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Computer Science At The University of Cambridge

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  • Maybe too theoretical for some to stomach
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      01.05.2002 03:47
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      • "Maybe too theoretical for some to stomach"

      Hi everybody - you may remember me from such thrilling opinions as "Maths at Cambridge" and, well, that's it really... Firstly an explanation - I did maths last year (with a computer science option replacing 1/4 of the courses) and changed to computer science this year. That narrows me down to about 2 or 3 people if you happen to be someone who might know me, but never mind... 1. REPUTATION Computer science (from now on I'll use the undergraduate slang, 'compsci', which refers to the subject and someone reading the subject) at Cambridge has a reputation of its own. It's the best course in the UK, apparently - especially with new resources such as a new building partially funded by Microsoft, a whopping great science park on the outskirts of the city and research labs (Microsoft's in particular) dotted about the place. Though there's usually a disclaimer - "if you like that sort of thing". Which is a fair one and I'm about to tell you why! The course at Cambridge is extremely theoretical. This means, in most instances, it's mathematical. However don't get put off by that of itself - personally I can't stand maths as and by itself, but the applications of maths to computer science are generally a LOT more interesting than the mathematics problem sheets my "mathmo" peers are set. You need to be good at maths to do compsci, but then that applies to most UK university courses (and I'm not lying here - admissions tutors will back up that to the last). However, being theoretical doesn't mean we're stuck in the 1970s and never touch real machines. Nothing could be farther from the truth - courses are revised and updated every year to keep on top of current developments, and we study stuff like software engineering, databases, image processing and hardware design as well as mathematics, logic and computation theory. But more about that later... < br> What being theoretical and having a reputation for it actually means is that we don't tend to go for the "IT stuff" as lecture courses - although things like project management are taught by making us do a huge project in our second year with near-complete strangers. We don't have courses on how to use Word or Photoshop (though we did have one on how to use Unix!) and we don't have "this is how you design a website in Frontpage" courses. Nor do we learn about the schematics of computer games or 3D animation studios or anything like that - but then there's plenty enough for us to be getting on with anyway :) 2. COURSE So what do we study? In the first year there are three somewhat confusing computer science options. Basically you can't study computer science by itself - you have to go via the "Natural Sciences Tripos" or via maths. The options are: - 50% computer science, 1 natural science, mathematics for natural scientists - 25% computer science, 2 natural sciences, mathematics for natural scientists - 25% computer science, 75% Mathematics Tripos A natural science is - Chemistry, Biology of Cells, Physics, and a few others.. check www.cam.ac.uk for the full prospectus! Each of the above is a completely valid way of getting into the second (and third) years which are 100% compsci. The first option gives you extra courses during your first year, however, some of which you have to take in your second year if you missed them first time round because you did either of the other options... The courses in the first year are foundational - introduction to functional programming (which seems a bit outmoded at first but is actually relevant to the theory of programming languages which you learn more about in the second year), Java (yaaaay), operating systems and discrete mathematics ('numbers and sets' if you're a mathmo). This is all pre tty basic stuff and definitely needed before you get on to the tough stuff in your later years! The 50% computer scientists do courses on software engineering, digital electronics and hardware design, regular languages and finite automata and probability. In the second year it gets a lot more fun but substantially tougher as you're (effectively) running to catch up with other unis who've run 100% computer science courses in their first year... You study everything from data structures and algorithms to an overview of programming languages, security, compilers, databases, graphics, hardware design... and as well as all that you work on a large-scale real-world project with strangers. That's one of the most fun bits though. The third year branches out into deeply complex study of many different branches of computer science which you choose your preferences from - you can specialise or take a broad range of courses depending on what you want to do. There's also another, but individual, project to do. And after that of course there're even more options for further study, although there isn't a 4th year (MSci or whatever) to compsci at Cambridge as there is at many other universities like Imperial and so on. Not a bad thing as you do enough work while at Cambridge to qualify for an automatic MA anyway :) 3. THE WORKLOAD It's Cambridge. What can I say? There's a lot of work, but it pays off. And it's interesting stuff. You can sit at a computer trying out practical examples of a lot of the course material, or sit in a library with some friends working it out, or in the new compsci building's cafeteria over a sandwich (caution: they're pretty minging) while discussing a problem the lecturer set you. Work hard, play hard - that's the Cambridge motto. High standards /are/ expected and you /can't/ get by without putting in continual effort - dossers need not apply. I know many people who thought they could doss and bluff through, because that's what they did at school, but it turned out that wasn't the best move. One of the cool things for compscis, though, is that there's a lot of extracurricular stuff that you could get involved with that's computer related. Personally I maintain three university-related websites that are run by official organisations here (and some pretty high profile too) - but you could be college computer officer, webmaster or typesetter for a newspaper, poster designer for your college's events, whatever you want. Because there are so many colleges and organisations here, there are loads of opportunities. 4. ATTITUDE Everyone loves it here. Well, not exactly. Some people get overworked, overstressed and underfunded. But generally there's a great atmosphere about compsci (better than that for maths if you read my other opinion) and don't worry, not everyone has been brought up on C since they were four (personally I hadn't coded in a 'real' language before I got here) and not everyone is antisocial and geeky - though don't expect to bluster and show off in front of your peers as most people know as much as you if not more! It's a great subject to do, and personally I'm really happy with the change of course. Certain colleges are better than others but there isn't much in it as far as the subject goes - I'd advise perhaps finding a college with more than one person doing your subject (not a problem with maths but it does happen for compsci) so you're not forced to go elsewhere for everything. I'm at the largest college and it works out OK, but I know people happier at slightly smaller colleges where everything isn't so impersonal. 5. THE ALL IMPORTANT QUESTION (AND ANSWER) Yes, most colleges /do/ give you a network point in your room, and you /can/ bring your own computer. (Most rooms are reasonably sized so a desktop, cheaper and more powerful, is a better investment than a laptop.) Sorted! [Obligatory link for people wanting to find out more about Oxbridge applications: www.oxbridge-info.co.uk Email me: vodka @ delinquency.co.uk (apologies for the spamcrawlerbot trap) if you have any questions or want to cunningly point out that you know who I am......]

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