Cambridge degrees then and now: Day in the life of a geographer

Has anything changed in 20 years?


It’s common knowledge that all geographers do is colour in pictures of volcanoes, right? And that they’re the only ones who don’t get lost in Freshers’ Week because they can actually read a map? Do these stereotypes have any truth to them? And if they do, has the notion of the Cambridge Geographer changed in 20 years? We interviewed current Geographers at St Catharine’s College and an alumnus to find out.

Our alumnus, Charlotte Duck, was a Geography undergraduate at Catz from 2000-2003. She is now a journalist (we love to see it!) and lives in Kent, England. James Rennie is an undergraduate set to graduate in 2023. He from Reading and is part of the University Cross Country Team.

We asked these two to tell us about their experiences of Cambridge, to trace (with their felt tip pens) the journey of Geographers from then until now.

The evidence of an illegal May Ball entry. But more on that later! (Image Credit: Charlotte Duck)

The colouring-in schedule

Charlotte says she didn’t have as many lectures as “the Engineers”, but she definitely didn’t have as few as “4 lectures a term” (I am looking at you, fresher Englings). James adds “Lawyers” and “NatScis” to the list of degrees with more work than Geographers, but firmly believes they are now “on the same level as other humanities.” It’s almost as though they have something to prove!

One of the most astonishing changes in 20 years is that while Charlotte had to drag herself to 9 am lectures every morning, they seem to have completely disappeared in 2021 – James told me that the earliest Geography lecture is at 10 am. It gives them an extra hour to get their pencils in order.

James does admit to formatting maps on a programme called Inkscape which “satisfies our colouring craving by highlighting different features in different colours!”. So maybe it isn’t just a stereotype after all. Virtual colouring-in was not an option for Charlotte in 2000 when she had a desktop computer that took up the whole desk.

Was it Y2K without a Union Jack dress and space buns? (Image Credit: Charlotte Duck)

The wheels of Catz

Ahhh Catz, the home of the Catharine wheel – but is it the home of the bicycle wheel? For James, living in Covid times, “there has been no need to even leave my bed for lectures if I didn’t want to!” (lucky thing!) but he says that he would be walking to lectures if things were normal. However, he says “second-year accommodation is slightly further away so some of us might cycle.”

Looks like, on that front, not much has changed, as Charlotte got a bike when she moved into St Chad’s in the second year: “My bike was stolen and thrown in the Cam. It was found by the police and I had to go down to the station and give a statement!” This iconic bike served Charlotte for her remaining time at Cambridge and she still has it, though admits it isn’t “roadworthy.” I’m really hoping she left Cambridge with more than a rusty bike.

Look at them. All smug about their five-minute walk to lectures! (Image Credit: James Rennie)

Lectures? What lectures?

While I am sure Charlotte attended many riveting lectures in her time, one of her favourite memories was the geography field trip to Majorca: “We sat on a beach and wrote a poem about it but I wasn’t a very good poet.” I didn’t think poetry writing was needed for a geography degree but who knows at this point!

James, unfortunately, hasn’t written any poems but he did mention a lecturer Alex Jeffrey who is somewhat of an “icon” among first years, with his colour coordinated bookshelf being the highlight of his lectures: “He’s always quick to pick a book up off of it and excitedly show it to the camera, even though we can’t really see what’s going on!” He sounds almost as wholesome as a beach poem.

Geology rocks but geography is where it’s at

So what do these Geographers do for fun when they aren’t polishing rocks? Has it changed? You might be surprised to hear that Charlotte remembers some familiar names! She went to Lola’s, Cindies, Life, Fez, Van of Life and even Gardies! 2000 certainly does sound like 2021, minus the fact that the whole university is grieving for Cindies and the lack of clubs in general. Ahhh for simpler times!

Charlotte also admitted to crashing Queens’ May Ball during her times at Cambridge. Queens’ College, I suggest you fix the lock on that broken window round the back! Speaking of broken windows, Charlotte and her Geographer friends used to climb out of their window in Bull Building and have drinks on the roof overlooking King’s and Trumpington Street. How wholesome!

James, in contrast, has been dealt a not so great hand by Covid-19, but has enjoyed pub trips with the Geographers, “chill movie nights” and chatting in the college bar. In Charlotte’s time, there were no TVs or laptops so everyone had to gather in the “smelly” JCR room for Eurovision. So it’s not all bad for James, but maybe he should check Catz’s roof for an iconic spot.

What a way to escape the crowds on King’s Parade (Image Credit: Charlotte Duck)

You and me got a whole lot of Geography

So let’s get the goss. What are the other Geographers like at St Catharine’s? In 2000, the eight Geographers were a “real mix” but there were quite a lot of “sporty girls” and apparently Charlotte was one of them! James is the only boy in the 2021 cohort of eight. He does admit to feeling “outnumbered.” I wonder if the sporty girl stereotype still rings true?

Charlotte’s cohort has gone on to do a lot of different things post-uni – there’s the Geography teacher, who I am sure is teaching tectonic plates on Zoom at this moment, and the standard Lawyer, Accountant and Management Consultant, who I am sure are feeling smug that they managed to get high paid jobs from a Geography degree.

There is also someone who has gone on to work at IKEA, and someone else who didn’t go too far from home, and is now working in Sustainability at Cambridge University. Charlotte said that Geography has really helped her with interviewing skills as a journalist. She has interviewed lots of A list celebrities, including Winona Ryder, Kate Winslet and even Kermit the Frog. So dream big 2021 Geographers – it is possible to get a good job from a Geography degree!

The current Geo gang (Image Credits: James Rennie)

So there you have it! An in-depth investigation into the lives of Catz’s resident STEM (or are they humanities?) students. Now that Y2K fashion is back in style, why not walk down King’s Parade in low rise jeans and dream of a time when Cindies was still open.

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