I’ve recently graduated from Murray Edwards College (June 2016), moved to Liverpool and have just started work for the Jaguar Land Rover on the graduate scheme. I grew up in a tiny village in middle-of-nowhere Suffolk where I was always loved science and finding out how things worked. One of my earliest memories is hiding in my garden trying to find the correct ratio of mud:sand:gravel to make the perfect mud pie. I suppose it makes sense that I chose to study chemical engineering!
Enjoying my Subject
Studying Chem Eng at Cambridge was a great experience. The teaching staff are really passionate about their subject and give you a wide variety of courses. By the time you reach 4th year you can have studied everything from Healthcare Biotechnology to Computational Fluid Dynamics. You have the chance to explore these through group projects, individual exercises and supervision work – they really help to give you the best understanding you can get about each subject. Another advantage of studying Chem Eng at Cambridge is that you get to do a year of either Natural Sciences or Engineering first, which I found gave me a great insight into the wider field of science and was completely worthwhile.
The department has recently moved a brand new multimillion pound building on West Cambridge Site, so is even closer to college and you’ll no longer have to battle the hill at the end of the day, and instead of cycling along busy road to lectures you’ll get to see some green spaces. The building has state of the art facilities, open study spaces and twice the amount computers than the old department building (trust me, this will be important to you soon!).
The department is incredibly social. With small year groups of approximately 70 people you really get to know everyone in your year, other years and in other colleges. The Cambridge University Chemical Engineering Society (CUCES) organises lots of activities for the department throughout the year, including Chem Eng formals, Annual dinner (a big black tie dinner at the end of Lent term), Christmas Dinner the summer garden party and plenty of other socials. The department also gives you free tea twice a day in the tea room, which also has a tuck shop attached to it when you just need that chocolate fix to get you through that piece of supervision work!
Not only is there all this social stuff going on but there are plenty of careers events going on throughout the year (that means free pizza!) which while is probably the last thing you are thinking about now, it’s incredibly useful to know the sort of things that are out there for when you graduate or want to get an internship.
What will you be doing?
Chemical engineering has a relatively high proportion of contact time compared to many other subjects.
In first year of Chem Eng you would have either 2 or 3 lectures a day, a two hour lab once every two weeks, and the CAD drawing classes once every two weeks as well. The rest of my working day would be filled with completing supervision work (each piece takes approx. 4-5 hours), for supervisions that I would have approximately 3 times a week. I’d also spend a considerable amount of time doing exercises (although not in the gym!). Exercises are extended pieces of work that are given with deadlines for three weeks later. They involve things such as modelling reactors, fluid systems and process controls).
In second year of Chem Eng, you swap out the labs and drawing classes for a few more exercises, otherwise the structure is fairly similar to first year. Additionally, at the end of the year, there is the design project. This is a five week team project in which you will design a chemical plant in a team of 6 people. This is everything from the computer modelling to detailed layout drawings to safety analysis. It is incredibly challenging with such a short amount of time to do this but also incredibly rewarding.
In the third year of Chem Eng, the structure changes as you have options for your lecture courses for the first time that are a lot more varied than in previous years. Choices include things like entrepreneurship, a foreign language, rheology (look it up, it’s actually really interesting!) and advanced heat and mass transfer amongst many others! You will also get the chance to do some proper academic research in a field that interests you. I did research into super-resolution techniques for studying proteins in bacterial spores. There’s a hugely varied amount of research that happens in the department so there’s a great choice of research to get involved in. Who knows, maybe you’ll end up a published researcher!
You may have heard the horror stories of Cambridge students never leaving the library and having any fun – don’t believe them! There are so many great things you can get involved in around the uni and beyond. Whether you fancy a night out, an evening in the pub, an evening discussing deep philosophy or all three you’ll definitely be able to do this! There’s a society for pretty much everything under the sun in Cambridge and if there isn’t you can always start one - my house mate started a pole fitness society, with funding from CUSU.
While I was in Cambridge, I was president of CUCES, which was an amazing society to be part of. I got the chance to organise society events and have the final say in events with budgets into the thousands of pounds. I also was responsible for organising careers events on behalf of the department, which was a great chance for networking with possible future employers.
Outside of society goings on, I loved trying to get round as many colleges’ formals as I possibly could – one major highlight was watching an owl display at Homerton’s Harry Potter formal.
Advice to Chemical Engineering Applicants
Applying to Cambridge can be completely daunting, particularly when the media tries to give a ridiculous idea of it. Just remember, the interviewers aren’t there to trick you. They want you to be able to answer the questions they ask you. So advice, talk through everything you are thinking. The interviewers are interested in how you think and they will be able to prompt you if you are heading down the wrong line – they definitely did this for me! Also, don’t feel you aren’t good enough for Cambridge. Every single person here still feels that way, you won’t be alone! Good luck!