Revealing shifts from mastery of knowledge to problem solving in assessments of a tertiary physics programme

Keywords: theoretical physicist identity


There is increasing pressure generally for lecturers to adapt their supervision practices of postgraduate students to better prepare postgraduate students for careers outside of academia. In this paper we examine what such pressure may mean for the supervision and preparation of theoretical physicists specifically, theoretical physics being a sub-discipline of physics usually perceived as a highly specialised niche area of scientific practice. In this exploratory study we apply the concepts of the Specialisation Dimension of Legitimation Code Theory to analyse and reveal the dominant concepts and codes, as well as the code shifts that may occur during postgraduate studies, based on an autoethnographic account of theoretical physicist identity development. The findings demonstrate an underpinning value for both knowledge and knower attributes in the journey to becoming a legitimate theoretical physicist, and the critical role played by postgraduate supervisors in facilitating the process of theoretical physicist identity development. Also highlighted are possible implications for supervisors faced with students intending to take up employment outside of academia.

Author Biographies

Alan Cornell, University of Johannesburg

Alan Cornell is the deputy head of department for research and post-graduate affairs at the University of Johannesburg’s department of physics, where he teaches and researches high energy particle physics and gravitational physics. Initially from Australia, where he obtained his PhD from the University of Melbourne, he has worked as an academic in Korea, Japan, France and South Africa for twenty years. He is a member of the Academy of Science South Africa, the South African Institute for Physics, as the chair of its Theoretical and Computational Physics division, and the National Institute for Theoretical Physics.

Kershree Padayachee, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg

Kershree Padayachee (PhD, Wits University; PG Dip (HE) (Rhodes University) is senior lecturer and teaching and learning advisor in the Science Teaching and Learning Unit (STLU) in the Faculty of Science at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg. Having transitioned from an academic career in the Biological Sciences to a current focus on higher education studies and the professional development of academics as university teachers, she is involved in collaborative, cross-disciplinary research in teaching, learning and assessment in higher education.