Chemical Engineering

by Vinayak Vin Rajendran

Congratulations for picking the Chemical Engineering Tripos! The small size of the department coupled with its friendly nature make up for a fun three years at Cambridge. The information I’ve written out here is based on my personal experience of the Tripos and what I’ve found useful – it is by no means the recipe to follow. Different people find different tactics work better for them, so speak to people doing the Tripos, experiment with different techniques, and find what work pattern works best for you. Good luck!

A. General Advice to All Parts of the Chemical Engineering Tripos

Lectures and Supervisions

Chemical Engineering students usually have a fairly busy lecture timetable, with CET IIA being the most hectic of them all. Having a large amount of material thrown at you each week, with examples papers (problem sheets) being handed out one after the other can seem a bit overwhelming at first. Don’t worry – you’ll soon get the hang of it. Just try and not let work pile up: this will lead to 5-6 supervisions in the last week of term and increased stress levels.
Whenever you have time, go through your lecture notes and flag up any sections that you haven’t understood and write down any questions that you have. If they’re small questions on lecture notes, most lecturers are usually happy to answer them during the couple of minutes between lectures. If not, take them with you to your supervisions and get them cleared out; this will make life much easier for you when it comes to revision for exams.
Try and organise your supervisions as evenly as possible throughout term – this will spread out the workload and you will be able to focus better on each subject. It often is the case that you run out of time to have your last few supervisions at the end of term. Once again, this is not a problem at all – just organise them for the first week of the following term (preferably before lectures start, if you have the time).

What kind of work would I do during the Christmas vacation?

Remember, after 8 hectic weeks of Michaelmas term, you will be physically and mentally exhausted. Well, unless you possess supernormal energy levels or you’ve been hibernating during term time. So taking a break to relax and unwind is extremely important.
After you’ve recovered, rested, and rejuvenated yourself, then finishing up any leftover work from Michaelmas term would be a good shout. This can be filling out lecture notes, finishing up examples sheets or completing any holiday work set by the department or your supervisors.
In addition, since we have some of the longest holidays (compared to other universities) and since you get bombarded with tonnes of information that you may not have had the chance to properly digest during term time, I’d recommend setting aside a little time at some point over the holidays to go through your lecture notes, try out one or two tripos questions in each subject and flag up any doubts to ask your supervisors in Lent Term (this will be enormously useful when it comes to exam term revision).

What kind of work would I do during the Easter vacation?

Doing some revision during the Easter break will help reduce your workload and bring you a lot of relief when it comes to Exam Term. This is especially true, since unlike a couple of other subjects, Chemical Engineers can have new material during Easter term that is examinable.
Like in December, taking a break is very important to recover from the super-busy nature of Lent Term and to recharge your batteries for the solid work you’ll need to put in during Easter Term. After this, I’d recommend finishing up any leftover work from Lent Term and any holiday assignments, and starting revision and doing Tripos questions for each of the modules you’ve done during Lent Term -– see Section 6 below.

Exercises & Coursework

This can actually be a decent way to earn some marks before the actual Tripos exams and reduce the pressure you feel during your final exams.
Since you are given three weeks to complete an exercise, it’s all too easy to put it away saying that you’ll come back to it later and then start stressing out four days before the deadline. The result? You hand in something that you know you could have done better.
My advice? Get started on it as soon as you can, and work on it, for example, over the weekend. Get good chunks done at a time, even if it is doing ground work/research. This way, you’ll have time to work unstressed, fine tune your piece of work, and polish it up closer to the deadline – bits and pieces that can help you achieve a few more marks. This also means that when you run into brick walls, or need something clarified, you can make productive use of the Exercise Sessions that you have been allocated. Added bonus? You won’t be a stress ball before the deadline, and can enjoy a night out with your friends.

Handling your workload

In Cambridge when you start working, unless you define bounds, you can go on endlessly. And while doing your day-to-day work, finishing examples papers and completing coursework on time is important, it’s equally important to find (or make!) the time to do other activities – sports, music, or other clubs/societies, and to hang out with friends. Doing other activities can help you be more efficient with your time, and can be an added incentive for you to work more efficiently. You can make some of your best friends and have the best three/four years of your life whilst at university – just find the right balance, and you’ll be fine.

