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Choosing a Subject
As you start thinking about university, the most important thing to decide is what subject you want to study. Some people will know what they want to do, but for others the decision can be more difficult. Teachers, parents and friends are likely to be volunteering their opinions, but it's important that it is you that makes the decision. You'll spend three years of your life studying the subject, so you need to make sure that you enjoy it. It might be that you continue a subject you already study or you might choose to go for something new. It's a good idea to look at subjects you might not automatically consider: for example, Land Economy (despite its slightly ridiculous name) is a combination of Law, Economics and Environment. In the next few pages, we've put together profiles of each subject, from a student's perspective. If something catches your eye, look further on the Cambridge University and department websites or take a look around this website, where you can ask a student any question about any subject.
There is a common misconception that your choice of degree will determine the type of career you go into once you graduate. With the exception of Medicine, there are very few degrees that lead into specific careers. Doing an English degree, for example, does not mean that you will become a teacher or a journalist. The destinations of graduates are varied, and Cambridge has the highest employability rate in the country. Companies and employers are interested in the 'transferable skills' you acquire doing a degree (management speak for useful things that we apparently learn to do), rather than the subject you studied. The Director of the Cambridge Careers Service says that "the large proportion of employers approaching Cambridge are keen to meet our students with any degree discipline". Cambridge graduates go to do a huge mix of things: work in the City, further study and research, voluntary work, travel, to name but a few. Whatever you find yourself interested in, your choice of subject is unlikely to spoil your chances: if you decide you want to go into law, for example, there are conversion courses that you can be sponsored to complete once you've graduated.
Cambridge subjects tend on the whole to be traditional, but there's a lot of scope for you to explore your own interests. As you go through the course, you'll get a greater element of flexibility and the chance to specialise. Some courses are unique to Cambridge: Natural Sciences, for example, allows you to mix familiar and new science modules, before narrowing down in your second and third year. Cambridge doesn't offer joint honours degrees (where you can mix two subjects), but you can sometimes manage to do a module in another subject, where there is overlap. The system also allows a certain amount of flexibility to change subjects, although this isn't always easy or possible, and it's important to try to get the subject choice right first time.
The best way to work out whether a subject is for you is to read up about what it entails, talk to students, look at the department websites and (most importantly) to read around the subject. It's important to check the course requirements to make sure that you're studying the right subjects for the course, too…
Employers are keen to meet our students with any degree discipline. - Gordon Chesterman Director of the Careers Service
Will Knock, Jesus College, English, 2nd Year, Essex
Why did you choose your course?
I took English Literature, German, Maths and Physics at A Level. When I chose my A Levels I really didn't have any idea of what I wanted to study at university, and didn't even know whether I wanted to study an arts or science subject. I took subjects that I found interesting, but would leave me able to pursue either end of the spectrum at degree level. I chose English at the last minute, and did so because I love to read, and to read any type of literature from any period. Like many arts subjects, it gives me the opportunity to follow up other interests at the same time.
What do you want to do next?
I still haven't got much of an idea of what I'd like to do after university, and normally find that those ideas I do have change from term to term. For now, I'm just enjoying studying a subject I love, safe in the knowledge that my degree will provide me with plentiful and varied options when I finish.
Hint: Take a look at new and unfamiliar subjects. You don't always need to have studied the subject before starting a degree.
Chris De Mauny, King's College, Natural Sciences, Graduated, Redhill (Surrey)
Why did you choose your course?
For me, science explained the workings of the world around me. I thought that everything from the structure of atoms to the nature of living creatures could be mine for the learning. Of course, as I got through my degree, I discovered that this was not quite the case! I enjoyed studying science at school, so it was logical to carry it on to degree level.
How did you decide want to do next?
During my degree, I realised that to work as a scientist would involve the intense study and research of a single, narrow subject. In the end, I'd discovered that this was not what I had looked for so I turned instead to a profession with more human interest. A legal career offered the chance to be of practical help to people with real life problems.
Once I'd graduated, I studied a one-year law conversion course in lieu of a law degree before beginning professional training. This course alone provided a new and deepened understanding of British society. I now work in London as a lawyer, having studied a science degree that allowed me to explore my academic interests.
Hint: You often don't need to match a degree to a career. You don't need to do a Law degree to be a lawyer, for example.