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Department of Computer Science and Technology


Students' stories

Female undergraduates share their experiences of studying here

Vasundhara Agarwal, Newnham College 

How did you come to study Computer Science at Cambridge?
Before I started my degree at Cambridge, my understanding of Computer Science was limited to what I had been taught in school — which was basically some very straightforward loop-based programming in Java. I remember being acutely aware of the pronounced difference in IT skills between me and all the boys at school. They could very confidently take a computer apart and piece it back together in minutes, rattling off the processor's specs as they did so, while I’d just observe them, mouth open in awe and amazement.

This feeling was further exacerbated by the uncomfortably demeaning behaviour of a Computer Science tutor back home who talked down his female students every opportunity he got, and effectively brainwashed us into thinking that girls aren't smart enough for something as intricate as Computer Science. This put me off the idea of going further in this field, so much so that I initially didn’t even apply for Computer Science at Cambridge. Instead, I applied to study Engineering, with the plan that I would ultimately major in some niche subfield where I would have the same prior knowledge as everyone else.


"I feel strongly about Outreach — we are missing out on so many potentially incredible female students just because they don’t think they are worthy enough."

Somewhere in the depths of my consciousness, I knew Computer Science is what really appealed to me. And talking to some recent Computer Science grads helped dispel the false illusion of my inferiority that I had so easily given in to. I requested my college to allow me to switch to Computer Science and fortunately, they agreed to it. Two years into my degree, I cannot be more satisfied with the choice I made. 

That is one of the reasons why I have joined the department's Outreach Committee. I feel strongly about Outreach — we are missing out on so many potentially incredible female students just because they don’t think they are worthy enough.

What do you like most about the course and Cambridge in general?
For me, the best part about the Computer Science Tripos here at Cambridge is how it is simultaneously extremely fun and intellectually challenging. The course is very cleverly designed and ensures that the students who come in with prior knowledge of Computer Science do not hold an unfair advantage over those who are starting from scratch but are just as curious and excited about the subject as the former.

The day doesn't end with the last lecture — instead you get the opportunity to cement your understanding of the concepts through supervisions with people who are experts in their fields. It is rather fascinating to look back at courses at the end of every term and realise how ingeniously they built upon the content you might have been taught earlier in the year.

What advice would you offer to female students considering applying here this autumn?
Don’t make the same mistakes I did. You are good enough regardless of what anyone else tells you. Cambridge isn’t looking for someone who knows their computer specifications by heart or who can talk at great length about the latest model of GPUs — they're looking for people who are enthusiastic, curious and and willing to put in hard work. And once you are here (or anywhere else, for that matter), do NOT hesitate to ask those 'silly' questions… Trust me, everyone else is almost as equally clueless as you feel you are about most things!


Rebecca, Christ's College

Why did you choose Computer Science at Cambridge?
I already knew that I wanted to continue with Maths, after really loving the subject at school. I then found myself enjoying the programming and the theory that I studied as part of my Computer Science A-Level. The course at Cambridge is so varied, and meant that I could try a bit of each of the huge range of fields that Computer Science has to offer (and continue with some Maths). I began my degree with my mind set on cyber-security, but I’m glad I didn’t choose a course with a more of a security focus like some other unis offer. Even in my first year, I’ve learnt about aspects of Computer Science that I didn’t even think about when applying and it’s showed me the breadth of topics that fall under the Computer Science umbrella.

Was there anything about the course that you were nervous or unsure about?
I was quite worried about being a female student going into Computer Science. On visiting open days for the subject, I noticed the extent to which I was part of a minority (normally only one of a couple girls in the room). I found out that nationally only 10% of Computer Science students are female, and was concerned that I wouldn’t fit in with my cohort or that people would assume I’d only gained my place through positive discrimination. Since starting this course, many of these fears have diminished and I found out that I’m part of a cohort of 25% female students (a Cambridge record I think).

I have made friends with female (and male) CompScis (Cambridge slang for Computer Science students) from other Colleges. And as soon as I joined I attended a welcome event ran by women@cl, a network of female computer scientists that run events and talks throughout the year. There is also the opportunity to attend the annual Oxbridge Women in Computer Science Conference. I’m still frequently met with surprise when people find out what I study, but it’s really good to see that the percentage of women seems to be on the rise. There are definitely more female computer scientists around than I’d imagined - even 5 of my 18 lecturers this year were female.


"I'm still frequently met with surprise when people find out what I study, but it's really good to see the percentage of women seems to be on the rise."

How does your teaching work? 
In my first year, my days were reasonably structured and tended to start with two lectures in the morning (nine out of eleven of them were in the city centre and two were in the computer lab in West Cambridge) and then afternoons would mostly contain a supervision (often in the lab) or practical. Supervisions make up most of the workload as you are given several questions to go through before each supervision. In the first term we had a hardware practical every fortnight. Some of the courses also have a programming element called “ticks” which are pass/fail programming tasks that are completed using online instructions. 

How do you manage your workload?
The workload is immediately noticeable, but I’d say I was eased into it slightly which really helped, especially as there is so much going on in the first few weeks. I am often busy during term time and often sleep has suffered because of it, but I really enjoy all the extra things I do so I don’t mind (my friends probably do when I complain to them!). It’s definitely possible to find a balance and it’s a really personal thing - there are often optional extension parts to supervision work and programming tasks and some people choose to do all of them, while others do a handful and the rest do none. So there’s the option to spend a varied amount of time focused on your degree.