Revising for Chemical Engineering Tripos Exams

When it comes to revision, people work in a very different ways. Here’s my take on it:

a. Revise ‘actively’: go through your notes, make short notes, practice writing out important derivations, equations or explanations several times without looking at your notes, and then correct yourself. Reading through a page/section, and then closing it, and then going over everything I’ve read (either in my head, aloud, or writing down the main points on paper) and then double-checking what I’ve remembered helped me a lot. And of course, repeating where necessary – especially for difficult sections.

b. Split work into chunks: A very useful piece of advice, courtesy of Dr Sarah Rough. Splitting your revision into, for instance, 25 minute chunks and taking 5 minutes off to chill, answer your Whatsapp messages, or go on facebook, can work wonders. This means that you can be more efficient and less distracted during your working time, as you know that you have a break coming up very soon.

c. Down time is very important: Many people think that revising the whole day everyday without any other activities is the best idea to do maximum work. I’ve often found this to be quite wrong. Playing a sport a few times a week, going on runs or bike rides, or any other form of exercise can help re-energise you and give you a break from the sluggish monotony of revision. Equally, organising to go to the cinema or watch a movie at home with friends, or even cooking dinner together and watching The Apprentice will be a good stress-buster. Most importantly, these breaks will help motivate you during the day to continue working hard and prevent you from getting distracted.

d. Don’t get hung up for too long in one section: Time is of the essence. Some sections can be difficult – leave these for later, and come back to them with a fresh mind. If that doesn’t help, find a book on that particular area and read up the relevant chapter. If that still doesn’t help – discuss it with a friend or contact your supervisor and sort it out either via email or a quick supervision. This will help reduce your frustration immensely.

e. Practice, practice, practice: At the end of the day, it won’t help if you know all the course content at the back of your hand alone. You also need to be able to apply yourself and answer CET exam questions in the right way, in the allocated time assigned for each question.
I’ve divided the benefits of doing past exam questions into three chunks which link together:
- The first third of the benefit comes from answering plenty of tripos questions. After revising each section, go onto CamTools and find a relevant tripos question and do it. And keep doing as many as you can.
- The next third of the benefit comes from timing yourself. Depending on which stage of the tripos you’re in, this can vary slightly (25 – 35 minutes in general). At the beginning, don’t get a heart attack if you end up taking 80 minutes to do a 30 minute question. With consistent practice, you’ll get better at answering questions faster. Just keep track of your time, and try and improve on your last timing until you hit the designated time allowance for the question.
- The final third of the benefit comes from looking at the worked solutions and correcting your answers, finding out where you went wrong, and learning never to make the same mistake again. If it’s something you don’t understand, meet a friend or supervisor who does and clarify it without forgetting about it. There’s nothing worse than walking into a Tripos exam and looking at a question and thinking ‘Wow, I’ve seen something similar before!’ and then thinking ‘Crap, I never understood how to do this type question’.
NB: The solutions to some Tripos questions on Cam Tools have errors. If in doubt – check with your lecturer/supervisor.

The final run up to Tripos Exams

A wise Maths teacher once told me that the majority of your revision had to be completed during the weeks preceding your exams so that during the last few days before exams begin you are well-rested and relaxed.
So my advice would be to put in the long hours (if you need to) well before exams and get more rest as the exams get nearer. Some people find cramming on the night before exams works – if this works for you, then great. If not, don’t attempt it with the hope that pushing harder will work in your favour. If you walk into an exam sleep-deprived, chances are that you won’t be as alert, and you might make careless mistakes in calculations and misread parts of questions leading to an unnecessary loss of marks.
Of course this doesn’t mean that you go out clubbing to Ballaré and completely neglect all work during the days before exams. Consistent practice will keep you in touch with the exam format and content.
And finally, on the day before the exam, I’ve found that going over a few difficult sections, key formulae and derivations, and doing a few practice questions to be very helpful.


B. Specific advice to different parts of the Chemical Engineering Tripos


Don’t worry too much – you’re being eased into Chemical Engineering. This is the best year of the Tripos, so if you want to do many extra-curricular activities, now’s the best time to go for it. Don’t be too frightened about any computer programming – you’ll learn the basics and there’ll always be demonstrators on hand to help you, if you get stuck.
Don’t worry if you haven’t had the time to do any work on the Heat Exchanger Design Project before the Easter vacation – most people get caught up with Lent Term and are too busy to think about it before the holidays. Just make sure you at least go through the assignment description, and acquire either a paper or electronic copy of the recommended text (by Coulson and Richardson) before the holidays begins. As with other pieces of coursework – start early, and remember not to get too carried away and spend the whole holiday on it; revision for exams is important too.
The Fluids Laboratory reports are a good way of scoring marks before the exam – make sure you give each report sufficient attention, and spend time analysing your data (via graphs etc.) and drawing conclusions from it. Remember, it doesn’t matter if you’ve made a mistake in the experiment – you just have to recognise that, and state what trends you might have expected to see if it had been carried out without any errors.


