A catalogue of crazy:
Living in Cambridge

King's College, Cambridge King’s College, Cambridge. I walk through there regularly.
Photo by Stephan Rudolph

I have now lived in Cambridge for two-and-a-half weeks. Time flies, it really does. But one thing I have noticed is how unremarkable the present students seem to think this place is. I know I will one day face the same fate, but until that moment I am going to fight it, and catalogue my experiences that are traditional, idiosyncratic, or just plain weird.

Time immemorial

Cambridge is old. Like, really really old. Founded in 1209, it is now over 800 years old. That means there are a lot of traditions that have hung around simply because. No better reason than that. It also means the rules don’t really apply to Cambridge, simply because Cambridge predates most of the rules.

“Weekends” haven’t yet caught on in Cambridge. Here, a working week officially runs from Thursday to Wednesday. There are no lectures on Sunday, but any other time is fair game. Yes, there are Saturday lectures. Of course, most of the university have in fact moved to a more typical week structure, but by all official standards, that is how the university works. Also, public holidays (Bank holidays, in the UK), are far too recent an invention to concern the likes of Cambridge. So no public holidays.

Other typical rules of a university seem to have drifted by as well, waved at from a distance while Cambridge does what it wants to do. One example is the Bachelor of Arts. It doesn’t matter what you do, you will be awarded a BA. This is the only degree that Cambridge award at undergraduate. An MA (Master of arts) is equally strange—there are no requirements other than surviving six years after graduation, at which point you can apply to receive your MA. Be wary, employers.

Finally, the PhD enrollment process, something near and dear to me (given I had to suffer through it), is a bit odd as well, and involves time travel. When you apply for a PhD, you get enrolled as a Certificate in Post Graduate Studies (CPGS). This is a lowly-ranked position, but is mostly used as a “PhD Year One” status so it doesn’t matter. After one year and a short report and viva, the university magically realises that you have been a PhD student for a year already, and were never a CPGS student at all! Why? Because that’s how Cambridge does it.

Finally, there is the sheer fact of walking around Cambridge. It is easy to forget just how amazing this place is when you walk through King’s College every other day. The queues of tourists do help as a reminder, but waving a student card quickly solves that problem! If you (like most of the world) have never been to a university where tourists queue to see the student accommodation, it is certainly a strange feeling.

Crazy colleges

The colleges themselves go back to the beginning of the university, with the most famous colleges being more than half a millennium old. The architecture is breathtaking, many of the college chapels being more splendid than cathedrals. King’s College Chapel is the most famous, being the subject of many photographs, but any of the riverside colleges are magnificent. (Of course, many of the non-riverside colleges are lovely too.)

The colleges are related to the University of Cambridge in an unusual way: they are where a student matriculates and graduates from, and where they undertake supervisions (tutorials, to most of the world). Lectures and exams are given by the university. Students also eat, sleep, and socialise within their college, meaning it is an integral part of the Cambridge lifestyle. There are many (many) formal dinners, where gowns are required. I have never worn a gown so much in my life as until I came to Cambridge.

Then there is the money. Most of the colleges are well off, as in they are not going broke. But some are in a league of their own. The older colleges have a lot of money, more than can reasonably be understood. The wealthiest, by a large margin, is Trinity College. Worth more than £1 billion, Trinity owns the O2 Arena in London. “Old money” has new meaning here.

Impossible standards

Cambridge holds itself, and its students, to a very standard. I don’t mean putting out work that is always very good, I mean expecting that the students are the best in their field before they arrive, let alone once they leave. I don’t know how fast it feels like lectures went at your university, I can guarantee they go faster here. Every day is a new topic; no recap, no questions, nothing. Keep up or get out. This pace is supported by the supervision system, where an undergraduate gets 2-to-1 help with any problems they may be having with the course. With this kind of ratio, most problems can be addressed quickly.

Then there are the graduate students. Most research students will pick an ambitious topic, and then whittle it down to something more “reasonable”, for some definition of reasonable. The whittling process ends a lot sooner at Cambridge. Is it an open problem for the last 40 years? Perfect. A fundamental issue facing your field today? Go for it. It feels like no project is too ambitious to take on.

This is made easier by working with the very best of researchers. Every single person here is the best in their field, no exceptions. The head of department here has half a dozen honorifics after his name. My supervisor is working as Special Adviser to the House of Lords. Many have defined entirely new areas of research, and continue to pioneer it today. As with everything else, Cambridge has taken it to a whole new level.

Miscellaneous madness

By taking things to the extreme, Cambridge continue to produce some of the most recognisable faces on the globe. Not a few nights ago, I went to the ADC theatre where actors such as Stephen Fry, Emma Thompson, and Hugh Laurie, all started their careers. I have been to pubs where some of the most brilliant people who ever lived have sat and eaten. I have walked over roads almost a thousand years old, without giving it a second thought.

Soon, none of this will be extraordinary. It will be daily life, and I will think nothing of it.

I hope not.