Student Perspective: Shreeja

Shreeja studied Engineering here at King's College, Cambridge, having specialised in Mechanical Engineering. She is from Hounslow in West London and did A levels in Maths, Further Maths, Physics, Chemistry and Design & Technology Product Design (NB. it's not necessary to take 5 subjects at A level, in case you are wondering!).

Why did you want to do a degree in Engineering? What attracted you to Cambridge?

I came across Engineering as a subject to study from enjoying Design and Technology at school. The process of taking a problem or even just a situation that can be improved and finding a tangible solution to it really interested me. I wanted to learn a more academic, measured approach to problem solving as it’s fair to say that some of my Design and Technology coursework ideas were both wacky and far-fetched! The way in which the subject links to the real world at every step and you can see the applications of what you are learning is very motivating.

Given that I was more interested in the design side of engineering, as opposed to a particular area of engineering itself, it made sense to apply to a general Engineering course. The Engineering course structure at Cambridge means that you try all the disciplines for the first two years before specialising through module choices from third year. Aside from this flexibility that Cambridge offers, the collegiate system appealed to me for the chance to be part of a smaller community, rather than going into a big subject group. Another thing that I really appreciated about the course and college system was the environment of mingling with students across Engineering disciplines and other subjects – there’s so much to learn from those around you and the most interesting discussions happen at the dinner table hours after you should have left to go and do work!

How did you find the application process?

The application process and interviews seem like a long time ago now! I remember that the guidance given to us for preparing for interview was quite reassuring – to be familiar with the material that you were being taught. My approach to this was to lightly revise the material to be confident in the fundamentals. The application process for Engineering changes year on year; in our year, we started with a seminar on an unfamiliar topic, followed by a short test on the seminar material and then a longer test on general maths and physics topics, finishing with an interview with two Engineering fellows.

The application process is academically challenging, and by the end of the interview day you are both physically and mentally tired; but you realise how important this is when the college has to fairly judge from a huge variety of backgrounds and education systems. At the end of the day, your interest in the subject along with the way you think and approach problems is being assessed, not you as a person or all the things that you’ve done. To top it off, the people you meet on the day, be it other applicants or the student volunteers around college, make the day memorable regardless of the fact that most of the journey home is spent asleep!

What attracted you to King's? Did you find it easy to settle in when you arrived?

I didn’t know what to look for in a college when choosing between them. At an Open Day, I had been quite overwhelmed by how opulent and grand all the colleges looked. It was quite a contrast to the often modern buildings other universities tended to show off. Being quite practically minded, I looked for objective things that I thought mattered to me, such as distance to the Engineering Department, distance to the shops in town, size of the year group and what the standard offer was. The first three definitely worked out positively: being within walking distance of almost everything you need is really convenient and the year group is just small enough to be able to recognise most people by face within the first few weeks. Trying to find the college that gives offers that best match what you are studying may make sense, but it didn’t work for me. It is also quite a bad idea to attempt to work out which college you are ‘most likely’ to get into based on application statistics. It’s a far better idea to look into a college that you feel that you’d fit into.

Despite not knowing anything about King’s as a place to live and work before coming on my first day, I soon found out that it had been a really good choice. On top of the closeness to town and most departments (not counting those on the West Cambridge site!), the community is really welcoming and has an overall sense of being down-to-earth. You soon learn that there are stereotypes for most colleges, and students at King’s live up to our name of standing up for what we believe in! As with all stereotypes, they are just that – there isn’t pressure to fit into something that you don’t belong to, and that goes for King’s as well as Cambridge as a whole.

How does the teaching work in Engineering? What are the facilities like for Engineers?

Studying a subject at university is a big step up from studying at A Level, although the first term of the Engineering course is designed very well to make this transition as smooth as possible. There are tailored maths lecture courses to bring everyone up to the same point depending on the level to which you studied at school. Aspects of the course which are new to students, such as formal report writing, are introduced in a structured and guided way. I had been worried about picking up these new skills along with getting used to lectures in large groups, but it was very reassuring to be given guidance in these areas.

Most students will come in very keen to impress on all fronts, and fairly so; the first two years of coursework for Engineering are marked using a system called ‘standard credit’ that evenly rewards all work completed to a suitable standard, which encourages conveying information in a concise and efficient manner over writing everything that you can think of. This definitely took some getting used to! Aside from the coursework, the majority of the work during the year is in the form of problem sheets called ‘examples papers’ that cover the lecture material. Supervisions, which are 1 hour sessions typically between a couple of students and an academic (researcher/professor), are where you have a chance to discuss any problems or points of interest from the examples papers or wider subject area. For the first two years, these are organised in college and tend to cycle through all the subject areas on a fortnightly basis.

Progressing through the course, ‘standard credit’ for coursework gives way to normal positive marking from third year. There is also a shift from supervisions within the college to supervisions organised by the Department, which is a good opportunity to meet engineers from other colleges. Working on a less standardised timetable (sometimes even with afternoon lectures!) means that students often spend more time working in the Department, making good use of the new library and other collaborative working spaces. I found myself with lots of awkward hour-long breaks between lectures last year, which meant it made a lot of sense for me to work in the Department during the day, even though my room was a 10 minute walk away! Alongside the working spaces, the Dyson Centre for Engineering Design in the Department has facilities for students’ own projects, with laser cutters and 3D printers alongside more traditional workshop equipment.

Have you specialised as you’ve gone through the course?

