My best friend and I often used to go to the gym together. Whilst I spent the majority of the time on the treadmill arduously pounding the miles away, he would make his way around the weight-training equipment. Of course, he had a very different physique from mine--whilst I was skinny, he was muscular. What, you may ask, is so surprising about that? Well, this got me thinking, "How does the body know how to adapt to different physical training methods?"--a question that turned out to be central in my budding career.
Do Research Before Choosing a Course
So when I was deciding what to study at university after completing my 'A' [advanced] levels, I noticed that sports science was available at my local institution, the University of Central Lancashire. I registered without any prior investigation of what the course consisted of and was accepted. In hindsight, I consider myself lucky, because this degree encompassed all the traditional sports science areas of biomechanics, physiology, psychology, applied sports science, and research methods.
However, in retrospect I would recommend doing thorough research before embarking on a course, because content differs across institutions and it may not be what you expect! This is especially important with the emergence of new sports-science-derived courses such as sports biomedicine, sports studies, and sports nutrition, amongst others.
Personally, I enjoyed the exercise physiology component the most, so following my exams in the second year I was lucky enough to secure a funded summer project with a course lecturer who was interested in exercise-induced gene regulation. This was a valuable experience and is one I would recommend to undergraduates contemplating a laboratory-based Ph.D. After all, being a lab rat isn't for everyone, and it is better to find out if it isn't for you sooner rather than later.
Completion of my degree in 2001 led to my successful application for a Ph.D. studentship funded by the University of Central Lancashire to study the processes behind the contrasting physiological adaptations of endurance and strength training. So I am now investigating the question I asked myself as a teenager: How does skeletal muscle know how to grow in response to lifting weights and become more fatigue-resistant in response to endurance training when, after all, the stimulus is muscle contraction for both modes of training?
Many classical physiological studies on the control of adaptive processes in response to exercise have produced landmark discoveries, opening many doors for future studies of the underlying mechanisms. Having said that, I would advise those seeking a Ph.D. in sports science to avoid wishy-washy projects that are merely variations on old themes, which, alas, is still common in the field. You can do this by researching the literature beforehand to see what is already there and by assessing how original your project is and whether it is likely to add to our current knowledge. Research is supposed to be novel, so let's try to keep it that way and not waste funding money beating old eggs.
Of course, research in sports science may also have clinical relevance; for example, understanding processes of muscle growth and atrophy will prove beneficial for wasting conditions, not to mention the numerous health benefits of reducing the incidence of diabetes and heart disease. This is always worth remembering because, in my experience, grant money for exercise physiology per se isn't easy to come by, and making your project more relevant to a clinical setting may increase your chances of getting funded.
One year into my Ph.D. work, my supervisor informed me he was to apply for a lectureship at the University of Dundee. I agreed that if he got the job I would also go. After all, this was a top-rated centre for life sciences, and it was hardly ideal to continue the same programme of research whilst 300 miles away from your supervisor! My move to Dundee was a good one, as I found the research environment to be excellent, with exceptional facilities giving me exposure to a greater diversity of techniques. That reminds me, also make sure before embarking on your Ph.D. that the research project is realistic by considering the facilities and assistance on offer from the university or your supervisor.
Still, you may find yourself struggling with a project. My advice would be, don't labour on it, travel to an external lab to learn a method or complete a study. This can be a most valuable experience in that you will see how other labs function and will save valuable time by learning from the experienced. The sports science world is close-knit, and many labs will be happy to have you if you send a friendly e-mail.
Sports Participant and Scientist
Perhaps the reader may already have realised this but, yes, I am a sports enthusiast. I have always watched and performed many different sports, although distance running is my favourite. So, is it possible to become a sports scientist without partaking in sport? Of course! But as for all things, it is nevertheless advantageous to have some firsthand experience, as it will help you truly understand what is entailed.
I also feel that love for what you do--both in sports and in science--is the most important attribute to becoming a sports scientist. Simply imagine being able to combine your passion for sport with your job. What greater reward could there be? And I, for one, could not see myself completing my Ph.D. if I were not standing over the PCR machine anxiously awaiting the outcome of my experiments. Lab work at times can be monotonous, and if your heart isn't pounding as you wait for the results, then perhaps "it ain't for you."
In contrast, I don't believe it is essential to possess a sports science degree to go on to do a Ph.D. in sports science. Sure, perhaps some supervisors would prefer a sports science graduate for an exercise-related Ph.D., and I'm sure those with a sports science degree would be thought of unfavourably by a chemistry supervisor. I think this is rather unfortunate. In my experience, as long as you have a basic science background and are prepared to learn, getting the sport bit isn't too difficult. I mean, I did a sports science degree, which lacked a cell biology module, and now my hottest subject is cell signalling! There's almost nothing that reading a few books and papers can't solve.
So for me, where to next? There are many options awaiting after earning one's Ph.D. in sports science--lecturing, coaching, industry, sports management, to name but a few--as it is a subject that offers diverse options from many angles. For me, it will definitely be the continuation of research, for I feel there is so much to be done in my field and I have many ideas! I would like to get a postdoctoral position in a good lab to continue my work; then, perhaps a full-time research post and my own lab.
To all of you out there making the decision to enter the sports science industry, I'd like to say that, whether you choose to specialize in psychology, biomechanics, or physiology, my perception is that it is a booming field. So good luck to you all!