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A Day in the Life… [Biochemistry] by Cambridge

Life as a biochemist at MIT and Cambridge

[by Kathy ’09]

Hi guys! I’m here to talk about “life as a biochemist, at MIT and Cambridge.” I think the best way to illustrate the difference is to give you a portrayal of what a typical day is like in both places:


9am – 10am
Hit the snooze button 5 times. Hit the snooze button one more time after deciding to skip breakfast for those 10 extra precious minutes of sleep. Get ready for class in record time. Still arrive late (had to grab some coffee).

10am – 11am
First lecture is thermo & kinetics (5.60). This’s actually a really interesting class (the lecturers are especially good Spring semester). Manage to stay awake because of content.

11am – noon
Next is biochem II (5.08). It’s co-taught by the amazing Prof. Stubbe (who, in addition to being a brilliant scientist and an engaging lecturer, sprays dozing students with water from a squirt bottle, and has a dog named McEnzyme) and the amazing Prof. Ting (who is very hardcore, and also my previous UROP advisor).

Noon – 1pm
Decide to skip molecular bio (7.28) recitation. Tempted by the prospect of lunch, but also decide to skip lunch to go to UROP (such dedication). Set up some experiments, let the ones that need to run for awhile incubate while I go off to my next class (multi-tasking and finding things to do during the long waits experiments inevitably require are the keys to having time for a UROP).

1pm – 2:30pm
Off to cellular neurobio (7.29). Hunger and tiredness finally catch up with me. Nap, embarrassingly, because the class is quite small (and my mouth is usually hanging open).

2:30pm – 3pm
Finally some free time–it’s one of those annoying/convenient half-hour blocks. Annoying if you live far from campus, convenient if you’ve got a UROP! Run back to lab to check on that experiment from earlier. Grab some food from the Bio-Cafe before they close or from the food trucks before they drive off.

3pm – 6pm
Take food to next class, a 3 hour graduate seminar about RNA (7.77). Co-taught by Profs. Tom RajBhandary (a living, walking encyclopedia) and Dave Bartel (my current UROP advisor, whose lab I would definitely do my PhD in, if I were to come to MIT for grad school). Happy because I finally get to eat, and because it’s my favorite class. It’s always sad to emerge from class to find that the sun’s already set, though.

6pm – about 10pm
Finish up things for the day at lab. On good days: get out by 8pm, on bad days: stay past midnight.

Whenever lab ends – midnight
Head back to dorm. Eat dinner and shower (personal hygiene is really important! especially for whoever happens to sit behind you in lecture). Hang out/do some work with friends.

Midnight – 2am
Work closing shift at front desk of dorm. People hardly come by during this time, so get to get some work done. Desk is such a great job–basically getting paid to do homework!

2am – about 4am
Stay up to finish p-sets/essays/projects, if due next day. Sometimes stay up to grade p-sets for intro bio and intro physics (grading = another great way to make money). It’s best to work in someone else’s room, then you can keep each other company, keep each other awake, and commiserate (ah, what a common form of MIT bonding).

Whenever work ends
Yes! Can still sleep for X hours (+ extra 10 minutes if I skip breakfast tomorrow morning)!

Now compare this to:


8am – 9am
Spring awake and out of bed before the alarm goes off. Getting enough sleep makes for a happy morning. Get ready leisurely, eat breakfast while catching up on email/blogs/news.

9am – 10am
First lecture. Topic and lecturer changes every two days. If interesting_topic && good_lecturer, then pay_attention(); else gossip_and_doodle(on_printout); (Okay, so I’m not Course 6, but you get the picture).

10am – 10:30am
Tea break. Enjoy refreshing cuppa with other Biochemists in department tea room. Sometimes indulge in a buttered scone.

10:30am – 11:30am
Second lecture. Also the last lecture for the day! I know, amazing.

11:30am – 12:30pm
Grab lunch with friends. Usually at Pembroke Cafe (closest to the biochem dept, very tasty, and cheap).

12:30pm – about 3pm
Head over to lab. Usually stay anywhere between half hour to 4 hours at the longest. This is much less time than I was spending at UROP at MIT. This’s because research in Cambridge feels a lot more relaxed, and also because I consciously made the decision to take it easy at lab this year.

3pm onwards
Complete freedom for the rest of the day! Theoretically, and ideally, this should include studying, but we get assigned absolutely no work, so studying usually doesn’t happen (I know, I’m such a dedicated student). Also, if it happens to be Friday, and my bank balance isn’t zero, and I feel particularly energetic, a weekend trip (e.g. to Stonehenge, London, France, Belgium, Germany, etc.) is probably in the works.

