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The Shortfalls of a Sport Science Postgraduate: An Open Letter to my Post-graduate Self

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Ever heard the phrase "There are 10,000 Sport Science students graduating every year?" Yeah, it's real, but don't feel afraid - embrace the challenge!

Introduction

It has been 138 days, 4 hours, and 32 minutes since I graduated with my Masters by Research (MRes) qualification. 14 months of pushbacks, failures, and countless late nights on PubMed. Yet in those 14 months, I truly found a passion in life – something that beats clambering back into the 9-5 rat race following graduation. I worked so incredibly hard for this and developed a plethora of desirable skills, so I should be fine in the post-degree job market, right? “Someone will snap me up straight away” I thought to myself as I stumbled off the stage with an underwhelming placeholder for my MRes certificate. Maybe that was a sign of the hardships that followed.

138 days later, I now understand that this naivety held me back. As I sit here, mid-COVID crisis, it has been valuable to reflect on my early career so far. Since graduating, I have been unable to gain even a single minute of paid or unpaid work within the sport science industry. Do not get me wrong, I applied… and applied, in fact as of today my file explorer is the proud tenant of 42 alterations of my CV and 68 different covering letters. I have also attended many an interview (shout out to my interviewees, thank you for giving me the opportunity!) without success.

So where have I gone wrong? As stated previously, my early mindset post-graduation was one of ego and naivety. I thought I had the world at my feet, yet as the days flew by, job rejection became more second-nature than dejection. Annoyingly now, I understand my flaws. I possessed the wrong mindset, and this reflected into my drive for success. Although I had two degrees, I should have continued to better myself instead of waiting for jobs to fall into my lap. All of that time wasted when I could have been completing additional CPD, or volunteering myself for even the smallest of roles within the industry. Even though I was unaware at the time, all of this would have made my CV ten-fold more attractive to employers.  

You see, as a Sport Science graduate, you have to work hard – I’d say more so than many other disciplines out there – to reach even a graduate position within the field, yet it is more than worth it. Those long hours within the wet lab were a slug but finally I found a passion and something that would one day make a great job for me. But you need to realise not to roll over and accept success post-graduation, get out there and improve your employability any way necessary.

Advancements in knowledge within Sport Science compared to 20 years ago is astonishing, yet they still haven’t quite managed to get that time travel machine up and running in athletes yet. If such a machine had in-fact been created by now, I would like the following tips to be sent back to my post-graduate self. Oh, and someone tell me to shave my beard.

Take it, anything!

I remember in the early days of my MRes, I turned down the opportunity to complete some work as a graduate teaching assistant in exercise physiology because I was ‘too focused on my own work’. Thankfully nearer to the end of my degree I picked up some vital experience but looking back I can’t believe I had the cohones to turn down such an opportunity!

Opportunities such as this one on the exterior may appear ‘less important’ or someone trying to pawn work off on you, however on the interior they yield massive importance to you and your professional career. Even if it isn’t teaching, perhaps helping at a sporting event performing some physiological tests, take the opportunity! It will only come back to haunt you whilst your sat in bed dreaming of the day EIS knocks on your door.

The opportunities may also not be in your preferred field, but that shouldn’t deter you, view it as a chance to become more multidisciplined and the opportunity to feel more comfortable working within the field. Below may be some opportunities you shouldn’t turn down if you have the chance:

  • Research Assistant positions – Is your University actively conducting research? maybe this is an opportunity to get involved, not only to gain experience within the field but to also see if you enjoy conducting research. I did this and it was invaluable experience.
  • Graduate Teaching Experience – Do you specialise in a field that may not be specifically covered in the course modules? This may be an opportunity to gain some valuable experience teaching others about your field. It also looks good on any prospecting PhD application.
  • Private Consultation – Maybe you’ve performed some voluntary work with a sport team or athlete and made good connections with their bubble. Perhaps you could use this to perform your own private consultation for the athlete(s) and gain experience working 1-on-1 within the field.
  • Lab Technician – Would your sport science lab benefit from a few extra pair of hands to finally sort out that sample freezer? It may be worth a shot asking if you can volunteer working in a laboratory. Laboratory experience is incredibly valuable to those who wish to enter the Exercise Physiology, Biochemistry, or Immunology settings and you may pick up a trick or two.
  • Internships – Paid or unpaid, any internship with an institute or sporting team would be desirable for any Sport Science graduate. Unfortunately though, places that are up for grabs are limited and these opportunities are scarce. It is worth applying for though! Internships at institutes such as the EIS, Lucozade, and Nestle are quite common whilst sport teams such as Blackburn, Liverpool, Brighton, Huddersfield are examples of football teams which give fantastic opportunities to students every year.

