Demands for a healthier, sportier Britain are bringing unprecedented job opportunities for sport science graduates


When Jonny Wilkinson won the World Cup with a last-minute drop goal watched by millions around the world it marked much more than a famous victory for the England rugby team. Watching in the stands was Clive Woodward, the team's first ever full-time coach, and a trained sports scientist who brought to his six-year campaign for the trophy a new professionalism.

It is an approach which is sweeping sport and leisure, creating new opportunities for the 10,000 students who leave university every year with a degree in, or related to, sport or exercise science. And there is no doubt the demand for sporting services is booming too, fuelled by government pressure to reduce obesity and engage the public sector in providing better exercise facilities and by a new generation of private gyms and fitness centres offering services like personal trainers.

A successful Olympic bid for London in 2012 would provide another big boost for elite athletes, and those who train them. "It's five times larger than the music industry and accounts for 2 per cent of the entire workforce," says Terry Jones, a spokesman for the Association of Graduate Careers Advisory Services (AGCAS).

"But one problem is that there are more graduates than sports jobs," says Dr Claire Palmer, executive officer for the British Association of Sport and Exercise Sciences (BASES), although she points out that such graduates are popular with a wide variety of employers. Figures show just 40 per cent initially go into a job related to their degree - rising to 70 per cent after five years when many will have gained extra qualifications, or practical experience.

But getting a job may be a disappointment for some. "One of the big misconceptions is that, as a career, it will offer you the chance to play the sport you love for 30 hours a week. Sometimes the realisation that you need to know a lot about the science is a big shock," says Dr Palmer. Career progression may well involve sports administration, fund-raising and other office-bound tasks.

Many who do get jobs go into coaching and providing expert advice to elite sports athletes. Massive funding from the National Lottery - £2bn since 1994 in England alone - has helped national sporting bodies support the emerging profession of sports science. The English Institute of Sport, for example, employs 25 scientists working with athletes, and another 25 in other positions. UK Sport, which supports high-performance athletes, is beginning an internship programme to give graduates the skills to find jobs in the industry. The Government's newly launched network of 45 strategic sports partnerships will provide another opportunity for sports scientists, and has backed a new skills council - SkillsActive - to help professionalise the industry.

Then there is the fitness, sport and leisure industries. Local authorities are engaged in a widespread modernisation of sports facilities - often funded through the Private Finance Initiative - and in partnership with private firms. Fulham Pools, for example, in London was one of the largest such projects, providing three pools, a gym, tennis courts, café and crèche.

Meanwhile, gym chains like Holmes Place have expanded rapidly. Vicky Mahony studied sports rehabilitation and science at St Mary's University College, Twickenham. She tried to get into elite sport by volunteering to help non-league Kingstonian FC - a common tactic for sports scientists who need experience before landing a paid job in professional sport.

To make a living, she applied to Holmes Place, which now has 76 clubs worldwide and 50 in the UK, and has 1,000 fitness staff and a graduate entry scheme. She became a personal trainer and was then promoted to help run the company's own training academy at the Barbican in the City of London. Across the industry, she says personal trainers can earn around £11-£13 an hour, fitness instructors about half that. Despite having to work long and antisocial hours she loves the job: "It's great to see someone - say a rugby player - back in the game after a knee reconstruction thanks to you. It makes a difference to people's lives."

Given the popularity of sport, and Labour's target of re-establishing the UK as a "powerhouse of sport" within 20 years, competition for the good jobs will get tougher. "What we are now witnessing is that a majority of the graduates are not stopping at a bachelor's degree," says David Bunker, director of Loughborough's School of Sport and Exercise Sciences. MScs, MPhils and PhDs are now common - as are the more traditional PGCE students who want to switch into teaching, taking advantage of the Government's drive to establish 400 sports specialist secondary schools by the end of 2005.

Growth areas for graduates who do go into the jobs market are sports marketing with companies such as the giant IMG (International Management Group) founded by Mark McCormack or SFX, where graduates could end up helping to manage stars like David Beckham, or running corporate hospitality at events like Wimbledon. Sports journalism is popular - usually supplemented by training on a local newspaper or a postgraduate scheme like the one run at Cardiff University. The Armed Force is a big recruiter too, not for non-commissioned PT instructors, but for officers.

Many of those who stay on at university to gain further qualifications will get jobs in teaching in further and higher education, and increasingly abroad in the US, Canada and Australia. Others will use additional qualifications - as did Sir Clive Woodward at Loughborough - to get into elite sport coaching and one day, perhaps, help England win another World Cup.


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'An injury pushed me into a Masters degree'

Injury put paid to Richard Hawkins's dream of following his father into professional football, but sports science has given him an exciting alternative career with the Football Association.

"Football was in my blood really," says Richard, whose father Graham played for a string of clubs and managed Wolves in the 1980s.

On leaving school, Richard, who had played at county level and had trials for England schoolboys, landed a place at Loughborough University doing the then exotic option of sports science. "Today you can do GCSE's and A-levels in these areas so it is clearer to youngsters that they can go down that route," he says.

While studying at Loughborough he won trials with Leicester City FC and played in the reserves in the preseason period. Then he ruptured muscles in his thigh - effectively ending any hopes of a career.

"That's what pushed me into a Masters degree - it prompted a rethink. Then I had a research proposal passed to me on studying the rising incidence of injury in professional football."

With a PhD behind him Richard faced the job market - which was bleak. However, his qualifications got him a job with the FA, where he is now deputy head of exercise science.

Many other students hope to land jobs in the front-line of sports science - working at a top club, but Richard warns: "There are only 92 Premiership and football league clubs out there."

Basic starting pay in this kind of job in the lower leagues would be about £30,000 a year, for a candidate with a masters, or between £20,000 and £25,000 without. "A job in the Premier League would be much more than that," Richard adds.