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STEM students don’t have it worse

The myth that STEM is always harder has gone on too long


It’s three a.m. on a cold Monday in January and I’ve just hit send on my essay. Time for bed, I have lectures at nine. To any future employers reading this, I promise my time management skills aren’t appalling. Working the occasional night shift is just part and parcel of life as a Cambridge student.

Between labs, lectures, and whatever the hell ‘IEP’ is, our white-coated compatriots indulge in a discourse that emphasises their own hardships while subtly (and, sometimes, not so subtly) downplaying ours. This experiment has yielded remarkable results, with students of all subjects accepting the unproven hypothesis that STEM is harder than humanities. This assumption is so ingrained in Cambridge culture that even most of us who take humanities can’t help but develop a slight inferiority complex.

Image credits: Keira Quirk

Taking on this myth has become my new obsession. Redirecting my efforts from screaming at my friends every time they regurgitate the fallacy that their subject is less laborious, I have decided, in true humanities fashion, to commit pen to paper. Arguments propagated by the STEM mafia, of whose existence I have no doubt, essentially boil down to ‘contact hour comparisons’. ¬†As one engineer tells me, ‘if you compare a STEM and humanities timetable, you’ll be able to see the difference’. Granted, ¬†sixteen to twenty hours a week, which I am told is the average, sounds like it makes for a packed schedule. But hardly a hectic one.

What my friend misses is that, unlike with STEM, lectures and other contact hours account for very little of the humanities workload. Whereas it is relayed to me that the average STEM student takes home between four and ten hours worth of additional work a week, for the rest of us it is a different story. Each day brings with it the imperative to complete three essential tasks: reading, reading, and more reading. Once the reading is done, essays must be planned, written, and submitted. It’s important to do this in a timely manner so that you can get back to your reading.

Some of the primary texts I had to read, cover to cover, for just one of my papers in the first few weeks of this term (Image Credits: Nick Papanicolaou)

The nature of the texts we need to study is no walk in the park either. As part of my History Paper 19 this term, I have been forced to consume six Ancient Greek and Renaissance classics to date. In this context, lectures basically count as a break. Given my own less-than-superb self-discipline, the idea of an orderly week structured around contact hours doesn’t seem half bad. Perhaps I could also make use of the opportunity for social interaction since STEM students can’t be up to much in this regard.

In fairness, every one of my friends from the other side of the aisle concedes on the reading. On this, I think I have landed a slam dunk. That is until one of my friends points to institutions like the Cambridge Union, dominated by humanities students, as evidence of all the extra time we have on our hands. What he fails to realise is that the people most involved in these institutions will be the first to tell you that their involvement puts strain on their degree. Add to that my suspicion that, overall, STEM students are just as involved in the societies that better align with their interests and I believe I have scored a trifecta.

The Cambridge Union – unfairly perceived as a go-to hub for humanities students (Image Credits: Sarah Swift)

As a Churchill student, many of my friends are STEM, and if I had a penny for every time they mentioned the ‘Space Flight’ society, I’d have enough to fund their rocket trip myself. Sometimes I wish I could. In general, I am very grateful for my friends, even if some of them probably think that I spend my days just swanning around and writing articles like this. But the time has come for all humanities students to break the taboo and assert that, actually, we are working just as hard as they are.