My experience as a research intern in Cambridge, UK

My experience as a research intern in Cambridge, UK

Kings college ‘garden’ behind the college, with the river Cam

“If you would come to work with us in Cambridge, your research would be about ajflda;f (…) And in fact you’ll be working also on fl;dajf fjd fkld;ae;fj (…) In terms of practicalities you would fajd;l;sam jf apo (…) Is everything clear?”

There I was: trying to make notes during the phone interview with Cambridge University, but half of the words were lost in the unstable phone connection. What a mess! Still, when asked if everything was clear, I sat straight, nodded, smiled (completely unnecessary behaviour as it was a mere phone conversation without video but oh well) and responded “yes, more or less”. Again, I thought, what a mess!!! But then: two days later I received an email. Positive news: the psychology department of Cambridge University was happy to have me! Looking back, I’ve had a wonderful time and would love to share some experiences and tips with you. In this blog I’ll specifically talk about the Cambridge life, my work, finances, application process, and more.

What is it like to live in Cambridge?

View from the Old Cavendish Laboratory Building

My time in Cambridge was like a dream. If you can visit it, I’d definitely recommend (maybe avoid June/July/August ‘cause it gets insanely busy then). Punting the Cam, attending an evensong in King’s college or having some (greasy) food in the Wetherspoons: all are great touristy outings! The city also has many events, theatre gigs and a number of nightclubs. As student, however, you get to peek behind the doors of the university.  And it often feels as if you’re travelling through time…

Indeed, the city is like a living and breathing museum. Whether you sit in the Eagle pub where Watson & Crick uncovered the DNA helix structure or see the signature and picture of Stephen Hawking in the Gonville and Caius dining hall: the giants of arts & science are everywhere! 

But that is only half of the story. Because it’s not just a museum of greats. Cambridge also means having access to the greatest professors in your field, as well as speakers for events – Dame Judi Dench, Douglas Adams, Prof. Richard Dawkins, to name just a few. Indeed, when you attend events or meet new people at dinner: you realize that being at Cambridge gives you the privilege that the greats are right there, among you. The Indian PhD candidate who does cancer research, the Dutch MA student who fights for global health. To me, that was the Cambridge experience: to meet people who have such passion, talent and motivation, that you can see their dreams, wishes and potential twinkling in their eyes.

What did I work on?

For me as a research intern, Cambridge was busy but very doable. I didn’t have essays to write or classes to follow – although I was free to join lectures from the MPhil psychology department, which was great. I helped my research group with data collection, travelling throughout Cambridgeshire to visit toddlers and their families. During the six months I learned about conducting tests, observing behaviour and doing interviews. The research lab (and the PhD students in particular) really trained and helped us. We met once a week with the PI (principal investigator) during the weekly team meetings (with tea and cookies!). Other tasks I did included data entry, writing a literature overview and doing preliminary analyses. Next to that, I supported the organization of a parent panel for the Science festival, supervised two undergraduate students with their project and worked on video/transcript -based coding. I’d say 25% of my work was field research and 75% was desk research, although some weeks it was more 40-60%. I collaborated much with a PhD student in the lab, another fellow intern (who also became a very close friend) and finally with four MPhil students who worked on their dissertation. As research intern I really felt part of the team and had my own tasks, yet, I got the freedom to explore different aspects of research. For example, as interns we attended two conferences (one in London and one in Cambridge) that our research centre paid for. This was a great opportunity to learn more about current research and network!  

High tea in a shop across King’s College, city centre

After work, sometimes having days from 7AM to 4PM, other days from 11AM to 7PM, I often went to events or had dinner together with friends. But it was also great to just go home after a busy day and have a chill night with housemates. We lived with seven students in total, from Brazil, Italy, Netherlands, Spain, Singapore, and Scotland. I couldn’t wish for a better house, they made me feel at home instantly. The house was a 20-minute bicycle ride from my work, but I’d say that’s really doable, and often more affordable than the alternatives! 

