Modern Geography is much more than ‘capes and bays’ and naming capital cities around the world. Rather, it is characterised by the complex interactions between global scale change (e.g. sea level rise, human migration patterns) and more regional and local scale change (flash floods, urban inequalities).
Geography sits at the interface of the natural and social sciences in a world – the ‘Anthropocene’ - where humans increasingly modify their environment and where the environment, to differing degrees across different social groups and cultures, impacts and changes lives and livelihoods. Geography graduates are typically both literate and numerate and go on to careers in a variety of sectors, including industry and commerce, planning, social work, environmental management, conservation, and the media.
Geography at Cambridge involves undergraduates in a wide range of lectures, practical classes and field courses, organised around a three year course, called the Geographical Tripos. This is divided into three parts (Parts IA, IB and II), with an examination at the end of each year. Unlike some Universities, you are not required to study a subsidiary subject.
In your first year (Geographical Tripos Part IA) you study for two unseen three-hour examination papers. There is no choice at this stage: we think it important for everyone to begin with the same basic grounding:
Paper 1: People, Place and the Politics of Difference introduces students to some of the key debates and concepts in human geography. It includes investigation of globalization, the nature and origins of global inequalities, contemporary economic transformations, urbanization, political transformations and sustainable development. It provides an introduction to a range of different geographical approaches and discusses what they bring to understandings of different geographical transformations.
Paper 2: Environmental Processes and Change provides an introduction the fundamental processes involved in the Earth’s various inter-connected subsystems and explores the ways in which the whole system and its components have changed during the Earth’s history, particularly over the last 3 million years.
You also follow a course in Geographical Skills and Methods.
In your second year (Geographical Tripos Part IB) you follow a core course and 3 optional courses. The core course is entitled ‘Living with Global Change’ and includes the submission of a portfolio of practical exercises: a dissertation proposal; a skills project (either intermediate statistics or GIS and spatial data analysis); and a fieldwork project. The optional courses are all assessed using a ‘Two+1’ model, a two-hour unseen examination paper with a piece of coursework accounting for one-third of the overall mark.
In the third year (Geographical Tripos Part II) you can choose whatever combination of papers you like, so that you can either specialise further or maintain a balance across the subject as a whole. You select four papers and you also research and write a dissertation: here too the choice of subject is up to you (although we check the health and safety and ethical issues within which your topic is situated).
The dissertation is an independent piece of work and an opportunity to put into practice what you have been taught in lectures and practical classes and to work on something which really interests you; for many students it is the most challenging, and the most rewarding, part of the course. The subjects and locations of dissertations vary widely, many involving financially supported fieldwork outside the British Isles, as a few titles from recent years indicate:
- Geographical aspects of the Welsh language in Cardiff
- The changing place of Vancouver's Chinese in Canadian culture
- A cultural Geography of jazz in New Orleans, 1890-1920
- Soil conservation in a hill-tribe village in North Thailand
- Meanders in the streams of the Upper Arolla Glacier, Switzerland
- The future of ancient oak woodlands, with reference to the New Forest
In every year there are one-day excursions associated with particular courses. These include museums and the Botanic Gardens in Cambridge, and trips to the East Anglian coast, The Fens, and to important Quaternary (the last 3 million years of Earth history) sites in East Anglia. Local field trips also form part of some practical exercises in years one and two. A compulsory residential field course for second year students, often with a Mediterranean focus, gives rise to a piece of assessed practical work. Recent locations for this course have included Morocco, Tenerife, Berlin, Switzerland and Dublin. As a Department, we take our carbon footprint seriously and are now actively exploring possible new ‘no fly’ locations.
Magdalene typically has a lively group of undergraduate geographers with the annual intake varying between about two and three students. We can receive anything between 3 and 6 applications per place, and the size of the final intake will depend on the calibre of the applications.
The College's Director of Studies in Geography is Professor Tom Spencer, who is also Professor of Coastal Dynamics in the University. He will meet with you regularly to discuss your progress, advise you on your choose of optional papers and your dissertation topic.
Teaching occupies the first two terms, together with the first half of the third term: the remaining four weeks are given over to revision and examinations. You can expect to have 7 or 8 one hour lectures each week, although this is only a rough guide: much depends on which papers you are taking and how they are timetabled. In the first two years you will also have laboratory, practical classes or workshops each week. In the summer vacation after your second year you will work on your dissertation.
In all three years you will normally have three one hour 'supervisions' per fortnight, where a small group of students (usually 2 - 4) discuss a particular topic for about one hour. You are often expected to have written an essay for each supervision. This is a valuable discipline in itself and provides a springboard for discussion: supervision essays do not count towards your final examinations. This means that you can afford to be more adventurous than might otherwise be the case: you can read beyond the syllabus, try out your own ideas, and reach your own conclusions. Supervisions are led by experts in the field, and since no College has a monopoly on these, you can expect to be supervised by people from many different Colleges while you are here. In this way, not only do you have the chance to tackle questions at the frontiers of research: you are also exposed to different teaching styles, ideas and opinions.
Geography undergraduates are encouraged to apply for Departmental and University funds to assist with fieldwork expenses incurred in data gathering for the third year dissertation. There is an annual College prize for a Geography essay, submitted outside the formal examination requirements. College Scholarships are awarded for First Class results in University examinations. The College also has a number of travel awards.
Magdalene Geographers find that a very wide range of career opportunities is open to them. Over the last few years, around 25% have found jobs in the financial services sector, including banking, stock-broking and accountancy; 16% have continued in education, either studying for higher degrees or taking the postgraduate certificate of education; 14% have moved into various management jobs, including the Civil Service (both home and overseas) and private and public sector corporations; and 10% have entered marketing and advertising. It is rare for Geography graduates not to find employment if they seek it.
Do you enjoy learning about environments, landscapes and peoples, their societies, economies and cultures? How these relationships have been forged in the past, how societies are coming to terms with uncertain and changing environments, and how they are thinking about future global change? For example, Geography at Cambridge may challenge you with questions like these: Science: what constitutes valid environmental knowledge?; Economics: what and whom do we value and why?; Risk: how are environmental risks perceived?; Communication: how is climate change framed?; Development: what constitutes well-being?; Governance: how should societies be governed?
We want to see real interest, enthusiasm and engagement with Geography, perhaps through reading general science and geographical magazines, attending talks and lectures, or making efforts to visit places of interest with an eye that goes beyond the tourist gaze. You will need to be motivated to develop a wide range of analytical skills (broadly defined, both qualitative and quantitative) within an academic degree ranging across the natural sciences, social sciences and humanities. Above all, we are looking for an eagerness and willingness to learn, an openness to new ideas, and the intellectual curiosity to seek out more.
We normally expect applicants in Geography to have studied Geography to A-level or equivalent. We realise, however, that school provision in the subject varies, especially internationally, and if you have been unable to study Geography in your final year of school you may still be considered, please contact the Academic Office for advice.
Our typical offer for Geography is A*AA at A-level or 41-42 points in the IB with 7,7,6 at Higher level. Sometimes we will specify the need for an A* (or 7 at IB Higher Level) in Geography.
Interviews and Written Assessments
Interviews are usually held in early December. Candidates will usually have two interviews, each lasting about 20-25 minutes. One interview will be a subject interview with the Director of Studies and another member of the Geography Department. The second interview is usually a more general interview with two Magdalene Fellows in related subjects. You may be asked to look at a small exercise in the interview and comment on it.