Natural Sciences

The Natural Sciences Tripos is a set of courses offered by all the science departments in Cambridge, and is known by everyone as 'NST' or 'NatSci'. 

Natural Sciences (NST) at Cambridge 

Scientists are admitted to read NST, rather than a specific subject; most courses are three years long, and there are optional 4th years for some subjects, further details can be found in the University Prospectus and the Cambridge Natural Sciences Tripos website.

For the individual student, the overriding advantage of the Natural Sciences Tripos at Cambridge is its flexibility, and the way it enables you to tailor your course to your talents and developing interests. The personality and interests of a good synthetic organic chemist is different from that of a theoretical physicist, or an experimental psychologist. A large proportion of our students change direction within the framework of the NST once they are in Cambridge. Usually the change is fairly subtle, often reflecting the availability of new subjects not taught at school. For example, a student whose favourite school subject is physics may become a theoretical physicist if mathematically orientated, but could also develop into a materials scientist, an electrical engineer or a computer scientist. However, some students become fired with enthusiasm for a new subject, and make quite dramatic changes in direction, for example from the physical to the biological end of the spectrum. 

The flexibility of the course also enables you to acquire a variety of intellectual skills, including problem solving, numeracy and essay writing. The practical work can involve techniques ranging from microscopy to the use of complex electronic equipment, and enable you to develop organisational skills required to complete an experiment successfully. Thus, Natural Sciences provides a good education not only for the specialist but also for those who do not intend to become professional scientists. The initial generality is also an advantage to the practising scientist, as many of the major growth areas, such as biotechnology, cross the traditional boundaries. The price to be paid for flexibility and broadness of the education is hard work.  The first year is spent studying three experimental subjects plus Mathematics, the language of science, and as a result there are almost thirty hours a week when you are timetabled to be at a lecture, practical or supervision. This includes Saturday morning lectures, and possibly evening supervisions. Add the time required to digest the material, read and prepare the essays or tackle the problems required for College supervisions and you realise that studying science is a full-time occupation. Fortunately, most students enjoy their science and find the work challenging and stimulating. It is also very sociable.  Laboratories, unlike libraries, do not have 'silence' signs on the wall, but encourage cooperation. 

Course structure


  1. Part IA: three experimental subjects plus a mathematics course.
  2. Part IB: three subjects from a total of about 20. Chemistry, Physics and Earth Sciences each have two options, both of which would be taken by someone intending to specialise in that subject.
  3. Part II: either - a specialised course in one particular subject or - a slightly less specialised course in Physical Sciences or Biological and Biomedical Sciences.
  4. Part III: Astrophysics, Biochemistry, Chemistry, Earth Sciences, History and Philosophy of Science, Materials Science and Physics offer a four-year course as an alternative to three years.

Teaching at Cambridge

Three types of teaching are involved, namely lectures, practicals and supervisions.  Lectures and practicals are organised by the University departments and take place in lecture theatres and laboratories that are scattered around the town; Geologists also have field trips during term and the vacations.  The lectures can be fairly formal, particularly in the first year when there may be a few hundred students present. 

However the course is not impersonal, as your College Director of Studies organises small group tuition (supervisions), which provides a focus for your work.  Supervisors, usually Fellows of the College or other subject experts, meet with two or three students for about an hour a week in each subject to discuss work that has been prepared in advance, to sort out any conceptual problems with the lecture material and generally develop the students understanding and technical skills.

As students specialise, the numbers taking each course reduce dramatically, so that by the third year there are only 20 to 100 undergraduates taking each Part II subject, and since most subjects allow the students to specialise, the number of students taking certain lecture courses is in single figures.  Final year undergraduates are very much part of the department, and are generally supervised by the lecturers teaching their specialist subject.

Natural Sciences at Fitzwilliam

In Cambridge, the colleges are responsible for admitting students, directing their studies (i.e. giving advice on choice of courses and keeping a helpful eye on their academic progress), and arranging supervisions.  Most academics in Cambridge have both a University and a College position, and so are responsible for lecturing, organising laboratory practicals and leading research teams in their departments, and also for supervising the students in their college studying their subjects.

Fitzwilliam has a large number of science Fellows, and arrangements with other members of the University to provide teaching in subjects not represented on the Fellowship, so we can cater for any choice of subjects within Natural Sciences and related disciplines.  Indeed, we are pleased to admit students interested in any area of science, and encourage students to make full use of the flexibility of the Tripos system to find the subject best suited to their talents and interests.

It would be wrong to give the impression that the scientists spend all their time working and do not enjoy all that Cambridge offers. Fitzwilliam scientists play an active role in University and College life, on the sports fields, in the concert hall and in organising the many social activities that make Cambridge life so frenetic.


The typical A Level offer for Natural Sciences is A*A*A in at least two science or maths subjects. The typical IB offer is 40-42 points with 776 at Higher Level.

