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Department of Computer Science and Technology

Today I’m joining a college.  Or, to be more precise, at a ceremony later this afternoon I’ll be admitted as a fellow to Gonville and Caius college.

Now the questions you might ask are why, and why aren’t you part of a college already—this is Cambridge after all and it’s all about the colleges, isn’t it?

Actually it’s not.  In Cambridge you don’t have to be part of a college.  All students are, both undergraduate and postgraduate.  Postdocs generally aren’t, although some colleges make provision for a small number of postdocs to be part of their community.  Lecturers, readers and professors can choose whether to be part of a college or not.

The bigger question then is why—why would I want to be part of a college?  And there are several answers.

First, and possibly most important, is that I have little contact with undergraduates.  Yes, I do a bit of lecturing and supervise some of the Part II projects that students take in their third years.  (As an aside, these projects are quite good fun and the best ones stray into research too.)  I even take supervisions from time to time.  But I don’t feel like I have regular contact with undergraduates and it can feel like I help admit them in December during interviews, then rarely see them or how they progress during their time here.  Becoming a fellow at Caius, I’ll also become a Director of Studies (DoS), a position I’ll share with several others in Computer Science (who will be able to give me lots of sound advice and correct me when I go wrong, since they have tons of experience!) and I will therefore have much more contact with the students.  I’ll be able to help them, not just get to Cambridge, but also to thrive when they are here so that they achieve all that they can during their degrees.  This, I think, will be much more fulfilling than the current piecemeal situation.

Second, although you don’t have to be part of a college here, it has felt to me like I’m not getting the fully authentic Cambridge experience without having a college position.  I love my job and work environment at the Computer Laboratory (as of yesterday, the Department of Computer Science and Technology) but there’s something special about being in buildings that are several hundred years old and taking part in traditions that have lasted just as long.  I’m in the very fortunate position that I can have both, so I feel I should take advantage of that.

Third, colleges are a mix of people from all schools and departments in the university.  Being in college, there’s a chance to meet and talk to people from a totally different discipline to mine, rather than talking computers all day long.  Colleges give you an identity that is separate from that within your department, and the two don’t conflict but enhance each other.

Finally, besides all this, a college position bestows a range of soft benefits that will come in useful in furthering my research.  These range from a second office in the centre of town to escape to if I don’t want to be disturbed, to rooms for visiting academics to stay in, dinners for visitors in the impressive hall (although these will be few and far between with a young family to look after!), to an annual book allowance.  These things all add up to help make things run just a little bit easier.

Another question might be, why Caius?  This is more difficult to answer, simply because I haven’t got in-depth knowledge about how all 31 colleges in the university work.  Caius was looking for a new Computer Science DoS and fellow and I was looking for a college to join at the same time.  Things worked out serendipitously, to an extent.  Having said that, I had been a bit picky about the college I joined.  I’d been looking for a while and had considered others, ultimately rejecting them for a variety of reasons.  At Caius though, I got a good feeling from the place itself and from talking to other fellows there.  Caius seems to be somewhere that I think I can fit into, somewhere with lots of history yet forward looking, somewhere that’s not too big and not too small, somewhere with buildings in the centre of town and further out too, and a place where everybody I’ve met has been warm and friendly.

So I hope you can see that I’m excited to be joining Caius today, and am looking forward to starting college life.  If you happen to be in Cambridge at any time, drop me a line and I’ll show you around so you can see what a great place it is too.

The fantastic photos of Gonville and Caius in this post are copyright Sir Cam and have been used with his kind permission.