Keystone logo
Four Reasons Why Athletes and PhDs are a Perfect Fit

Four Reasons Why Athletes and PhDs are a Perfect Fit

  • Student Tips
Joanna HughesMay 22, 2017

What do world heavyweight boxing champion Wladimir Klitschko and retired NBA superstar Shaquille O’Neal have in common (aside from being extraordinary athletes, that is)? They both have doctoral degrees -- the former in sports science and the latter in education.

They’re hardly alone. Joining them in this accomplished feat are a number of other scholar-athletes, including Klitschko’s brother, fellow boxer Vitali Klitschko (sports science); legendary hockey goaltender Ken Dryden (history); professional Football Hall of Famer Alan Page (law); world-ranked tennis player Mikhail “Colonel” Youzhny (philosophy); and former Major League baseball pitcher “Iron Mike” Marshall (kinesiology).

And while upper-level academics and extreme athletes are often grouped into separate stereotypes, the reality is that many people are uniquely suited for both. Read on for a roundup of four reasons why athletes and PhDs make smart sense.

1. Both require endurance, technique and good coaching.

The road to becoming an elite athlete is a marathon, not a sprint. (Even, as it turns out, for sprinters.) Accustomed to putting in long hours of training, athletes build endurance -- a quality which comes in very handy during lengthy doctoral studies. But they don’t do it alone.

Says blogger Subir Kumar Mandal for the Karolinska Institutet Career Blog, “Just like athletes, PhD students need someone to tell them how to optimize their work, increase skills proficiency, and maintain self-motivation and confidence. Coaching can help PhD students achieve top performance, increase their endurance, and sustain fewer ‘injuries’.” The takeaway? In learning to train on tracks and in swimming pools, athletes also learn to train for academia.

Three Asian university graduates in gowns

2. They don’t quit....even when they feel like it.

Babe Ruth once said, “Every strike brings me closer to the next home run.” While others might have perceived strikes as setbacks and thrown in the towel, he stuck with it..and went down in history for it. The same applies for athletes and PhD students alike. Particularly when the road is long, there’s rarely a straight road to success. Everyone feels like quitting at one point or another. The ability to persevere despite roadblocks, obstacles, detours and other challenges can make all the difference.

Speeding rowing boat with motion blur to accent speed.

3. One can pick up where the other leaves off.

While some elite athletes make it for decades in the intensely competitive professional sphere, the journey is blindingly brief for the vast majority. What’s a professional athlete to do after retiring at a young age? After all, most aren’t exactly the type to kick back and rest on their laurels. For many, a PhD is a worthy next step for their attention and efforts. Many also choose to pursue advanced degrees in subjects related to their athletic pursuits, such as sport science, kinesiology, and education.

PhD studies give them purpose, but it also gives them something more. In an ESPN article, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar points out that many professional athletes suffer from a serious deficit of money management skills. Having a degree -- let alone an advanced one -- offers financial security.

At the university/college - Students rushing up and down a busy stairway - confident pretty young female student looking upwards (color toned image)

4. University settings often suit them.

Most student athletes fondly recall their college sporting days. Getting a PhD offers the opportunity to keep the collegial vibe going for several years longer. For others, doing a PhD is a perfect counterbalance while training for a PhD.

Consider Great Britain rowing team member Katherine Grainger, who was studying for her PhD in homicide while simultaneously training for her fourth Olympics, during which she finally clinched Olympic gold. In explaining her decision to do both at once, Grainger told Channel 4 News, “I like to challenge myself on the mental side as well and I find the stuff I’m studying fascinating...If I don’t have a lot to do, then I can waste time like the best of us… if I’ve got my PhD to do, rowing to do, training to do and people to speak to then I’ll get it all done.”

While professional athletes and PhD studies may not seem like a natural pairing, the truth is that the two pathways are -- although very different in nature -- surprisingly well-aligned. Asserts Grainger, “In some ways I probably work (row) at the extreme end of human behavior anyway -- there are some parallels potentially but I consider it very different from sport.”

Joanna Hughes

Joanna worked in higher education administration for many years at a leading research institution before becoming a full-time freelance writer. She lives in the beautiful White Mountains region of New Hampshire with her family.