Natural Sciences at Cambridge
Natural Sciences (NST) is the framework within which most science subjects are taught at Cambridge. If you want to study any of the biological and physical sciences, this is the course for you.
Explore familiar subjects, experience new ones
Natural Sciences (NST) offers a wide range of physical and biological science subjects from 16 departments in a unique and demanding course. A broad first year is combined with increasing specialisation in the second year, and the possibility of total specialisation in the third year.
The breadth of the course reflects the blurring of boundaries between the different sciences, and before committing yourself to one department you study a variety of subjects, some of which may be new to you. This is a huge advantage because it gives you the flexibility to change your mind about which subject to specialise in, and is extremely valuable in alerting you to the important issues in other branches of science.
Visit the Departments' websites for in-depth subject information, details about current research and suggested reading for prospective students.
Flexibility and choice
The flexibility of the course makes it possible to take purely biological sciences, purely physical sciences or a combination of both, according to your interests.
You choose your subjects at the start of the first term in discussion with your Director of Studies, but you should indicate in your Supplementary Application Questionnaire (SAQ) whether your interests lie broadly in biological or physical sciences. The choice isn't absolute, and many students change direction before they start or as they progress.
In Year 1 (Part IA), you study three science subjects (from a choice of eight), plus one mathematics subject (from three options), chosen at the start of the first term.
Many students discover a passion for the new subjects that they start in the first year, such as Earth Sciences or Materials Science, and continue with these in subsequent years.
In Year 2 (Part IB), you choose three subjects from 19 options available. Some build directly on Part IA and some introduce what are essentially new areas.
Most students pursue a single advanced subject in Year 3 (Part II), concentrating on specific areas and undertaking a research project or dissertation in that field. Alternatively, in Year 3 you can take the broader Biological and Biomedical Sciences option or the Physical Sciences option.
Some Part II options have a competitive entry due to restrictions on laboratory space, meaning you’re not guaranteed your Part II subject choice. However, more than 80 per cent of students are typically able to study their first choice of subject.
Specialising in Part II is appropriate for continuation to a fourth year (Part III, offered in some subjects). Progression to Part III is dependent on a satisfactory level of performance and successful completion of Part III leads to an MSc degree.
Biological Sciences options
If you're interested in biological sciences, three of the first year (Part IA) options cover biological subjects: Biology of Cells; Evolution and Behaviour; and Physiology of Organisms. Therefore, possible biological sciences combinations include:
You also take a mathematics paper; usually Mathematical Biology or Elementary Mathematics for Biologists.
In the second year (Part IB), 10 biological subjects are offered. Some of these develop topics covered in Part IA and others introduce new material. The flexibility of the course again means it's possible to take purely biological sciences, or to combine biological sciences with, for example, organic chemistry (Chemistry B), Earth Sciences A or History and Philosophy of Science.
Most students focus on a single subject in their third year (Part II), concentrating on specific areas of the discipline and undertaking a research project or dissertation. Alternatively, you can take the broader Biological and Biomedical Sciences option.
It's possible to take a Part III in Biochemistry, History and Philosophy of Science or Systems Biology, leading to an MSc degree.
Physical Sciences options
In the first year (Part IA), those more interested in the physical sciences might choose:
A Level (or equivalent) Mathematics and the Part IA Mathematics option of the NST are essential for some physical sciences subjects.
In the second year (Part IB), eight physical science subjects are offered. Students who think of themselves as physicists usually choose Physics A and B, plus another science or Mathematics. Potential chemists generally take Chemistry A and B with a further physical or biological subject, or even Experimental Psychology or History and Philosophy of Science.
Many physical scientists discover a real enthusiasm for the new subjects that they start in the first year, such as Earth Sciences, Materials Science or a biological subject, and continue with these in subsequent years.
Most students focus on a single subject in their third year (Part II) and concentrate on specific areas of the discipline. Alternatively, you can take the broader Physical Sciences option.
It's possible to take a Part III in Astrophysics, Chemistry, Earth Sciences, History and Philosophy of Science, Materials Science, Physics or Systems Biology, leading to an MSc degree.
Learning and assessment
The course is both intensive and challenging, but the excellent learning environment enables you to rise to this challenge. Your timetable is full and structured and you encounter new ways of learning and studying.
Each subject approaches teaching in different ways but a combination of lectures, practical classes (where relevant), example classes, supervisions and seminars provides core subject knowledge and develops your transferable skills – support from supervisors and your Director of Studies helps you to develop the most suitable way of working for you.
For each option in Years 1 and 2 (Parts IA and IB), you can typically expect to have three hours of lectures, some practical work and one supervision each week.
Assessment varies depending on the option taken but always includes written examinations. There may also be practical examinations or continuous assessment of practical work.
In Parts II and III, lecturers are actively researching the topics being covered and many are world leaders in their field. Practical work is open-ended, and most students carry out a significant research project which is assessed as part of the final examination.
No preparatory reading is required for the course but a list of interesting and informative books for prospective students is available on the Natural Sciences website.
In the first year, a number of students take Computer Science or Mathematics with Physics and then change to Natural Sciences to continue with Physics from their second year.
In contrast, some students take Part IA Natural Sciences and change to the Computer Science course or Chemical Engineering in their second year. It's also possible (with your College's agreement) to take Part I Natural Sciences and then transfer to another subject such as Management Studies, or another arts or social science subject for Part II.
Some routes through the course are accredited by a professional body, including, for example the Institute of Physics and the Royal Society of Chemistry. An appropriate combination of subjects and Part II papers is required in each case.
After Natural Sciences?
Almost half of our graduates continue with further study and research; either in Cambridge or at other universities, in the chemical industry, pharmaceuticals, infection and immunology, biotechnology, environmental management or nanotechnology. Natural Sciences prepares you well for the challenges of research, especially in emerging interdisciplinary areas.
Natural Sciences students develop a range of skills that are highly valued by employers and they go into a wide range of careers, for example recent graduates include a maths teacher, a product development scientist, an investment banking analyst, and a management consultant.