Dr. Bruce Sinclair, PhD, is a Reader (senior academic) and Director of Teaching at the School of Physics and Astronomy at the University of St Andrews in Scotland. He earned his PhD in laser physics from the University of St Andrews in the late eighties and has worked there ever since, first as a postdoctoral researcher and then as a member of academic staff. He currently focuses mostly on education: he’s served as the School’s Director of Teaching for 15 years, and advises national organizations connected with physics education.
Please describe your work.
I teach classes of students from entrant undergraduates to graduate students, and from “tutorial” discussion groups of about seven students to interactive lecture classes of up to 150 students. I also design and run sessions in our laboratories to allow students to explore physics experimentally, and to develop their lab and investigative skills; coordinate a module where third-year students develop their communication and research skills in physics; and organize industrial placements for our postgraduate masters students in photonics. My mentorship of final-year undergraduate students involves leading projects and advising students on a one-to-one basis regarding their experimental investigations. So support of students, both academically and in wellbeing, is a significant part of my role. My administrative input has involved strategic and operational planning for the School’s teaching programme.
When did you first suspect that you wanted to work in this field? That is, when did you first fall in like—or love?
As a teenager at school, I had the good fortune to have an amazing physics teacher. She set the scene and explained things very well, and pointed out the range of applications of this science. I liked, and still like, that our discipline has a relatively small number of key concepts that we can develop and use in all sorts of ways.
What qualities do you think make students most likely to enjoy and succeed in your classes, and to pursue studies in your field?
A desire to find out how the physical world works is helpful. Students who seek to understand rather than to memorize, I reckon, stand a better chance at seeing the unity of the subject and using their knowledge to do new-to-them things. A good grounding in math and physics is important.
What are the most frustrating and gratifying components of your work?
The most gratifying components have to be the interactions with students, which we later find to have made a big difference. Sometimes those interactions can be relatively small, but a one-to-one discussion may “unlock” a way forward. It can be frustrating to see a student’s progress slowed down by ill health.
If you weren’t a professor, what job would you have?
I did not start my degree aiming to be a professor, but realized that a good education in physics could lead to a range of careers both inside and outside the subject. I initially anticipated working in research and development in a high-tech company. But when an opportunity presented itself to combine my interest in laser research with the chance to educate students, it was too good to pass by. I guess I could also have become a swimming teacher.
What’s the best book in your field you’ve read recently? What’s the best book you’ve read recently for pleasure?
Tony Siegman’s Lasers I find myself turning to again and again. I’m currently enjoying perusing Susan Ambrose et al.’s How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching. Outside of work, one choice would be Gordon Brown’s Sea Kayak.
Thank you to Dr. Bruce Sinclair for participating in our Q&A series! Getting to know professors at your school is an important part of the college experience and can help you decide on your best college fit in the college admissions process. Explore the upcoming presentations on our website or set up a complimentary consultation to learn about our services. Whatever your question, Collegiate Gateway is happy to help!