Tripos Exams at the beginning of Easter Term

In my opinion, this is the most hectic year of the Chemical Engineering Tripos – so don’t let this year put you off Chemical Engineering. Since you will have your Tripos exams at the beginning of Easter term, Michaelmas and Lent terms have a higher workload than in previous years. Stay on top of your work, don’t leave supervisions for too late, and make productive use of your December break to revise Michaelmas term work. Unlike in previous years, your Easter break will be the only study period you have before your exams, so make sure that you do all the work that you need to do during this time. Some people prefer to stay on in college after the end of Lent term since they find it easier to work/revise in Cambridge rather than at home.

Double Exercise Deadlines

You’ll soon discover the beauty of double Exercise deadlines (on the same day). After handing out the exercises, you’ll be given approximately 5 weeks until your deadline. Don’t allow the long time period to trick you into thinking that you don’t need to start work until a week before the deadline. These are two full exercises and each requires a solid amount of time to do well, so start early and set yourself internal targets to finishing the exercises.

Design Project

Five weeks or so of consistent hard work with nobody to spoon-feed you the answers or strategy: a couple of suggestions –
1. Make sure you get along with your team members and don’t fight internally. That will only add to everyone’s stress levels.
2. Start on Day 1. There is a huge amount of work to be done.
3. Work smartly – if you’ve hit a brick wall, trying using the rest of your team as a sounding board without suffering in silence. If it still hasn’t resolved, bring the matter to the weekly meetings you have.
4. Prioritise what you have to do – it’s all too easy to spend countless hours making a small modification that will get you hardly any extra marks. Time is of the essence – make sure you’ve got all the main things done and dusted. Then spend any extra time on fine-tuning your design.
5. Start your report and P&IDs as early as possible. This is the bulk of the final product that the examiners will see; a shoddy report written in the last two days will not reflect the countless hours of sweat, blood and pain that you have put in over three weeks. An early start will make sure you have the time to do adequate revisions before submission and do your hard work justice. Many people learn this lesson when it’s too late.

Applying for internships

Most students apply in October – December of their third year for a summer internship the following year. Don’t forget to start thinking about which companies you want to apply to (if at all) early on, since some companies have a deadline in October itself.
The University Careers Service is an undiscovered gold mine. They have fantastic people who can really help you improve your CV, your cover letter, give you practice interviews and provide you with material to prepare for psychometric tests.


Research Project: Dividing Time between Work and Research

Meet up with your research project supervisor before the summer holidays leading into your fourth year. Take the time to really understand what you’ll be doing, what your main and secondary objectives are, and get all the material you need to read up on over the summer. This way, you can attempt a first draft at your literature review over the summer holidays.
Once term starts, it could help to note down what your goals are for each week or fortnight with the aim of finishing all of your research by week 7 of Lent Term. Hopefully, you’ll have an even workload distribution and some extra time at the end in case of any emergency. It’s a good idea to go into the lab about 3-4 afternoons a week, but take care not to spend too much time on lab work. Remember that it accounts for 25% of your year – there still is a lot of revision to be done for Tripos exams!

Broadening Modules – Product Design, Languages

Your broadening modules are assessed completely during the course of the year through assignments, presentations and examinations that will finish at the end of Lent Term. So, while term time can get very busy with a lot of other activities, don’t neglect these modules. If you spend sufficient time on each of these assignments, they can all add up to give you a decent set of marks to add to your end-of-year total, well before your actual Tripos exams start.

Choosing Core Chemical Engineering Modules

You have a certain degree of flexibility with choosing your core chemical engineering modules. And you don’t have to make this choice at the start of Michaelmas term. So take the time to understand what each module actually is about – read the course description, pick up a recommended course text from the library to have a quick flick through, talk to your seniors to see what they felt, and sit in a lecture or two of each module before making your decision as to whether to take the subject or drop it.