Put yourself out there, don’t be afraid

At the start of my research degree, I vividly remember suffering from sheer anxiety and imposter syndrome – something of which still doesn’t receive as much attention as it should to this day, I may cover this in another future post. I knew I was incredibly fortunate to be in the position to study further, yet I didn’t want to step on anyone’s toes, especially those with a multitude of letters following their name! I therefore kept myself excluded for the majority of my MRes and graduated with no real connections within the field I so passionately enjoyed researching.

Don’t be this person. Don’t be afraid. In fact, now I understand that people in academia or sport science enjoy being challenged, whether that be in-person or on social media (I’m now no stranger to a twitter debate!). Create a website, make a podcast, join a Facebook group – hell, do what you need to do to get your name out there. Sitting in the shadows waiting to be found isn’t the way to go, establish yourself as someone who is motivated to enter the industry and is looking to make connections. Below are some examples of ways I found that benefit my ability to connect with others in my field:

  • Twitter – Follow experts within your field, determine who they mingle with, and follow them too! You will find that most people are open to connect on this platform – just don’t be criticising their every move.
  • LinkedIn – Same as above, follow those who you wish to work with. Most people again or open to conversation but be assured if they don’t answer, it may just be that they’re incredibly busy.
  • Conferences – Hopefully by 2021, most conferences in your field will be back up and running, but if you have the chance to attend one – do it! socialising and connecting with people in your area is a great way of making not only friends, but vital connections in which you may benefit from in the future. Likewise, if you have the opportunity to present your work at a festival – oral or poster – this is another way of making academics aware of your presence.
  • ResearchGate – If you’re looking to pursuit a PhD, then ResearchGate will allow you to keep up to date with research within your field. Likewise, there is also a large community on this platform specialised for people like you who are looking to / already work in research.

Stop being self-entitled and keep improving

Yeah, you! Congratulations you have two degrees, should you now immediately deserve a job? Not a chance. Having two degrees is an incredible achievement, don’t get me wrong, but that shouldn’t be the finale to your studies or CPD. Have an idea of what position you’d like to work in and plan round that. For example, performance nutritionists may benefit from ISAK and food safety qualifications as well as enrolling in a postgraduate diploma. Likewise, future strength and conditioning coaches require UKSCA accreditation for most job openings.

Anything you do after your degree(s) should be viewed as a long-term investment rather than an expense and may be the defining feature in what edges your job application over some other poor soul. To determine what additional studies/CPD/experience may benefit you and your CV, I recommend searching up people who are already in your desired position on LinkedIn. Seeing their career progression and past experiences may help you understand what it takes to work within that position. Personally, I find Twitter and LinkedIn especially useful for this. Twitter is huge for Sport Science practitioners and academics. Building a rapport on this platform is a great way for people to get to know you. I remember going to a PhD interview a few months back and the literally the first thing the interviewer said was “I follow you on Twitter, don’t I?”.

Don’t lose hope, it will be your turn soon

This is what I tell myself on days I feel down about this matter. There has been many a day where I’ve just thought I should give up on this career choice and go for one of those sales jobs. In fact, I remember I had an interview for this recruitment position around 6 months after finishing my MRes. I had travelled a few miles up the A14 to this firm which recruits for hospitality. As they were briefing me on the job requirements, I had transitioned into a full-blown daydream where I envisioned me being ecstatic that I published my first paper. At that moment I knew sales wasn’t for me, and I would do everything I physically could to break into the Sport Science industry. I knew what I wanted, and I wasn’t going to let a few rejections take this opportunity away from me.

I believe every Sport Science graduate needs to have this realization, if you’re attracted by the instant pursuit of money – go ahead, take that sales job. However, if you are truly motivated by the attraction of working in elite sport, keep hope, keep working hard, and one day it will fall into your hands.

What’s next for me?

It has been 138 days, 4 hours, and 32 minutes since I graduated with my MRes qualification. I still haven’t completely lost fate of landing my dream job – and you shouldn’t too! Using the above tips will help you (as it finally did with me!) to hopefully find that spark that pushes you above and beyond. One day we may perhaps be co-authoring on the same paper, or working as part of the same sport team, who knows? But the take home message from this post is to know that you are not alone, just keep hope and keep working hard to your goal.

Follow me on twitter: @ThorSci

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