The schedules pretty much speak for themselves. There’s a lot more freedom at Cambridge, and time feels like it passes slower. Nevertheless, I will add:

Despite being much busier at MIT, I personally preferred the hustle and bustle of MIT to the idyllic peace at Cambridge. At MIT, there was more of a sense of personal accomplishment. I challenged my mind, I tried to contribute to scientific findings, I was ambitious, and I enjoyed the precious moments of free time I had. At Cambridge, I relaxed, slowed down, and enjoyed life. I floated down the River Cam in a punt on a sunny day, drinking Pimm’s and eating strawberries. Both lives are really nice, and I know the Cambridge life sounds way better. Honestly, the choice between staying up till 4am with a p-set and eating strawberries on the river seems pretty clear, right? Surprisingly, this year abroad has taught me that I’m one of those annoying people who have to be busy to be happy. I feel happy knowing that I’m working towards my goals through hard work, and I savour my free time. At Cambridge, I have so many swaths of free time that I didn’t propery appreciate them. Outside the happy indulgent moments, I became bored, fell into a comas by ODing on YouTube, and then got unmotivated from the slow pace.

Nevertheless, Cambridge is a wonderfully refreshing break from the hectic MIT. I mostly enjoyed my year here, but I’ll be happy to be back, too.

12 responses to “A Day in the Life… [Biochemistry]”

  1. Anonymous says:


  2. Piper says:

    Oh geez, I’m so confused. Cambridge sounds like a wonderful opportunity, but at the same time I feel like I don’t want to spend a second away from MIT =DD. Maybe grad school or something.

  3. Justin says:

    I agree it is remarkable how students feel going each way on the Exchange. Cambridge students are often jealous of the diversity and flexibility in choosing courses at MIT. You have a smorgasbord of departments and courses to choose from, which is great. You are also able to re-attempt certain classes in another year or semester if you decide to drop one in a given semester. I certainly benefited from this trial-and-error system before I eventually settled down on a course of study.

    I should also grant you that if you feel like MIT is “working out” for you and you don’t feel like going abroad is a necessary part of your MIT experience, then there may be little motivation for you to go. I personally needed a break from MIT. Although I was doing well, I felt more like I was only surviving rather than thriving. Entering as a freshman, I was like a kid in one of the biggest candy stores on Earth and thus I had real trouble settling down on a field of study and took a grab bag of courses in 6,8,18, and 24. This broad exposure was crucial for me and the intellectual path I’ve since followed, but when it came down to me finally choosing a general field of study (mathematics), I really benefited from the year of concentrated study abroad.

    I’d like to treat some more of the details of the academics at Cambridge, but I think I’ll save that for maybe another post.

    If you want to go for a Master’s or MPhil, that would be totally doable, but you might not get any funding for the year. MIT students generally don’t have trouble getting in, but winning a prestigious fellowship (Marshall, Churchill, Gates) is not something any one can count on.

    Best of luck for your future studies.

  4. Steven '12 says:

    On the Cambridge-MIT exchange site, I thought I saw something about not planning on doing research in Cambridge. What’s with that? raspberry

  5. Justin says:

    Hi everyone. I went on the exchange for 06-07 (so I’m senior now heading off to math grad school next fall).

    I really appreciate Kathy’s post, but I should also point out that the Exchange offers a wide range of experiences and can depend significantly on what subject you are studying. I went through Course 18, to study the second year Mathematical Tripos (Part IB):

    It should first be said that I worked nearly as hard if not harder there at Cambridge in my junior year than during my time here at MIT. The learning style is definitely different at Cambridge and requires a great deal of individual motivation and tenacity to make it through the year successfully, i.e. earning first-degree class marks on the exams.

    In particular, although the only evaluation for Cambridge occurs at the end of the year in the form of four 3-hour exams (the tripos), these exams require a great deal of preparation and are significantly harder than most exams at MIT. Of course, what makes MIT difficult is that you are faced with continual assessment, and are given maybe a few days to prepare for tests, and thus the pace is certainly more intense for a given semester at MIT. Cambridge, on the other hand, might be more akin to the experience you might have preparing for quals in grad school — your knowledge needs to be integrated and synthesized and then demonstrated in only a few hours of blazing glory.

    I have to say that I also feel like I learned and retained more in a single year at Cambridge, than in my first two years at MIT. This is because under Cambridge’s year-long system, subjects from each semester are meant to build on top of each other, and you continually need to revise and internalize information throughout the entire year. I think that many MIT students go through MIT learning to survive semesters, and then promptly forget a great deal of the material they supposedly absorbed. At Cambridge it is far more likely that people retain material over the entire year, because it is a cognitive fact that memorization (an important component in even problem-solving-driven thinking) requires repetition over a long period of time to be properly encoded in long-term memory.

