Studying English at Cambridge is an uphill struggle
It’s not a subject to be looked down on
A year ago, on my first day as a timid fresher at Cambridge, one firm word of advice made a huge impression: never be apologetic about studying English.
This was my first alert to how studying English at Cambridge was going to be an uphill struggle against the inevitable, light-hearted ridicule from sceptical scientist friends.
There is a definite divide between the sciences and the arts at Cambridge which often sees English relegated to the cushiest course of all with only two direct contact hours a week (even the historians have more) alongside a handful of optional lectures (yep, you read that right- optional).
We experience minimal harassment about deadlines and nobody checks on our attendance at lectures. I know many students who have yet to attend a single lecture and Cambridge alumni Stephen Fry is reputed to have only attended three lectures in his three years of his English degree. A rate of one per year is not actually too shabby.
Sounds easy, right? Having so few contact hours is in fact one of the most taxing tests of all; it requires enormous amounts of self-discipline. There is an enormous amount of freedom but ultimately you get out of the degree exactly as much as you put into it. There is nobody to fall back on and you are absolutely required to be your own motivator. Of course, as students, this often leads to “working” for a few days a week before trying to convince yourself that you can totally treat yourself to a five-day weekend.
The challenge is being able to balance your time well so that you can ensure you are meeting deadlines sensibly and not needlessly leaving essays until the eleventh-hour or blindly professing to being a world-class expert on the nuances of allegories in The Faerie Queene (yeah, me neither). The freedom to manage your own time can be a burden as well as an all too tempting excuse to shamelessly binge-watch Netflix.
Yet in this past year in which I have been freed from the restrictions of a nine to five routine I have learned more about myself and about life than I ever could at school. University is not just about the number of contact hours you receive. How to boil an egg, how to enjoy yourself in some of the country’s grimiest clubs and how to write an essay on the nuances of religious writings written by a female mystic in the 14th century are all life lessons that an English degree has given me the freedom and time to explore by enabling me to achieve harmony between life and work. Admittedly some lessons were more valuable than others.
I do have a have a great deal of respect for my science student friends, particularly the medics who are often pushing themselves to work twelve hour days and more whilst my day is a whole lot more flexible. Admittedly while I am sunbathing and reading the occasional bit of Shakespeare as the medics and lawyers look permanently soul-destroyed with every surface of their room covered in desperately lurid-coloured post-it notes, I do pity them a little bit.
I will never take for granted the luxury in being given the opportunity to explore my passion and to discuss my ideas with leading academics in the field. I may not be trained to save lives or uphold peace and justice but I will hopefully leave Cambridge as an English graduate covetable personal skills and the ability to adapt to a wide range of roles.
There is no pressure upon me to decide what I want to do as a career. In fact I am ever-amazed that people of my age can be so certain about what they want to do for the rest of their lives. That is brilliant for them but for the majority of us that want to keep our career paths as flexible as possible then an English degree at Cambridge is the perfect way to set yourself up to become a very valuable candidate for a whole host of exciting jobs that often think beyond traditional professions.
An English degree at Cambridge defies all the myths about the top universities nurturing an exam-crazed, workaholic army of emotionless and entitled prodigies who are completely disconnected from reality.
Apologise about following my passion, making myself more employable and learning how to become a better person? Never.