Physics Teaching Credentials aren’t everything
This topic is a particular sore spot with me. Why? Because many, if not most, of the teachers with the highest credentials, ie. PhD, are good at RESEARCH, not TEACHING.
Let me preface this by saying I have long sought my PhD in astrophysics. There is a really long story as to why I don’t have it, but suffice it to say it has been a dream since high school. I have the utmost respect, admiration, and jealousy for those with a PhD in physics, math, chemistry, or engineering. HOWEVER, here is the big BUT, most people with a STEM PhD, (STEM = Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math), are unable to teach the subject in a way that makes it interesting and, dare I say, captivating, to a classroom full of high school students.
I know a few people with a Physics PhD. For over 17 years, I have tutored students in physics, math, chemistry, and astronomy. The vast majority of those students were taking a conceptual physics course. It was an algebra-based physics course, usually taken their freshman year of high school. Thus, most of the students taking the class were 14 or 15 years old. I cannot for the life of myself imagine the challenges a 15 year old would have in understanding physics, were the student to have had some of the Physics PhD people I know, one in particular, as a teacher.
When I went back to school many years ago, I initially registered for the calculus-based physics class for scientists and engineers at Community College A. I’m not going to throw anyone under the bus here. After a month in the class, I found that I was not being taught how to solve physics problems. That’s kind of a big deal. The class was given a practice test for our first exam, and I quickly realized I could only do two or three of the over 20 problems. Houston, we have a problem.
I quickly realized why I could not stay awake in physics class. Physics is a very favorite subject of mine. I find it fascinating. I know. There’s something wrong with me. But, seriously. Physics underlies everything and it is all around us in everyday life, people just don’t realize it. Physics is the cool stuff. So, why is it that I, someone who dearly loves physics, cannot stay awake in this class? Because the professor droned on in a monotone voice. He also never taught us how to solve physics problems.
Realizing my GPA was in serious jeopardy if I remained in that class, I withdrew from it. I did a very late add into the same calculus-based physics class for scientists and engineers at Community College B, and worked hard to make up the month of assignments I had missed. And I excelled in the class. That professor has ended up being one of the top two or three teachers I have had in my lifetime, from all levels. She had a passion for physics that she imparted to her students, and she made a challenging subject so much easier.
Passion for teaching
And she “only” had a Masters in Physics. But she was probably the best physics professor in that entire community college system at that time.
Where is the disconnect, then? Why can’t most Physics PhD’s teach? Simply put, because that’s not what they were trained to do.
Physics PhD is for Research, not Teaching
By the time someone earns a PhD in Physics, or any other STEM field, he or she has slogged through at least five years of postgraduate education. The vast majority of that education is research. In order to earn the Masters in Physics, the student must submit a thesis, which requires a fair amount of research. After being admitted and passed on for the PhD program, the student usually takes that thesis and conducts further research over the next three or four years. That, then, becomes their doctoral dissertation, which they must defend in front of a panel of professors and other researchers.
Assuming their dissertation is accepted, most Physics PhD’s then go on to do a post-doc. That is where they go, usually to a different university, and conduct, you guessed it, more research in their chosen physics specialty field. A post-doc usually lasts a year, and it is not uncommon for someone to do two or three of them before they gain enough experience to be hired as faculty at a research institution.
Eight years of Research before being Hired
By the time someone with a Physics PhD is hired to teach, regardless of education level, he or she has been conducting research for the past at least eight years of his or her life. They may have had to work as a teaching assistant for a semester or two while earning their Master’s. Usually, though, the teaching assistant requirement ends by the time they are in the PhD program, so that they can concentrate on conducting original research, writing their dissertation, and getting published.
“Publish or Perish”
Because getting published is the primary objective of a Physics, or any STEM field, PhD. “Publish or Perish,” is the paradigm physics professors at universities live under. Publishing papers means bringing in more grant money to the university, and that’s what professors get graded on. When their salary reviews come up, they are rarely, if ever, graded on their teaching skills. What they are graded on is how many peer-reviewed papers they published, and how much grant money they brought into the institution. Teaching is a secondary thing they have to do, and most professors at a university level only teach one class per semester. The rest of their time is spent conducting original research.
So the next time you’re considering hiring a physics tutor, pay less attention to the person’s academic credentials, and more attention to their teaching skills. Can the person relate to the student? Can they make a challenging subject comprehensible? Can they interject some humor into physics? Do they find teaching physics to be extremely fulfilling, or would they really just rather be in a lab, conducting original research?
Physics Tutor Gender Matters
Another very important consideration for hiring a physics tutor is the gender of the tutor. If the student is female, preference should be given to a female physics tutor. Why? Well, you wouldn’t think this still happens in 2019, but, oftentimes, male teachers overlook the raised hands and questions of their female students.
Female STEM students often overlooked
There is a definite bias in STEM fields towards male students, and the female students often get passed over. It begins as the student enters high school, when most of the STEM teachers are male. It is sad, and extremely unfortunate, but true. Females, therefore, often feel like they are not good enough to excel in the STEM field, and end up choosing a non-STEM major.
Yours truly is the result of two amazing, female, physics teachers: one in high school, and another in college. I am certain that my love of physics would not have developed as well as it has had it not been for the influence of those two remarkable women. If your student is a female, having a woman at the front of the classroom, or just across the table, makes a big difference.