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Is an Exercise Science Degree Really Worth It? – Part 2

Posted Nov 08 2011 9:04pm

In Part 1 of this series, I discussed how an undergraduate degree in exercise science really isn’t much of a competitive advantage at all in today’s fitness industry because of the low barriers to entry in the field, high cost of college education, and shortcomings of most exercise science curricula themselves.  I concluded by referring to the three options you have available to you for distinguishing yourself in this field – and that’s where we’ll pick up today.

Option 1: Go to graduate school.

I know what you’re thinking: “He just got done bashing an undergraduate exercise science program, yet he’s going to encourage me to sign up for two more years and another $50-$100K in student loans?”

Yes, I’ll encourage some of you to go that route.  First, though, you need to appreciate that graduate school is markedly different than the undergraduate experience.  There are more opportunities for hands-on learning, more direct communication between students and faculty, smaller faculty-to-student ratios, and much more self-selected study.  In other words, you have a much better opportunity to dictate your own educational path.

I went to graduate school not really sure what I wanted to do.  I could have been a researcher, trainer, clinical exercise physiologist, or strength and conditioning coach.  It was only after my experiences during that graduate experience that I realized that I loved coaching and wanted to make a career out of it.

Taking it a step further in this regard, you simply won’t be hired to work in college strength and conditioning if you don’t at least have an undergraduate degree, and the truth is that most employers “strongly prefer” master’s degrees.  It isn’t just the “minimum academic requirement” that they’re after; rather, it’s that a master’s degree means that you have spent at least two years in the trenches (usually at a D1 program) working with athletes as a graduate assistant or volunteer, so there will be fewer “kinks” to work out in a new strength and conditioning position.

Additionally, graduate programs are far more challenging academically.  I had to work twice as hard to get a GPA 0.3 points lower in graduate school than in my undergraduate degree.  It was challenging because the admission requirements were so high; in fact, all of my classmates are now college professors, D1 strength and conditioning coaches, and exercise physiologists for NASA and the US Army.

I can look back extremely fondly on my graduate experience at the University of Connecticut because it made me much more versatile.  A given day might have me working with a seven-foot tall NBA-bound center and an untrained five-foot tall female study subject – with everything from exercise endocrinology, to phlebotomy, to research methods, to understanding environment stress thrown in my classroom experience the same day.  Nothing was typical, and opportunities were endless; it was like “life.”

As an added bonus, many times, graduate students have opportunities to work as graduate assistants or teaching assistants to receive a tuition waiver and/or stipend.  So, you can come out “even” financially when your graduate experience is over – and earn a degree and build your network in the process.

Graduate school isn’t for everyone, but I wouldn’t trade my experience for the world.

Option 2: Choose a different undergraduate course of study.

I think one of the reasons an exercise science degree has been devalued is that it doesn’t allow you to do anything someone in any other profession can’t do.  A truck driver who decides to apply to his local gym to be a trainer immediately has the same legal scope of practice of a certified trainer with an exercise science degree.

If that trainer, however, had done an undergraduate degree in athletic training and become an ATC, he could also do traditional “rehabilitation” approaches like manual therapy, Kinesio Taping, nerve flossing, and a host of other approaches.  Athletic trainers essentially serve as physical therapists in the college sector, and in many professional sports setting.  Had that trainer done a degree in physical therapy and become licensed, he could still do all of that, but also bill insurance for it.  And, they can still serve as strength coaches or personal trainers on top of their normal responsibilities.  In other words, having an ATC or PT after your name increases your scope of practice dramatically.

Using myself as an example, I manage over 70 baseball arms every single day of the week – which is more than some athletic trainers and physical therapists see in an entire career.  I’ve seen everything under the sun when it comes to shoulder and elbow issues, yet the initials after my name (which are a function of my degree) dictate what I can and can’t do to help someone, even if I’m 100% sure I know the right approach for that individual.  I refer out quite a bit for this reason (and because there is no way I could work on absolutely everybody even if I wanted to), but it would be nice to know that I could manage things in-house more conveniently for everyone.

To that end, if there is one thing I would have done differently, it would have been to do a physical therapy degree (or at least an athletic training one) in my undergraduate education, even if it meant going an extra year or two.  Many of the classes are the same as you’d get with exercise science, which could be a perfectly acceptable minor.

Worthy of noting here is that one can also pursue a massage therapy license to open up some windows in the context of manual therapy, so it’s never too late.  Chris Howard has made himself a more versatile strength and conditioning coach at Cressey Performance by adding this to his arsenal, for instance.

Option 3: Reinvest your financial resources appropriately.

I can’t imagine dropping $250,000+ on a college education…in any discipline.  Let’s forget about that for now, though, and say that you’ve got that $250,000 saved up and you want to know the opportunity cost of devoting those financial resources to college.

Do you realize how far $250,000 can go? Let’s say that you spend $100/day on “survival” stuff like food, shelter, clothing, and the like.  Over the course of four years, that is $146,000 in living expenses.  That gives you $104,000 to spend on books, DVDs, seminars, mentorships, independent study courses, and the travels that they’d mandate.  As a frame of reference, for under $1,000, you could buy all of the following from my resources page (and still have a few bucks to spare):

Precision Nutrition

Building the Efficient Athlete DVD Set

Anatomy Trains

Muscles: Testing and Function with Posture and Pain, 5th Ed.

Diagnosis and Treatment of Movement Impairment Syndromes

Ultimate Back Fitness and Performance

Optimal Shoulder Performance DVD Set

Assess and Correct DVD Set

Movement

Supertraining

Basic Biomechanics

Take another $1,000 and devote it to business resources, and I’d guarantee that this $2,000 would put you light years ahead of any college course you could take – yet the college course would likely cost more.  Books, DVDs, seminars, webinars, and internships will always be a far more affordable and effective way to learn; you just need to be willing to put in the time and energy to benefit from them.  The same could be said of college, but the price point is considerably higher and the distractions more prominent.  And, student loan interest isn’t always tax deductible, but these purchases could be considered tax deductible if the individual in question is earning income in the fitness industry simultaneously, as they’d be continuing education expenses.

When you pay for college with student loans, there is undoubtedly less “incentive” to put your money to good work by paying close attention and working hard; that money is never in your hands to feel and appreciate.  You only appreciate it later when you’re paying off the principal and interest for years to come.  However, when you pay for a plane ticket, hotel, and seminar seat, you’re making that purchase with your credit card and immediately appreciating that you’re being separated from your money – and that you better make it worthwhile.

Of course, not many 18-year-olds have the discipline to plan out their educational destiny like this, and many don’t even know what career path they’d like to pursue, anyway.  So, this is probably a moot point for the overwhelming majority of kids out there who may wind up in the fitness industry someday.  If you’re in your 40s and considering a career change to the fitness industry, though, I think you’d be crazy to start an undergraduate degree in exercise science from scratch.  Different strokes for different folks.

Wrap-up

Part 1 of this series drew some fantastic comments, and I expect that this second installment will do the same.  So, I’ll initiate the discussion with a few questions:

1. What other ways do you feel fitness professionals can distinguish themselves in a competitive industry with a low barrier to entry?  Obviously, results matter, but rookie trainers don’t have that luxury upon which to fall back.

2. Have other educational paths served you well?  In what ways?

3. In a few decades, when college is even more insanely expensive than it is now, what will universities have to do to “justify” their role in the educational process at such a high price point?

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