Cambridge Life: Exam Debreifing


As my time at Cambridge draws to a close, I’ll try to put up some quick vignettes of the past few weeks. After the end of Lent term, a group of the physics-inclined students formed a study group to prepare for exams… at the time, exams were two and a half months away. We started out meeting a few evenings a week to go over past exams, though this eventually turned into meeting every weeknight. (Also, our meeting time drifted a full hour later over the ten weeks — much to the annoyance of some of us!)

Our study group met in the `Part III room’ of the basement of the theoretical physics pavillion. Our regulars included a few members of Trinity college. I only learned later on that there was also another study group primarily composed of members from the rival St. John’s college that met in the basement of the mathematics library. Despite the amusement of songs like “I’d rather be at Oxford than St. Johns,” cross-college rivalries don’t evoke the same jingoism among international postgraduates as they would for those that had completed their undergraduate degrees here. But all the same, spending evenings doing physics with a group of friends does lead to a sense of camraderie among `our team.’ I think that having such a group provided a kind of social support structure against the general stress of high stakes examinations where it’s easy to feel like one is competing against every other student in the programme.

Unlike the library-dwellers, our study group had the benefit of chalkboards. A `typical’ evening consisted of each of us attempting a question on the chalk board while being pelted with questions and counterpoints from the others.

Eventually, down the stretch, a couple of the Sr. John’s physicists came to join us. I suspect this was because our study sessions had food and a mandatory 10:00pm foosball break…

Pictured above is the epic foosball battle between Team Ireland (left) and Team Germany (right). With the benefit of more practice, Germany dismantled the Ireland 10-0. Such national matches are a byproduct of having such an international group of students in Part III. Germany even had the benefit of having multiple teams. For what it’s worth, Team USA held its own during international competition. Not all matches were along national lines: occasionally we would have Team Supersymmetry versus Team General Relativity, Chelsea versus Manchester United, and—of course—Trinity versus St. Johns.

(The most interesting aspect was comparing techniques used to solve math problems versus foosball techniques. Does calculational brute force translate into brute force on the foosball table? Are players who make tricky goals more likely to prove a theorem in a slick way?)

We broke our usual weekday schedule once for a supersymmety review session in the nearby town of Grantchester, where one can visit The Orchard to have the most delicious scones in a tea garden just off the river. Pictured above two of my esteemed colleagues discuss extra dimensions. The next time we returned to Grantchester, after exams, there was slightly less focused pondering (see below).

By the time exams rolled around after ten weeks of revision, many of us were just happy for the chance of pace. Each three-hour exam came and went, perhaps with some inspired evenings of revision in-between. Finally, when we were all done, we were faced with a week (“May Week”) of celebrations before the announcement of exam results (and hence PhD placements).

Pictured above on the roof of the Centre for Mathematical Sciences is me holding up the remains of a Rose wine with Miro, who had just completed his examinations. I bought the wine earlier in the morning to celebrate the last batch of theoretical physics exams, though it was a far cry to the group of pure mathematics students who’d spent £800 on celebratory champagne the day before. My white zinfandel was sweet, Californian, and pink… which pretty much described me in that picture, eh?🙂 (Every time I have wine at a physics-related event I hope that the wine is up to Professor Hewett’s standards.)

The staple events during May Week seem to be various garden parties. Pictured above are some pure mathematicians at the Trinity College mathematics garden party. Below is a group of theoretical physicists at the Graduate Mathematics Society garden party (photo courtesy of Olga Goulko, another theoretical physicist).

(Notable is the mixture of Trinity and St. John’s Part III mathematicians.) Our group of friends made it out to Grantchester via punt a few days ago. Despite the perfect weather and relaxed atmosphere, more than a few moments of geekiness betrayed our recent exams. Pictured below, Eoin tries to make a Grass-man. Hint: it anticommutes.

3 Responses to “Cambridge Life: Exam Debreifing”

  1. 1 Alejandro Rivero

    In Zaragoza we did all of our table-football during the undergraduate, and I can point out that one of my team mates is currently a vice dean of the science faculty.

  2. 2 Daniel Meier

    How much effort is required to get a distinction?

  3. 3 Steffen

    A lot.

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