STEP papers do not form part of our conditional offers. We do, however, encourage our prospective students to take these papers if the school offers teaching for them, as this is a good preparation for the first year courses. In particular do as much mathematics as possible.

Applicants are required to sit the Natural Sciences admissions written assessment, prior to being invited for interview.  More information can be found on the University website.

On your application form, you are asked to specify 'physical' or  'biological' as well as Natural Sciences, although this does not constrain your final choices of subjects - it ensures that your interviews will be appropriate to your interests. If you are not taking three maths/science subjects at A2 level, or equivalent, you should ask for advice from the Admissions Office at an early stage in planning your application.

  • Biology of Cells - Highly desirable: A Level Chemistry; Useful: A Level Biology.
  • Chemistry - Essential: A Level Chemistry (A Level Mathematics is also essential to continue to Chemistry A in Part IB); Highly desirable: AS/A Level Mathematics.
  • Computer Science (not available after 2020 entry) - Essential: A Level Mathematics; Useful: AS/A Level Further Mathematics and/or Physics. No previous subject knowledge is necessary but some understanding of programming may be helpful.
  • Earth Sciences - No previous subject knowledge is necessary.
  • Evolution and Behaviour - Highly desirable: A Level Biology.
  • Materials Science - Essential: A Level Mathematics and either Chemistry or Physics. No previous subject knowledge is necessary.
  • Physics - Essential: A Level Mathematics, and either Physics or Further Mathematics (with three units of mechanics); Useful: AS/A Level Further Mathematics.
  • Physiology of Organisms - Useful: AS/A Level Biology and/or Physics.
  • Mathematics - Essential: A Level Mathematics.
  • Mathematical Biology - Desirable: A Level Mathematics. For information on the structure of Maths teaching at Cambridge, particularly for those without A Level Maths, please look at the following information

Natural Sciences can also be taken via the Mathematics Tripos, for students doing the Maths with Physics option in their first year. After 2020, it will no longer be possible to offer Natural Sciences papers (apart from Mathematics) through the Computer Science Tripos.

Our aim is to provide a balanced scientific community in College and to achieve this we try to admit students who enjoy the challenge of science, have the ability to master the course and the motivation to benefit from the scientific opportunities offered by the University of Cambridge.

If you have any questions or queries which we have not covered in these notes please do not hesitate to email or write to the Admissions Office

Directors of Studies

Natural Sciences - Physical 

Professor James Elliott, Fellow and Director of Studies, Fitzwilliam College; Professor of Macromolecular Materials Science, Department of Materials Science & Metallurgy. Research interests: Polymers, multiscale computer simulation, X-Ray diffraction and tomography, foams and composites. Teaching interests: Materials Science, Mathematical Methods for Scientists.

Dr Andrew Jardine, Fellow and Director of Studies, Fitzwilliam College; University Teaching Officer at the Department of Physics, The Cavendish Laboratory. Research interests: atomic-scale surface dynamics; atomic and molecular beams; high strain-rate and shock physics.

Natural Sciences - Biology

Dr Jeongmin Choi (1st year)

Professor David Coomes, Fellow and Director of Studies, Fitzwilliam College; Professor of Forest Ecology and Conservation, Department of Plant Sciences. Research interests: The impact of humans on ecosystem processes. Teaching interests: Plant Sciences, Quantitative Biology and Conservation Biology.

Dr Elisa Galliano (3rd and 4th years)

Teaching Officers and Fellows 

Professor Mark J Arends, Bye-Fellow Fitzwilliam College; Research interests: Molecular alterations in colorectal cancer. Teaching interests: Pathology.

Dr Andrew Buckley, Senior Technical Officer, Department of Earth Sciences; Assistant Director of Studies, Fitzwilliam College. Research interests: Low temperature geochemistry and mineralogy and methods of geochemical measurement. Teaching interests: Earth Sciences.

Mr Barry Landy, Life Fellow, Fitzwilliam College. Areas of interest: Operating Systems for large computers, Command Languages. Teaching interests: Mathematics for Natural Sciences.

Dr N C Pyper, Bye-Fellow Fitzwilliam College, and University Chemical Laboratory. Teaching interests: Physical and Theoretical Chemistry. Research interests: Polar solids and nanocrystalline materials.

Professor Nigel Slater, Professor of Chemical Engineering; Fellow, Fitzwilliam College. Research interests: Biological product design. Teaching interests: Biochemical Engineering.

Dr Andrew Wheatley, University Senior Lecturer in Inorganic Chemistry, Department of Chemistry, Fellow, Fitzwilliam College. Research interests: Synthesis, Main Group Inorganic and Organometallic chemistry, Nanomaterials. Teaching interests: Inorganic and Organometallic chemistry.