How did I apply?

After my BA in Liberal Arts and Sciences (Psychology, Anthropology & Statistics) in the Netherlands, I knew I wanted to study abroad. I applied to both KU Leuven (2-year MSc) and Cambridge University (9-month MPhil) for their research master’s programmes and got accepted into both. The Cambridge selection process (for me) really focused on (a) research experience, (b) having a thorough, and doable research proposal and (3) a solid academic track record. You really have to understand the methodology and provide a thorough rationale (e.g. data collection, sampling methods). I talked to people from the Cambridge MPhil and the KU Leuven MSc, finding out the latter had the better scientific program but the former stimulated a broader personal development. A tough call but I chose for Leuven, hoping I could do my obligatory research internship in Cambridge…luckily, this worked out perfectly! I even received an Erasmus+ scholarship to support me financially. 

If you want to apply for a master’s at Cambridge bear in mind that the application process is long, and you will hear back late. I – and others – applied in January and only got acceptance in April or May. At that point, you don’t even know anything about college accommodation, so you really have to be patient. Also, not all MPhil students can get university accommodation unfortunately, so you might have to go house hunting in August/September. 

What about finances?

Going to Leuven was for me definitely also a financial choice: there you pay only about €950 per year. In Cambridge, you pay more than €14000 for 9 months! For my internship at Cambridge, I lived in a student accommodation outside of college, which was £500 per month. I found it through the Cambridge University accommodation portal. (I visited the home during the summer holidays to ensure it was not a scam.) Additionally, I paid about £30-70 per month for food, college dinners, event tickets etc. ‘Formals’ in the colleges cost around £12,- for a 3 course dinner without wine. Going to the cinema costs £10 although they have student discounts (e.g. Super Mondays at Vue cinema). I financed my stay through a student loan from the Netherlands, my Erasmus scholarship, and personal savings. If you want to study there for a MPhil, you can apply for grants (e.g. Gates, ESRC) but these are highly competitive and will be allocated more often to PhD’ers than MPhils. Most MPhil students I talked to were (partly) funded by their own country or self-funded.

My living room in the student accomodation, Milton Road North Cambridge

Cambridge culture observations

I loved being in Cambridge and learning about their (British) culture! A few observations I scribbled down below:

  • At the beginning I noticed that the university/research group I worked with were quite hierarchical. In my Dutch undergraduate college, the relation student/professor was much more egalitarian (maybe because we had only 600 undergrads in total) and with lots of contact hours.
  • Work ethic was rigorous in Cambridge: quite some colleagues would still work until 6 or 7PM regularly. I also met (business) students at dinners who (regularly) pulled all-nighters. But there was a ‘work hard, play hard’ vibe: students engage in many activities outside academics as well! The (in)famous May balls are prime examples (tickets can be >300 pounds!).
  • Teatime, cookies and cake form a vital aspect of life – at least in my research group! On Fridays we always had a special ‘tea time’ gathering with the whole unit with lots of (homemade) cakes, fruits and all things yummy!
  • Due to the long history and traditions of the University, past and presence can collide. For example, the King’s College choir is famous for its excellent music but still only allows boys into their ranks. On the other hand, Lucy Cavendish college, an all-women’s college founded to advance women in science, recently changed their statute to also admitting male students. The discussion of inclusion and equality is thus alive and well at different venues (arts, academics, student societies etc.) and I met many inspiring students who worked hard to make it a better place for all.
  • Cambridge loves Christmas. Christmas shopping is a big thing and having an ugly Christmas sweater party as well. Also don’t forget to attend a carol service in one of the colleges or churches (sometimes with real candles!) and visit the ice-skating rink in the evening. You wouldn’t want to miss stumbling on the ice, in the freezing cold, with Ed Sheeran’s “Perfect” playing loudly from the speakers, now would you?!
  • There is a (healthy) rivalry between the colleges, ranging from boat races to May balls, Tompkins tables, library architecture, porters, formal dinners. Each college has its stereotype (Trinity & King’s seen as posh, filthy rich, and haughty, particularly by those who didn’t get in 😉 ), and character (being allowed to walk on the grass or not. Or some being more formal with dinners than others, e.g. by including Latin prayers, ringing the gong before and after, standing up when the professors enter and leave the high table.).
  • Cambridge is a small community; you can easily walk in the streets and meet people you know! If that ‘small town’ feeling is your thing, you’ll love it. But there is also a reason why many students often ‘escape’ to London for a weekend…(not even 1h away by train, and so is Oxford!)