    In response to Steven’s post, I should say that research definitely is not the focus of the undergraduate education at Cambridge, but it also isn’t totally impossible (Actually, as a result of the Exchange, Cambridge is creating it’s own “UROP” system). The idea is that students in England come out of high school (or Sixth Form as they call it) having already done some portion of what American students do in their first year of college. Prospective Cambridge undergraduates apply to study a specific subject, and there is only a little lateral mobility once they’ve matriculated. Many undergraduate degrees then consist of only three years of intense study, where an average student will take 10+ courses in their subject in a year (contrast this with MIT’s 6 technical subjects a year and 2 required humanities). After 3 years, many will enter a fourth year and do the equivalent of a one year Master’s or MPhil. At least in mathematics, after this fourth year, many enter a research-only PhD, which they complete in 3 years. Often the reason PhD’s in the States take 4-7 years, is that coursework is required to get American students “up to speed,” which many international students, including Cambridge ones, will have done as part of their undergraduate degree, or one-year MPhil. So basically research is not the focus early on because instead you are expected to master the fundamentals for serious research as an undergraduate.

    I could go on to address some of the subtleties and differences in funding that mathematicians, scientists, and engineers might face on the other side of the Atlantic. I could also talk about my own great travel experiences, and the wonderful friends and social life I had during my year, but I’ll save that for anyone who is interested. As a concluding thought, let it be noted that Cambridge is about to celebrate it’s 800th anniversary as an educational institute that has produced the likes of Newton, Maxwell, Green, Stokes, Kelvin, Rutherford, Watson and Crick, Stephen Hawking and so many other intellectual giants. The Cambridge-MIT Exchange thus represents a wonderful addition to any MIT student’s education and is certainly not a year wasted.

  6. Piper says:

    Hello Justin –

    I actually learned a lot of what you explained from a CME (going the other way, from Cambridge to here for a year) who also felt things were very different. He did bring in some downsides to their system, though. You have to pick your career path much, much earlier, and it’s hard to get out of it because you’ve set yourself up in that field (as you admit, there is less flexibility in classes). One bad end-of-term exam, and that the “class” you completed your year as goes down. There is less diversity in classes (I greatly enjoy the HASS requirement and the freedom to, say, take a programming class even if I’m majoring in 10B). So pros and cons to each – what would work better depends on who you are, I suppose.

    I personally am unsure of whether or not I want to participate in CME because 1)I love MIT and I’m not sure I want to spend 1/4 of my time here somewhere else (there’s unique atmosphere/opportunities here) 2) I’m not certain I like the finals-are-everything system. This is partially why I am thinking of getting a Master’s or going on further in grad school in Cambridge (er, if I get in). Still something I’m considering heavily, though, because I’ve only heard good things about the program and I’d love the opportunity to live and learn that other Cambridge.

  7. Alexander says:

    Hey Justin,

    thanks for your post. Very informative. I’d love to hear more about your experiences!

  8. Oasis '11 says:

    Your Cambridge schedule sounds like my schedule on Monday and Wednesdays (when I don’t go to UROP).

    Uh-oh. I think something is wrong here (with me) wink

  9. Jeremy '12 says:

    This is an interesting post. I was wondering… do students in certain majors find the trip more beneficial than others, or is it more for the cultural experience?

    And… why did you choose to utilize the Cambridge Program?

  10. Kathy says:


    I also had a really hard time deciding whether or not to come to Cambridge, because I loved MIT so much. In the end, what swung me over to come to Cambridge was the logic: “I know what another year at MIT will be like, but if I will never know what a year at Cambridge will be like if I don’t go.”

    And despite the fact that *academically* I learned a lot more at MIT, I’m still super glad I came because of all the non-academic things that I’ve learned. I too am planning to go on to grad school, and I will have the rest of my life to learn more biochem and do research. But CME is really the one and only chance you’ll get to spend an entire year away and really integrate yourself into another culture for a whole year. So I would strongly advise you to come, despite the risk that you might not like it as much as MIT.

    In response to Justin, I definitely agree that depending on your subject, your experiences can be very different. The engineers and mathmos all seem to learn fine from the system here, but the bio and physics people mostly prefer the MIT system.

    Particularly in bio, MIT heavily emphasizes the thinking and logic behind making new findings. Cambridge is much more about memorizing what all these findings are. As someone who is grad-school bound, I infinitely prefer the logic emphasis of MIT to the vast information integration of Cambridge.

    Also, I do not like the individual-oriented learning system at Cambridge, because if you just want time to study in your room, you don’t have to come to a world-class institution to do it. The most valuable resource at a university is the minds of the people around you, and it’s a pity to not benefit from those minds by working individually all the time.

    As for Cambridge producing intellectual giants, there is actually an idea in the British vs. American education system debate that says the British system selects for people who would succeed anywhere and leaves them to themselves, whereas the American system produces great successes from any background.

    But even despite all that, and despite the fact that I really do perceive this year to be an academic loss, the travel, cultural, and personal experiences here have MORE than made up for the academic deficit. If I were to make the decision over knowing what I know now, I would still definitely come without second thoughts.

  11. barbara says:

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  12. Kenny says:

    Wow. I enjoyed reading the post and all the comments. I agree. (I am a Biochemist, at MIT now but originally from Cambridge UK)