaningfully contribute to whatever area they’re working in, not just someone who can pass the four papers they see at the end and be satisfied with that.

There’s also far more to the Department of Materials Science than just your course. In the third year (as there are only about 40 people in the year) it becomes very easy to get to know everyone, particularly as there are only at most a few students from each college. This year I’ve been one of the ‘social reps’ for the year, organising evenings out with the Materials Science students in the year above, a pub crawl, setting up a year-wide group chat, and getting Department of Materials Science fleeces, and it’s been a really fun job because of the lovely community that exists within the Department. It’s also worth mentioning that there’s a fantastic tea room (complete with mugs you can borrow so there’s no need for disposable cups!), perfect for nipping to between lectures or having a lunch break in with your lab group. I started off at Cambridge with a healthy dose of imposter syndrome, but approaching the end of my third year I’m really excited for my fourth and I know saying goodbye at the end will be incredibly hard, in no small part because of how much I’ve enjoyed being a member of the Department of Materials Science.

(Course-specific information correct at time of publishing - April 2020.)