Higher education in exercise science: Why and how to pick the right program

I completed an undergraduate and master’s degree, and am currently working on a PhD, in the field we’ll call “exercise science.” I define this operationally, because various programs will file it under any of the following terms:

  • Exercise physiology
  • Kinesiology
  • Sports science
  • Human movement science
  • Some branch of “health,” “medical,” or “biological” sciences

As a result, I frequently get contacted with two questions from aspiring students:

“Is an undergraduate degree in exercise science worth anything?”

“How do I pick a graduate school program for exercise science?”

This article will address both, so let’s get into it.

 

1) “Is an undergraduate degree in exercise science worth anything?”  

Whenever you evaluate the value of a degree, it’s important to consider what the degree can set you up for, and which positions it sets you apart for. For exercise science, the former is its great strength, while the latter is a potential weakness.

Exercise science can set you up for a great deal of exciting and lucrative careers. As I have discussed in a previous article, most curricula will include a strong base in the “hard sciences,” such as biology, physics, chemistry, and so on. In addition, the more degree-specific course work will direct you toward courses in psychology, behavior change and counseling, exercise physiology, nutrition, pharmacology, research methods, statistics, and athletic training, among others. As a result, it’s common to see individuals with majors and/or minors in exercise science advance toward a variety of paths. Sure, you could go the strength coach or fitness professional route, but based on the broad base of coursework you could also pursue medicine, physical therapy, nursing, clinical exercise physiology, dentistry, and a long list of health-related professions. This also gives you the ability to work with a variety of populations, ranging from children to the elderly, and from the ill to the physically elite.

The only downside is that having an exercise science degree doesn’t necessarily set you apart for many positions. To explain what I mean, consider a dietetics degree. In many states, legislation mandates that certain roles and duties must be carried out by a registered, licensed dietitian; anyone performing such tasks without the proper degree (and licensure) is in violation of the law.

If a job opens up for a clinical exercise physiologist, which typically involves cardiac rehabilitation or other health-oriented work in injured/ill populations, this employer will probably require some kind of exercise science degree. However, the situation is quite different from the previous dietetics example. We don’t really see a lot of legislation in place that requires certain roles to be filled by degree-holding exercise scientists, or jobs requiring any type of state licensure. Some professional organizations are working on changing this, but it remains a work in progress that is hotly debated within the field.

But, in the meantime, this means that there are plenty of people filling jobs in the fitness and performance sectors that do not hold an exercise science degree. So, individuals that want a fitness or performance-oriented job may not necessarily need an exercise science degree, and obtaining one doesn’t necessarily give you a legally required credential that sets you apart from applicants without the degree. The employer is likely to view the degree very favorably, but they’re not mandated to put you ahead of candidates without it.

 

2) “How do I pick a graduate school program for exercise science?”

Dr. Rick Petosa gave me some great advice when I was an undergraduate student. I’m paraphrasing, but it went something like this:

“An undergraduate degree teaches you to be a good consumer of knowledge. You learn the basic fundamentals, learn to separate the good information from the bad, and learn to apply it. Graduate school teaches you to produce knowledge- to identify gaps in what we know, to form connections between ideas that haven’t yet been connected, and to make original contributions to the body of knowledge.”

With this in mind, you need to find a graduate program that has two things:

 

A) A research advisor who will be a good “fit.”

This means you can get along with them both personally and professionally (there is a difference!), they share you research interests, and they share you expectations regarding research productivity.

There are faculty members that literally live for their research, and expect students to do the same. They tend to be a great fit for students that are equally driven to pursue a highly productive research career, which often corresponds with countless hours spent in the laboratory. On the flip side, there are advisors who perform very little research activity. They tend to be a great fit for students who are more interested in working as teachers or practitioners; their research productivity may not be as high, but there is more time for development in other areas of focus.

When I was searching for graduate programs, I reached out to numerous people to solicit recommendations. I was very fortunate that both Jeremy Loenneke and Layne Norton told me to check out the work being done by Abbie Smith-Ryan at UNC Chapel Hill. She was just starting up as a professor, and until they recommended her, I was not familiar with her work. I ended up going to UNC to work with Dr. Smith-Ryan, and 4+ years into the experience, I couldn’t be happier with my decision. Dr. Smith-Ryan is an excellent researcher and mentor, and I’ll always have a tremendous appreciation for everything she has done (and continues to do) for me. Finding the right advisor is the single most important factor that can make or break your grad school experience, so take your time and choose wisely.

I eventually plan to do a series of “Sports Scientist Spotlight” articles, in which I outline and celebrate the work of some exercise science researchers that I respect and admire. In the meantime, I included a list of some resistance training and sports nutrition researchers at the bottom of this article to help aspiring students begin their search. Some of them may not currently work as professors in departments with graduate programs, but people change jobs and new programs start up all the time. I’m bound to be missing plenty of fantastic names, but at least it’s a starting point. If nothing else, you can look up their papers and find the names of other colleagues they publish with or cite- one of the best ways to search for advisors is simply by figuring out who is producing the researcher papers that capture your interest.

 

B) A department with appropriate resources for your needs.

Certain departments will have a very clear focus on developing researchers, teachers, and/or practitioners. In many cases, it will be clear where their priorities lie. If their campus is full of lab space and students are primarily funded through research assistantships, a research-focused student will thrive. But if there are no teaching assistantships available and minimal emphasis on developing hands-on skills, this may not be ideal for the aspiring teacher or practitioner.

This is part of why an on-campus visit is VERY helpful for the graduate school search. A phone conversation, brochure, or webpage often fails to tell the whole story. But getting on campus to see how busy the labs are, discuss how graduate student funding is arranged, and assess the overall vibe of the environment will tell you exactly where the department’s priorities lie. My current department is very research-oriented, which is a tremendous fit for me. UNC has equipped me with everything I need to achieve my academic goals, and the faculty, staff, and facilities are truly fantastic. But I want to be clear that this isn’t a good vs. bad thing- again, it’s about finding the right fit for you.

 

Conclusions

Exercise science makes for a great undergraduate degree that can lead to a wide variety of career paths. However, depending on the exact job you want, it may not be entirely required. While your degree will typically be viewed quite favorably, you might still have to compete for that dream job against candidates who don’t hold one.

When it comes to graduate school, it’s all about finding the right fit. Schools and advisors will interview you, but you’re also interviewing them to make sure that you’re selecting a program and an advisor that will suit your goals and personality.

 

 

Appendix: A very incomplete list of researchers who study resistance training and/or sports nutrition topics, just to get you started

Last Name First Name
Antonio Jose
Arent Shawn
Baar Keith
Bellar David
Burke Louise
Campbell Bill
Cholewa Jason
Craemer Joel
Cronin John
DeFreitas Jason
Earnest Conrad
Eckerson Joan
Focht Brian
Fry Andy
Galloway Stuart
Galpin Andy
Greenwood Mike
Hamilton Lee
Hoffman Jay
Jeukendrup Asker
Jones Andy
Kerksick Chad
Kraemer Bill
Kreider Richard
Loenneke Jeremy
Ormsbee Mike
Philp Andy
Roberts Mike
Ryan Eric
Phillips Stu
Schoenfeld Brad
Smith-Ryan Abbie
Stock Matt
Stone Mike
Stout Jeff
Taylor Lem
Tipton Kevin
van Loon Luc
Volek Jeff
Wax Benjamin
Wilborn Colin
Willoughby Darryn
Zourdos Mike
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