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The Pursuit of a Ph.D. for Coaches: Unravelling the Pros, Cons, and 6 Tips for Success

Ryan Keating

[5-min read]

The path to coaching mastery is long and arduous and somewhat never-ending. For most starting out, the journey involves a balancing act of formal education, gaining coaching experience, and earning some type of income. Next is the pursuit of accreditation with the likes of the UKSCA, ASCA, or NSCA.

A decade ago in my own journey, a Master’s in S&C was a popular choice to set yourself apart from the crowd and tick the desirable criteria for potential job roles. But this required moving to the likes of Edinburgh or Limerick or doing distance learning through St. Mary’s. Now there are lots of options for studying for a Master’s with full-time, part-time, and blended options. Particular shoutout here to RYPT users Setanta College who offer several Master’s qualifications.

Fast forward to 2023 and the availability of educational resources for coaches and practitioners is greater than ever. There’s now a prevalence of practitioners seeking a doctoral degree, myself included. In this blog post, we will explore the reasons why a Ph.D. might appeal to coaches, examine the pros and cons of undertaking a doctoral journey, and offer valuable tips for those considering or embarking on this path.

Why a Ph.D. for Coaches?

First, in my own S&C coaching journey, I never considered pursuing a doctoral degree. I love coaching and always thought that research wasn’t applicable to the real-world challenges of coaching and never considered myself as being strong academically. However, this changed radically during my Master’s journey, and working within the level of sport seeking marginal gains and to optimize human performance, I had more questions than answers.

As part of my Master’s, I investigated the usefulness and reliability of the plyometric push-up as a test of upper-body explosiveness. This sparked my interest in strength diagnostics and profiling. Then, Ulster University launched their annual Ph.D. competition and a project title appeared, “Load-Velocity Profiling in Swimming.” I was hooked. The application process was extensive, requiring a research proposal and interview for a limited number of projects but I was successful and officially started my research in October 2022.

So what are the benefits of a Ph.D. for coaches?

Let’s be clear, a Ph.D. is not for everyone. According to official statistics, in Ireland, the typical age for enrolling in a doctorate is 26-41 and only 4% of 25-64 year-olds have a doctoral degree. So here are my thoughts on why this might be appealing:

  1. Advancement of Knowledge / Pursuing a Ph.D. allows coaches to contribute to the field’s collective knowledge and make meaningful, research-driven advancements.
  2. Professional Credibility / A doctoral degree adds credibility to a coach’s profile, distinguishing them as an expert in their field.
  3. Intellectual Challenge / Engaging in research and academic pursuits can be intellectually stimulating, particularly if you have grown stale in your current environment.
  4. Career Opportunities / A Ph.D. for coaches opens doors to academic and research-oriented roles to provide career options beyond traditional coaching.

So whether you are interested in transitioning into academia, engaging in research, or forever a student, a Ph.D. could be enticing. I have no regrets so far but recognise there are pros and cons.

The Pros of Pursuing a Ph.D. for Coaches:

Deepening Expertise

A doctoral program offers an opportunity to delve deeply into a specific area of interest within sport science and coaching. Physiology, biomechanics, performance analysis, pedagogy… the list is endless. You’ll not necessarily be confined to one area but be prepared to go down a rabbit hole!

Building a Network and Collaboration

A doctorate allows researchers to build connections with other researchers, practitioners, and experts within the field. This can lead to opportunities to collaborate on projects and learn new skills.

Research Skills

A successful Ph.D. journey will require critical thinking, scientific writing, and data analysis. This will help you navigate your own project but also help digest research to apply to your own coaching.

Personal Growth

A Ph.D. will have several ups and downs. Your resilience and perseverance will be tested along with your time and project management skills. All these attributes can benefit you professionally and personally.

RYPT-blog-PHD-for-coaches-coaching-experience
Pursuing a Ph.D. for coaches can mean less coaching time

The Cons of Pursuing a Ph.D. for Coaches:

Time-Consuming

Expect a full-time PhD to be done over 3-4 years while a part-time PhD may take 5-7 years. There will be a number of milestones to achieve throughout this period.

Financial Considerations

Like all formal education, it can come at a considerable financial cost. There are scholarships available through some institutions or partnerships with a national governing body or professional sports team. You may also have to consider a drop in income during the period of study by sacrificing coaching opportunities to prioritise your research.

Reduced Coaching

For some, this is their bread and butter. The development of research skills and the volume of reading required within a Ph.D. will mean potentially sacrificing some coaching experience.

Outcome Uncertainty

A Ph.D. is not guaranteed. Processes will vary across institutions and countries, but the previously mentioned milestones often involve a form of assessment, failure to pass this assessment may mean moving to a lower level of study.

So if you have read this far, you perhaps have an interest in starting or finding a Ph.D. or have recently enrolled. Below are a few tips that have helped me so far and I continue to refer to.

Tips for those Starting their Doctoral Journey:

  1. Define your Research Interest / While some projects may be pre-defined, inevitably titles and directions will change through the course of the journey. Make sure the area aligns with your interests.
  2. Choose the Right Institution / Select a doctoral program that suits your needs. Research the supervisors and their research areas. Finding the right supervisor can make or break your journey!
  3. Balance Coaching and Research / Find ways to integrate your coaching practice with your research. My S&C coaching with swimmers and PhD project of load-velocity profiling are closely linked and this has allowed me to apply some of my research and pilot potential methods.
  4. Stay Committed / The doctoral journey will be challenging. I have had setbacks with facilities, administration, and data collection but I’ve yet to hear of any smooth sailing from other researchers.
  5. Embrace Collaboration / While you are required to produce and defend a thesis on your specific topic, there will be opportunities to engage with your supervisors and assist with other projects. This can further enhance your research and professional skills.
  6. Publish and Present / As part of producing a thesis will be an expectation to publish within peer-reviewed journals and then defend your thesis in a viva with an industry expert. But there will be further opportunities to contribute to conferences. This all helps distribute your research to the wider coaching community and helps advance the field.

Summary

Finally, deciding to start a Ph.D. for coaches is not a light decision and comes with its pros and cons. However, it does provide the opportunity to grow personally and professionally. The advice above will provide some insight into the process and one I highly recommend.

Good luck! Ryan

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Over 2,000 coaches worldwide, working from grassroots to Olympic level, trust RYPT to deliver their athletic development programs and monitor their athletes. RYPT supports individual coaches, private gyms and academies, schools and universities, and large sporting organisations.

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About the author

Ryan Keating

Ryan Keating is a UKSCA accredited, multi-sport Strength & Conditioning Coach with the Sport Northern Ireland Sports Institute working with able-body and para-athletes. He currently leads on the S&C support for Swim Ireland’s northern-based athletes as well as Judo, Para-Badminton, Sailing, Lawn Bowls, and Shooting. Prior to this role, Ryan has accrued significant team sport experience with youth, club, regional and national squads for both males and females in rugby union, GAA, football, and futsal.

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    Just a point: in france and portugal it was quite common for PhD candidates to work in a club daily. And i am talking about the 1990s. In other professions like physical therapy it is the same and tenured professors have a 10-20% job in the rehab center. So one day a week. Also helps to recruit research participants.

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