A big advantage with a General Engineering course is that you can try each discipline in earnest before choosing your specialisation. At Cambridge, this is taken a step further and you are completely free, within timetable constraints, to choose your own mix of modules that may even cross different specialisations. I took advantage of this in third year as I was unsure whether to focus on mechanical engineering or structural engineering; my modules covered materials and manufacturing, solid mechanics (how to model the stresses within components), structural materials, structural analysis and design methods. Even though I spread myself across two broad areas of engineering, there were many links between the modules that I chose and this made the selection work well.

Choosing modules with a degree of overlap is encouraged to allow the principles learnt to mesh together somewhat, and also make the workload a little lighter. I am also interested in the managerial aspects of engineering and so chose two management modules, which is the maximum number that you are allowed to choose (this applies to fourth year as well). Operations management covers the way in which manufacturing process are organised depending on what the company wishes to achieve, whilst human resources management covers the organisation of people and their work.

What is the workload like for a third year Engineer? Do you feel like you got good academic support at King's?

The workload from the course in third year is quite similar to first and second year in some ways, for example, the supervisions for the last examples papers of the term will inevitably get squeezed into the last couple of weeks, meaning a push to the end while many of your friends are winding down for the last few days. In other ways, it is very different: you are introduced to Full Technical Reports (they sound much scarier than they are!) that are essentially extended lab reports for a couple of modules and your subject peer group support network can move away from your college group, which just means you get to meet more people! More importantly, you organise your own supervisions and choose your own lab sessions. This means that you decide how best to balance your workload each term and are more able to fit it around other commitments than before. I chose to complete as much of my lab work at the start of term as possible, before the bulk of the examples papers hit, which helped me to even out the work pressure. Another thing that I learnt, albeit the hard way, over the course of the last three years, was the importance of breaking the work down and completing smaller chunks as soon as possible to stay on top of it all. This doesn’t work for everyone, but it helped me to know that if I fell ill or suddenly had to meet other commitments, I didn’t have a backlog of work to deal with afterwards.

In this sense, I am really grateful for all the academic and pastoral support that I got from King’s, both from the Engineering fellows and college Nurse. It is so easy for things to get a bit overwhelming and stressful, or for something to cause you to lose focus and motivation – at times like these, knowing that there is someone in college who is willing to understand your situation and help you come up with a solution is really reassuring. I came to King’s as someone who tended to give the impression that everything was okay, even when I had my back up against a wall, but my experiences so far have taught me that it is much more valuable to ask for help when needed – nobody will think you’re less strong for it!

What do you like to do when you're not working?

Even though Cambridge terms are characterised by how intense they are, there is plenty of time to spend doing things outside of work. The balance of work and socialising is often not even though – there will be times when work dominates, and other times when you’re wondering what to do with your time. My favourite thing to do when I am free is to spend time with friends, making the most of how we’re all nearby and it takes next to no effort to organise socialising! We have done everything from the standard movie nights in and meals together to picnics in Grantchester Meadows, boardgames evenings and random discussions until 4am! There is also a lot to see in and around Cambridge, much of which we miss when running to and from lectures and supervisions. There’s no shame in taking some time at the end of term to indulge in being a bit of a tourist in your own university town!

Many people will spend a lot of their off-work time taking part in a range of societies and sports. I have taken part in outreach work with ‘Engineers without Borders’ as well as played with the college and university on the mixed pool team; my main love, as many of my friends know, is Cambridge University Eco Racing. We are a group of students who design, build and race a solar powered electric vehicle every two years, taking part in the World Solar Challenge, a 3000km endurance competition across the Australian Outback. I have worked on the Events and Operations side for three years now, looking after logistics and organising many of the cool events where we show off our current car, Evolution. Cross-university societies are a good way to meet people from other colleges, and many of my closest friends outside King’s are from CUER.

What's the accommodation like at King's?

The accommodation at King’s is very varied, ranging from the old classic rooms in Bodley’s Court by the river to the new modern rooms in Market Hostel in the middle of town. Market Hostel is where I lived last year, in a large en-suite room overlooking the Market Square. The room was open, airy and very spacious, making it really good for socialising with friends! It was also a very practical room, with lots of storage space, which can be said for most rooms in King’s, regardless of their size. Apart from for first year, students choose their room from those available in a set order which is picked by ballot. When you choose your room for second year, you’ll choose in the ballot order after the years above have chosen their rooms. The following year, your year group’s order is flipped to give a chance of a good choice to those at the bottom of the list the previous year, and the group is now above the year below, which adds to the chance of a better room.

Do you have any plans for this summer? Do you know what you’d like to do after you graduate?

It’s common for students to spend their summers working internships; most are at companies but the university also offers placements. The Engineering Department is no different and I am taking part in the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program to work with CUER. We are designing our next car to race in the World Solar Challenge 2017 and so it is going to be a very exciting summer working on the manufacture planning!

I'm also looking forward to spending some time with family. Cambridge terms tend not to offer the chance for weekend trips home for most as they're spent catching up on work, doing sports or other society activities. As well as this, students sometimes choose to stay in college over the Christmas and Easter vacations, especially the latter one when it is close to important exams.

While my plans for this summer and the time outside of term next year will mainly involve as much rest and productive time as possible, I would really love to travel in the few months after I graduate. The World Solar Challenge will be in October 2017, which makes it a perfect marker to organise other trips around! After that, I hope to be continuing onto further studies in the area of materials and manufacturing although I’m keen to keep my options open at the moment and take each step as it comes!

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