Campus Life

Generalist vs. Specialist

Beyond lectures, Cambridge and MIT differ in educational structures

The increasingly globalized workforce means that large multinational companies recruit graduates from all over the world. Given that various countries have their own university systems, there will certainly be differences in how students are prepared to meet the challenges of employment. I’m in the fortunate position of having studied in two countries — my first two years of college were spent at Cambridge in the U.K., and I am now at MIT through the Cambridge-MIT Exchange for junior year. My firsthand experience of how both universities teach has shown surprising contrasts.

In the U.K., degree programs are usually much more subject specific than their American counterparts. Prospective students apply to a particular course at a particular university while still in high school, and often choose their A-Levels (the last set of examinations, which takes up the last two years to study for) to align with this. As a consequence, the decision as to what to study and which career to take is largely made at the age of 16.

This lies in stark contrast to the U.S. system of arriving at college without having declared a major and being given the opportunity to take any class within the wide scope afforded by the university requirements. It is widely acknowledged that the typical American university graduate is very well-rounded, with a base of knowledge in a wide variety of fields and greater ability in subjects closer to his major.

U.K. graduates are much more focused on a smaller range of material, leading to a narrower breadth of capabilities but a higher level of competence in the chosen field. By way of evidence, students in the CME program take a number of graduate courses to ensure good compatibility with what we are missing back home despite only being juniors, but would seriously struggle in some of the freshmen GIR classes in subjects outside our major.

Interestingly, both MIT and Cambridge lean away from their native country’s conventions. MIT, thanks to its strong technology bias, creates individuals very strong in science. Cambridge, at least in the science and engineering faculties, is one of the few U.K. establishments that doesn’t require specialization at point of entry. Engineers follow a set general engineering degree for two years. Scientists are required to study a wide range of topics before splitting into chemistry, biology, etc. Perhaps the optimal solution is a middle ground between the methodologies on either side of the Atlantic, with the top two universities in the world approaching this from different angles.

Despite similar overall strategies, I have found that the teaching styles of the two universities are relatively disparate. Beyond lectures, MIT has a strong propensity for labs and practical work, promoting a very “hands-on” approach in line with the Mens et Manus motto. It is clear to any outsider that the Institute puts its considerable income to good use here with no shortage of lab space or equipment.

On the other hand, Cambridge labs, certainly undergraduate ones, are of significantly lower priority. For the first two years of the engineering course, for example, the labs are demonstrations of theory learned in lectures. Full credit is awarded simply for showing up and occasionally writing a cursory lab report. In later years, the labs develop into more extensive and graded projects, but the courses are biased towards theory.

In place of recitations, Cambridge uses supervisions, where students go through problems with academic material at a typical ratio of two to one. This intensive procedure is an invaluable resource students really come to appreciate — though there is nowhere to hide in the event of not having done the work — and allows a thorough understanding to be developed in a short time. Which is perhaps just as well, given that Cambridge runs three eight-week terms a year, compared to MIT’s two 14-week semesters.

The final, and perhaps greatest, difference lies in the grading system. MIT’s continual assessment through problem sets, projects, midterms, and finals is very in-depth, with the advantage of spreading pressure over a longer period. In Cambridge, an entire year’s work hinges on the one or two weeks in June when exams take place. During the final term of the year, there is a tangible difference in the atmosphere between the weeks of serious revision before exams and the glorious celebration of excess the week after. This time is known as May Week, and has the world renowned May Balls.

Both methods divide opinions; some feel the continual assessment leads to students cramming the night before quizzes without learning long term, while others think that finals alone do not factor in practical skills and impose unrealistic amounts of pressure on students. Nevertheless, both are tough tests of a student’s ability.

MIT and Cambridge both provide brilliant levels of education for those willing to seize the opportunity and put in hard work. The students who persevere are the ones that companies will be looking for, regardless of where they studied.