Best and worst experiences?

Formal dinner in Corpus Christi college with friends

Best: Going to a formal dinner in Homerton college with my best friends. The dining hall is more Harry Potter-esque than I could have imagined (with long tables, students in robes, candles, wooden arches, banners and flags) decorated with beautiful, warm colours. Afterwards, a Jazz band started playing songs. At some point, people started standing up, moved the tables and… started dancing! To dance the night away and have fun with friends in such a beautiful location, with great music, was an absolute high that still brings a smile to my face.

Worst: Losing my friends at the Guy Fawkes celebration and having to watch the fireworks all by myself…Literally all of Cambridge went to Midsummer Common to watch, and while I stopped to park my bike, my friends had disappeared (and my phone had died of course)! Luckily it ended well: a sweet, random lady and her little daughter started talking to me, found us a great spot, watched fireworks together, and…afterwards I found my friends again!

Final words of advice

All this started in September 2017, when I started my second study abroad experience (the first was starting my MSc in Psychology at Leuven in 2016). And really, I would do it all over again! I met friends from all over the world, joined and co-founded a local student committee, and tried many new things, such as joining a theatre group (definitely not a success but all the more fun). In Cambridge you are presented with so many opportunities so I’d encourage you to make of them as much as possible (voluntary work, committees, networking events, career service). I joined the local Dutch society for example, had great fun, and a few months later I was on their overarching committee for a year. There, I met someone who introduced me to an internship program in Washington D.C., for which I applied, got a scholarship, and spent the summer of 2019 for 2 months in America! I believe that life and opportunities often depend on serendipity – and Cambridge is full of it if you’re open minded and active! 

Old Cavendish Laboratory, Free School Lane

Secondly, a word of advice to people who want to study at Cambridge. I personally don’t regret not going to Cambridge for my MPhil. Many friends who did the MPhil there, were a bit disappointed by the curriculum quality. You pay a lot, but it’s mainly for doing research (independently) and getting ‘the Cambridge degree’. Quite a few pursued second masters in the Netherlands or elsewhere after their MPhil. If you’re absolutely sure you want to do a PhD, have experience in doing research independently, or are absolutely crazy about a supervisor, then by all means, there’s no better place! But if you are not sure: do consider other options, especially if finances are a thing. Although the BA programs are rigorous and of excellent quality (same for PhDs), the MPhils are sometimes considered to be cash cows. They know students will apply regardless of quality (after all, it’s Cambridge so it has to be good, right..?), so there’s little incentive to structurally change the MPhil (despite student complaints about supervision, courses etc.!). I know, however, this year they changed the curriculum slightly and put more emphasis on research and (even) less on coursework. So, if you consider applying, I’d advise to: (a) get in touch with alumni and ask them how they experienced it, (b) select a supervisor asap and get in touch to discuss the research proposal. 

I hope this blog gave you some insight into my experience and helped you along in some way! If you have any further questions, feel free to reach out to me at rozemarijn168@hotmail.com

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Author: Roos Middelkoop (the Netherlands)
Education: MSc Psychology: Theory & Research (KU Leuven, Belgium)
Current position: Political affairs intern at the Dutch Embassy of Dhaka (Bangladesh)
Contact: Rozemarijn168@hotmail.com

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