A Ph.D. in Physics Education Research

Jennifer Blue and Stephen Kanim

Working Group Members: Tom Bing, Georgia Bracey, Brandon Bucy, Dewey Dykstra, Brian Frank, Andrew Heckler, Brant Hinrichs, Sahana Murthy, and John Thompson.

PdDIn the past, most researchers in physics education have come from other areas of physics or from other disciplines. As physics education research (PER) has grown, however, it has become increasingly common for students to be able to choose physics education as a research emphasis for their graduate studies. Our working group convened at the Foundations and Frontiers of Physics Education Research conference in August 2007 to make recommendations concerning the curriculum content and process of the education of PER graduate students. Our focus in this letter is on Ph.D. students who will do research in PER.

Although these students have many things in common with other graduate students in physics and in education, there are issues and constraints that are specific to PER. First, while it is beneficial for our community to have non-overlapping areas of expertise, establishing a common knowledge set serves to facilitate communication between researchers. Unlike more established disciplines, PER has not yet settled on what we might assume other researchers in the field will understand. These assumptions will necessarily change as the field evolves, but discussion of a tentative core curriculum serves at least to promote reflection about the strengths and weaknesses of existing programs.

Second, since our field spans several traditional research fields that have diverse expectations and academic cultures, there is a distinct need to balance a broad exposure to these fields (including physics, education, psychology and cognitive science) with depth of understanding of the content and research techniques of a subset of these disciplines. As with other research areas, the interests and institutional constraints of academic departments with PER faculty are diverse, and so the specific means through which this understanding will be acquired will vary. At some institutions, it may be possible acquire this knowledge through coursework in physics departments as well as in education, psychology, and cognitive science. In others, this acquisition will come about through apprenticeship with an advisor, from journal clubs or departmental seminars, from workshops at conferences, through communication with other groups, or from working on one’s own.

It is crucial to the health of our field that students obtaining a graduate degree in PER have a solid physics background. All of our students will need to take advanced courses in physics, and should be prepared to demonstrate their physics background by passing a qualifying exam in a physics department and/or by earning a master’s degree in physics. Many of our students will teach in physics departments, and they should have the content knowledge necessary to do this successfully. Furthermore, the pedagogical content knowledge that they develop as part of their research requires a deep understanding of the associated physics.

Knowledge of how people think and learn is also essential. However, knowledge about learning and teaching comes from many fields, and students and their advisors will have to make choices about which parts of this body of knowledge are relevant to the intended research focus, which parts will be pursued through coursework or through teaching and research experience, and which will be left out. PER graduate students might want to study educational psychology, cognitive science, neuroscience, or artificial intelligence. There are also more general education courses that might be valuable for individual students: history of education, social psychology of education, sociology of education, philosophy of education, politics of education, and critical pedagogy. In addition, there is a growing body of knowledge specifically about science education. We have seen courses in the history and foundations of science education, trends in science curricula, student misconceptions, and PER-based curriculum. Some of these are based in physics education, and some are broader and encompass all of the sciences. There are methods courses for preservice science teachers that offer significant pedagogical content knowledge. More and more universities are offering courses specifically in PER; if one is available it should be taken. Students should also take advantage of resources such as the published canon of PER (Ambrose & Thompson 2005) and the resource letters about PER that have been published in the American Journal of Physics.

PdDWe expect that PER graduate students will be apprentices in research just as other graduate students are. The research techniques of PER are often different from those of other physicists and more like those employed in the social sciences, and a graduate student in PER may need to learn statistics, survey design, how to create an assessment instrument, how to evaluate a program, how to construct an interview, perform ethnography, and how to code qualitative data. There are courses offered in most schools of education with titles such as “Research on Curriculum” and “Research on Instruction,” which may be useful. Many PER students will learn these skills directly from their advisors. We do recommend, however, that all PER students should learn both quantitative and qualitative research techniques well enough to judge the research of others, no matter which techniques they intend to use in their own work. We also expect that, as part of their research experience, PER graduate students will work with their advisors to prepare and present posters, to give talks, to help write grant proposals, and to write papers. They should be given the opportunity to attend national meetings where PER is presented (such as the American Association of Physics Teachers national meetings, the Physics Education Research Conference, or the Foundations and Frontiers of Physics Education Research conferences) in order to develop a sense for the breadth of the field.

Finally, PER graduate students should have some exposure to the practice of teaching. Almost all graduate students benefit from moving into a research associate position and gaining more time to spend on their own projects. However, while skipping a stint as a teaching assistant may have advantages for some physics graduate students, it is probably not a good idea for our students unless there is some other means of gaining teaching experience. Optimally, a PER graduate program will incorporate a teaching experience with coursework or group meetings that encourage discussion of how theories of education inform (and are constrained by) educational practice, and the student will gain experience in both traditional courses and in courses that have been modified on the basis of physics education research. PER students should be given the opportunity to attend workshops at AAPT meetings about instructional innovations that are not offered at their own university.

PER graduate students often have the ability to be involved in teaching to a degree unusual in physics graduate students. They may be able to write test questions, develop courses, and develop curriculum. This might be best done as an apprentice with an experienced instructor. Depending on the career goals of the student, these opportunities could be provided in community colleges, high schools, or elementary schools. PER graduate students may also be able to teach other physics TAs or teach methods courses for preservice science teachers. All of these experiences as part of a well-designed PER education will develop teaching expertise and the practice of teaching, contributing to the educational development of the student – and will not be teaching roles intended primarily to serve departmental needs.

PdD We recognize that this list is too long. We do not expect that all PER Ph.D. students will learn everything that any one practitioner of PER knows; that is as unreasonable as it would be in any other field. Rather, we hope that this paper can spur discussion among students and advisors and illuminate both the challenges and opportunities of our relatively young field.


Bailey, Janelle M. & Timothy F. Slater (2005) “Resource letter AER-1: Astronomy education research” American Journal of Physics 73, 677.

Hsu, Leonardo, Eric Brewe, Thomas M. Foster & Kathleen Harper (2004) “Resource Letter RPS-1: Research in problem solving” American Journal of Physics 72, 1147.

Jossem, E. Leonard (2000) “Resource Letter EPGA-1: The education of physics graduate assistants” American Journal of Physics 68, 502.

McDermott, Lillian C. & Edward F. Redish (1999) “Resource Letter PER-1: Physics Education Research” American Journal of Physics 67, 755.

Thompson, John & Bradley Ambrose (2005) “A Literary Canon in Physics Education Research”. Forum on Education of the American Physical Society Newsletter, Fall 2005.


First drafts of this letter were a collaborative effort of all members of our working group, and all contributed their time and ideas during our discussions at the conference.

Jennifer Blue is an Assistant Professor of Physics at Miami University.

Stephen Kanim is an Associate Professor of Physics at New Mexico State University.