Natural Sciences

Everything you are about to read has been written by current and recently graduated students at the University of Cambridge, to give you honest information about what it’s like to be a student at Cambridge.

Natural Sciences, or “NatSci” as it is affectionately known, is how the physical, chemical and biological sciences are taught at Cambridge. About 600 people take the course each year, choosing modules spread over the different research departments - you get to know the handful in your college best though. Contrary to popular belief, you don’t have to want to live your life in a laboratory to be a Natural Scientist - graduates go on to be doctors, lawyers, museum curators and a whole host of other careers beyond the labs.

Natural Sciences Credit: Cambridge University

What about the Natural Sciences course at Cambridge appealed to you?

Bethany, Natural Sciences - Biological, Newnham College, 1st Year
Bethany
Biological, Newnham College, 1st year
Jon, Natural Sciences - Chemistry_History and Philosophy of Science, Queens' College, 2nd Year
Jon
Queens' College, 2nd year

Bethany: I chose the Natural Sciences course because I was not sure which area of science I wanted to specialise in, and it is very flexible. I definitely enjoy the opportunity to try lots of different areas before specialising later in the degree, but sometimes it does feel like I’m doing the work for two or three degrees instead of one!

Jon: I think the chance to specialise later in the course is really important - I came in wanting to study Physics and have ended up doing Chemistry. It also gives you a chance to work with people who study different combinations of courses, which can help with understanding lecture material in different ways - for example, Chemistry and Materials Science have a lot of overlap, so the subjects support each other.

How have you found the structure of the course?

Sam, Natural Sciences - Biological, Emmanuel College, 2nd Year
Sam
Biological, Emmanuel College, 2nd year
Jon, Natural Sciences - Chemistry_History and Philosophy of Science, Queens' College, 2nd Year
Jon
Queens' College, 2nd year

Sam: The course structure of NatSci is uniquely flexible. I have taken a really broad set of modules so far, from molecular genetics to evolutionary biology, but other people choose to focus a lot more than me. Each course you take has its own set of lectures, practicals, and supervisions, so you get a good depth in each even if you have a broad selection. The brilliant thing about NatSci is that apart from a maths course in first year there are currently no compulsory modules, which means we can shape what we study to fit our own scientific interests and passions.

Jon: The structure of the course is fairly intensive in first year, with lots of practicals and lectures. Because you take fewer modules in second year, the workload becomes more manageable - though a bit harder! In terms of variety of modules, this expands a lot in second year - especially for the biologically-inclined - which I’ve enjoyed in particular.

What is your faculty/department like?

Bethany, Natural Sciences - Biological, Newnham College, 1st Year
Bethany
Biological, Newnham College, 1st year
Jon, Natural Sciences - Chemistry_History and Philosophy of Science, Queens' College, 2nd Year
Jon
Queens' College, 2nd year
The Department

Bethany: In first year you are spread out between multiple different departments depending on what modules you do. Most departments have lecture theatres, teaching labs where practicals take place, and libraries where you can go to work or get specialist books that your college library might not have. Some departments also have cafes, though occasionally they don’t let first years in!

Jon: Some departments are definitely better than others… The Physics and Materials buildings are outside town in West Cambridge, which can take a while to get to for practicals and supervisions (but in first year most lectures are still in the town centre). These buildings are a bit newer though, the Materials building was only opened a couple of years ago. Chemistry and the various Biology departments are in the town centre, and again have varying qualities of facilities.

What types of work do you have to do?

Jon, Natural Sciences - Chemistry_History and Philosophy of Science, Queens' College, 2nd Year
Jon
Queens' College, 2nd year

For biological modules you get given a mixture of essays and short questions, while in the physical sciences you generally have to do problem sheets. If you haven’t written an essay in years, then don’t worry - you get given a lot of help by your supervisors, and the essays you have to write are usually quite descriptive and not like the essays arts students have to write. Occasionally supervisors may also set other types of work like reading a scientific paper or preparing a presentation. Some practicals also require you to complete a write-up.

Do you have career plans?

Bethany, Natural Sciences - Biological, Newnham College, 1st Year
Bethany
Biological, Newnham College, 1st year
Sam, Natural Sciences - Biological, Emmanuel College, 2nd Year
Sam
Biological, Emmanuel College, 2nd year
Jon, Natural Sciences - Chemistry_History and Philosophy of Science, Queens' College, 2nd Year
Jon
Queens' College, 2nd year

Bethany: Before I came to Cambridge I wanted to do research, and that’s still a definite possibility, but I don’t have any solid plans.

Sam: I want to do research, specifically in plant sciences. We have some amazing facilities for it in Cambridge, with the Sainsbury Laboratory just up the road, so it’s an exciting place to be!

Jon: I’m not staying in science - possibly going into consulting or management. Doing NatSci has been fun but I’d prefer a career out of the labs.

What about your course would you change?

Personally I’d include more mathematics and computer programming for biologists, though student opinions definitely differ on this to say the least! Otherwise, the course is pretty good in the way that you can pick up a wide range of skills and knowledge as you go along. Some things which aren’t always covered by the departments, like specific study skills, are usually picked up on by supervisors anyway, who are always keen to share their opinions on the course and material.

Typical timetable of a 1st year Natural Sciences student

- Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday Saturday
9am Lecture - Lecture Supervision Lecture -
10am Lecture Lecture Lecture Lecture Lecture Lecture
11am Practical (until 5) - Practical (until 5) - - -
12am - Lecture - Lecture Practical (until 5) Lecture
1pm - Supervision - - - -
2pm - - - - - -
3pm - - - Practical (until 4:45) - -
3pm - - - - - -
5pm Supervision - Supervision - - -

What has been going on at Natural Sciences?

- Recent Events -

Crash, Bang and Squelch! - Cambridge Science Festival Outreach

The Cambridge Science Festival brings talks and experiments aimed at children and adults. Students get involved with this - Cambridge Hands On Science (CHaOS) organises experimental demonstrations.

Module Open Days

In the last couple of weeks the different departments have been holding open days to tell students about their second and third year courses. It was a really good opportunity to meet the lecturers and current students, and to eat lots of pizza!

Easter Field Trips

At the end of this term, several field courses are running to let first and second year biologists and geologists see the processes they have learnt about for real. These are heavily supported by departments and colleges so that everyone can participate.

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