The University of Cambridge are SRS BIZNIS

I have now been a graduate student for ONE WHOLE WEEK. It’s very exciting. So obviously now is the time to start planning my next degree. (There is method in my madness – if I plan to finish this one a bit *early* then I should be able to roll right into an overseas PHD program, on the arrogant assumption that I’m spiffy enough to get into such things.)

Having recently been through one round of applications, and having spent a couple of hours poking at the websites of various universities, I have some observations:

1. I thought the university of Sydney were crummy with their paperwork (don’t talk to me about paperwork. I somehow still don’t have a timetable!). But apparently Australian universities are models of efficiency! I applied in October and started in March. Investigation suggests that I will have to apply *this* October if I want to start *next* September/October overseas. Seriously, people, is your paperwork all done in stone tablets?

Note: this is no longer the logo of USyd.

The new one is “modern”. And ugly.

2. Does the University of Cambridge not WANT students? Their prospective grad students pages are the most depressing thing I’ve read for quite some time. Observe:

From “What we expect from you“:

The most important qualification for becoming a graduate student is a sense of vocation. Finishing a dissertation is hard work; it is also a test of determination. In deciding if graduate work is for you it is valuable to consider which elements in your undergraduate course you most enjoyed. It is not enough to have relished the excitement of reading new material each week and cleverly concealing what you did not know in your essays or coursework – although an enthusiasm for reading is one vital qualification for graduate work. If you felt frustrated about the limits of your knowledge when you were an undergraduate, and enjoyed the more extended forms of study which were required for a dissertation or extended essay, then it is likely that you will get satisfaction from graduate work.

From “What you cannot expect from us“:

Do not expect to be spoon-fed while you are here. You will spend long hours in the library working on a topic which on a black day might seem to be of interest to noone else in the world. You should bear in mind that you will probably be poor, and that you will almost certainly have to spend a great deal of time reading material which you find unappetising in order to master your chosen field.

Translation: We are CAMBRIDGE and we are HARDCORE. You must be HARDCORE to be at CAMBRIDGE. You’re SMART? Think again! ORDINARY SMARTS ARE NOT HARDCORE ENOUGH AT CAMBRIDGE. Students at Cambridge are so HARDCORE that they are MISERABLE ALL THE TIME! But that’s the way they LIKE IT because WE ARE CAMBRIDGE AND WE ARE HARDCORE! Come to Cambridge, earn a degree in MISERABLE, it’s HARDCORE.

Ok, Ok, I understand, they’re *Cambridge*, they don’t need to be nice to their students. But compare to the nice, businesslike pages for Medieval Studies at Toronto! Those pages tell us that the program is quite hard to get into, and Serious Business once you’re in, but for the rest of it, they don’t seem to feel the need to either scare people off or to target a select audience of intellectual masochists.

Is it just me, or is Cambridge’s pitch all wrong here? I can imagine receiving such advice in a friendly peer-to-peer orientation pack, perhaps, but for the university’s public face… surely there are ways to get say “you must be serious to come here” without talking down to your applicants or advertising the many miserable qualities of the degree in question.

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8 Responses to “The University of Cambridge are SRS BIZNIS”

  1. Jonathan Jarrett Says:

    It’s self-fulfilling. Cambridge recruits the sort of person who is not put off by this, who then doesn’t dare go anywhere else, and if they’re HARDCORE and MISERABLE enough they won’t need to. These people then wind up as faculty administration and draft webpages like the one you quote, which only people like them ignore. And round and round we go.

    • highlyeccentric Says:

      Weren’t *you* working at Cambridge at one point?

      Toronto just recruit miserable bastards who can pass this exam. I just had my first ever latin text yesterday (it asked me to conjugate some verbs), and now I’m looking at that thing.

      • Jonathan Jarrett Says:

        I did my undergraduate and masters t/here, lived t/here while doing my Ph.nbsp;D. in London, and have worked here for nearly five years now. I have spent about half this time trying to leave. Further comments would probably best be kept off-blog…

        As for that exam: phew. I could probably do the first two passages adequately. The fourth is right out of my league. The third I don’t really want to think about. I think that is more hardcore than Cambridge. Cambridge will teach you medieval Latin in a fortnight before your course starts in case you don’t know it (true fact). So there, I do have some good things to say about it, as well as the bitter streak.

        • highlyeccentric Says:

          ORly? That’d be handy.

          The disadvantage to Cambridge, or anywhere in England really, is that I’d have to think of *another* thesis proposal by halfway through this year. And I want to switch fields again – go back to English, and keep French as my side line.

          … this “finish the thesis a smidge early and roll straight into an OS degree” thing isn’t looking very clever, no matter which side of the puddle I pick. Hum.

          • Jonathan Jarrett Says:

            I’m not sure any plan that contains “finish a thesis early” is terribly realistic, to be honest. A plan that says “polish something for publication in the gap between that and further study” might be better but leaves you struggling to stay alive in between of course.

            As to offline comments, I’ll drop you a mail when I have a spare minute, but that may not be till next week, hope that’s OK.

  2. Aven Says:

    I don’t know–probably I’m just in a bitter/cynical place in my own academic career (FINALLY finishing a way too drawn out diss.) but Cambridge’s description seems pretty reasonable, even admirably honest. Saying such things to students only once they’ve enrolled seems disingenuous — they’re unlikely to back out then, and may waste a lot of timeand energy.

    But it’s probably also the case that Cambridge thinks it’s specially special!

  3. Aven Says:

    Now that I’ve read the other comments, let me add that my husband went through the UofT Medieval program, and yeah, the Latin is really hard, perhaps too hard (and I say that as a Classicist and Latinist). But otherwise he really liked it; he did Old English.

  4. magistra Says:

    On the Toronto test, the final verse passage is a bit tricky, but the rest is bog-standard ecclesiastical Latin. Once you know the Latin for soul/flesh/man/love and God you can translate a lot of this by the yard (just as I suspect it was written by the yard).

    And it is not complicated grammar. I don’t know what textbook you’re using for your Latin, but if you’ve got something like Wheelock’s Latin, that will teach you all the grammar you need for those passages and more. The intensive Latin course I took at Cambridge (the same as Jon’s) had us reading verses from the Vulgate within a fortnight, so it is possible.

    As for whether Cambridge discourages people too much – the UK idea is that you select the few really good people early, and then there’s a chance that there might be enough funding and jobs at the end of it all. The US system, where you’re encouraged to study further even if you’re not quite top-notch and then chucked out of the system at a later stage has its problems as well.


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