I graduated from the University of Brighton in Sports Science in 2003, and I do consider myself lucky to have been able to apply my knowledge of sports and exercise science ever since, even though I haven't found a job with the immediate scope I originally hoped for.
I was brought up in Hong Kong, where I became heavily involved in a number of competitive sports (including gymnastics and athletics) at a national and international level. Academically, things were going really well for me at school but when the time came to choose my A-levels, there were no sports- or exercise-related subject on offer (this has changed since). So at the end my first year, I made the tough decision to leave my mum and dad and the place I loved so dearly to pursue my education and ambitions in the one thing I loved the most ? competitive sport!
So I went to the United Kingdom where both my brother and sister had attended university and restarted my A-levels at a boarding school whose ethos drew on the importance of physical activity just as much as academic achievement. This was a much better option for me, however, as a boarder I found my opportunities for formal training outside of school restricted. As a consequence by the second year of my A-levels, I had retired from national and international competitions. But on the positive side, I achieved three A-levels during my time there--biology, chemistry, and sports studies.
Physiology and biomechanics of elite performance
In the meantime, I was certain that I wanted to study sports science at tertiary level. In 2000, I started a BSc in sports science at the University of Brighton, Chelsea School. The 3-year degree course was multidisciplinary, incorporating all of the four main traditional areas of sports science, namely physiology, biomechanics, psychology, and sociology. In my final year, I chose to follow the 'performance science' route, which focuses mainly on physiology and biomechanics of elite performance. However it was the multidisciplinary and hands-on approach of the degree that were to prove paramount in my current outlook, and I feel I am now able to face the sector with confidence and an open mind.
A BSc in sports science (the study of elite or competitive sport) or exercise science (of heath and exercise for well-being) has become in recent years a very 'sexy' degree to obtain. But before embarking on one of those I would recommend you consider what are the career tracks really open to you upon graduation.
PE teaching or fitness instruction is something that the general public often associates with such a degree, because of course they are the most visible jobs to the community. However, I feel the reality is much more complex than that. If you wanted to become a PE teacher you probably would need to have done a teaching degree or incorporate a teaching qualification into your sports science BSc. As for fitness instruction, I suspect the majority of students who have completed or are completing the degree will feel that they are academically overqualified to work in a gym. Not only that, I have found that for most fitness establishments, a 3-year intensive degree in health and exercise is not recognised as a 'qualification', while a 2-week fitness instructor course is!
I would also say that the way many sports and exercise science degrees are structured leaves graduates facing a brick wall, as the majority of core modules focus on elite athlete performance, as opposed to that of Jo Bloggs down the road. But in my experience rarely do sports science graduates find themselves in positions where they work with high-level athletes. For this you have to undertake the British Association of Sport and Exercise Sciences ( BASES) Supervised Experience scheme, followed by the Accreditation scheme which can take up to 10 years to complete (which is understandable as the country's best are in your hands). Furthermore, the number of individuals who would truly benefit from your expertise in elite performance are so minute as opposed to exercise for the masses that even then, I believe you may find jobs rather hard to come by, at least in the UK.
So why is there so much interest in elite performance? In addition to sounding more appealing, I believe there are many students out there who are of the opinion (I used to be one of them) that if you follow the performance science route, you will always be able to apply what you've learned to issues related to exercise and health in the general population. But my view now is that the makeup of elite performers is often so refined and extreme that application of performance science can only be taken so far. So although you really do have the knowledge and skills to offer the wider community, what is often lacking upon graduation is the understanding of how this may be applied to real people. I feel the danger in this is that it puts graduates into a rut within a job market where practical experience increasingly seems to be valued above academic qualifications.
So by now you may be wondering what job I am currently doing now. By the end of my degree, I was lucky enough to have found out by word of mouth (I had a friend already working there) about a vacancy as a clinical exercise physiologist at University College London. I was lucky in that my application was successful. My position involves undertaking research into the use of exercise and sport as a model for the study of critical illnesses. In particular, I am looking into promoting cardiopulmonary exercise testing (similar to the breath-by-breath VO2 max tests performed on athletes) for the identification of abnormal physiology and understanding of the aetiology of cardio, pulmonary, and vascular diseases along with the benefits of physical training amongst clinical populations. I thus get to interact directly with patients as well as with a variety of healthy populations during monitored training sessions.
To be honest, when I took this job I was of the opinion that this was just a stepping-stone, and that I would pursue my primary interests in elite performance later on. I have since shaken off my blinkers and opened my eyes to the possibilities and rewards of working with the immediate community. Now I can't help but become enthused when I speak about the spread of work that I do!
No obvious career path for sports scientists
So the best advice I can give from my own experience in finding a job related to sports science is think laterally! Although as far as I am aware of there is no obvious 'career path' or 'industry' out there for the sports scientist, sports science is all around us ? it is integrated into many different sectors and may take just as many forms--in the police force, the army, for corporate wellness (a service that provides companies with health and exercise programmes for a healthier and more productive workforce), GP referral schemes, clinical research, health/life insurance companies, in drug companies, government agencies (i.e., Transport for London), nutrition and supplement companies, office furniture (i.e., biomechanics and ergo-friendly furniture) ? along with, yes, to some extent all the regular associations such as health and fitness clubs, personal training, coaching for the younger local squads, and physical education.
I feel exercise referrals, in particular, are an important growth area in sports science. These are supervised one-on-one training sessions for individuals who have been 'prescribed' exercise by their doctor, most often for cardiovascular rehabilitation or clinically advised weight loss. Patients have their exercise sessions individualised, depending on their long and short-term goals, current physical abilities, and psychological profile. Patients often follow a 10- to 12-week physical training programme in which they are assessed on their progress throughout. The value of these schemes is becoming better recognised, and their implementation more widespread amongst local communities across the UK.
This makes me believe in an increasingly influential role for the sports and exercise science graduate developing within the community, to guide the population out of current epidemics of great concern emerging from today's modern lifestyle, and to the sustainable wellness of the community.
Although sometimes hard to see, opportunities in sports and exercise science are there for the taking, and if an opportunity isn't there ? use your initiative, create your own. Everyone is interested in their health and wellbeing, so be brave and offer your skills. Sports and exercise science can be applied to almost any human activity, on any scale, at any level. Elite athlete support may remain in the hands of a privileged few, but the rewards and personal satisfaction for treating the masses are colossal.