With work experience and a postgraduate degree you'll knock other applicants for six

If you enjoy sport, providing sport science support to top athletes and national squads doesn't seem like a job because it's so rewarding," says Matthew Cosgrove, who works for the Sports Council for Wales. "It's enormously satisfying to help people achieve. Even with a relatively low-key result, you know you've played a part in helping somebody take a step up the ladder. At the other end of the spectrum, you can help someone win a medal."

For reasons like these, careers in sport and exercise sciences are becoming increasingly popular. But the growing competition for jobs means that employers are on the look out for applicants with an "edge" which, according to Cosgrove, usually translates into a postgraduate or doctorate degree. "There are so many graduates of sport and exercise sciences nowadays that they really need to take their knowledge to the next level to stand out," he says. "It's also a good way of showing your commitment to the field, as well as showing an ability to complete a large piece of work - in this case, a dissertation."

Cosgrove - who works with athletes in sports including netball, cricket, cycling, athletics, table tennis and triathlon - did his Masters at the University of Glasgow, an experience that he says was enlightening. "In fact, my first degree was in biology, so specialising at postgraduate level was even more essential in enabling me to enter this career. But even if your first degree is in sport and exercise sciences, the depth you go into isn't huge, except for the subject of your final research piece. At postgraduate level, you get to really focus."

Invariably, you'll find you apply the knowledge you gain later down the line when you get a job, he adds. "In my case, I did research into rowing performance, which I can apply to all sorts of sport."

Chris White, a performance analyst at the English Institute of Sport (EIS), would almost certainly struggle in his role without his postgraduate degree behind him. "My role is to provide feedback to athletes in areas like cycling, squash and swimming via objective video and statistical feedback," he says. "Having done a Masters in performance analysis at the University of Wales Institute, Cardiff (UWIC) - the only Masters in the country that specialises in that discipline - I got a lot of exposure to the software and hardware that is used in this discipline."

A further benefit of his course was that he learned in some detail what sports coaches do. "When you work with top athletes, you also work with their coaches, so it has been really useful to learn what they will want from you," he explains.

Probably the most useful aspect of all was the work experience, he says. "I think it was largely because of this that I managed to get on the UK Sport fast-track practitioner programme - the internship programme at the EIS - which in turn led to a full-time position," says White.

Fiona Lothian, athlete services manager at the EIS, agrees that work experience can be as important as the academic study. "Because more and more people are doing Masters and PhDs in sport and exercise sciences, a good way to beat the competition is to make sure you get practical experience. Many employers won't even look at applicants who haven't got any," she says.

Not that she belittles the theoretical study. In fact, she says she can't imagine doing her role, which involves co-ordinating sports science and sports medicine support for athletes, without her PhD from the University of St Andrews: "My first degree was in PE teaching, so I really needed to learn more."

Although her PhD specifically focused on the physiological demands of women's hockey, she believes that anyone who does a PhD in this field will come out with a handful of valuable skills. "For example, I think doing a PhD gives you a lot of organisational, research and project management skills," she says.

Malcolm Fairweather, who works directly with top athletes and coaches through the Scottish Institute of Sport, welcomes the choice that's available for further study today. "When I started out in 1979 on one of the first sports science degree programmes, there were no clear pathways for the next step. When I decided I wanted to move into the area of movement behaviour, there was nowhere I could do it in the UK. My only choice was to do a PhD in America."

The benefit, he says, was that university campuses in the States are often near athletic grounds. "I was just 20 yards away, so I wound up working with elite athletes and got some wonderful experience."

His advice is to apply to a university with a strong sporting culture, where you can hopefully gain some direct work experience. But don't wait for opportunities to land on your lap and don't expect to get paid, says Kevin Thompson, who works with top athletes through the EIS. "You really need to be proactive and look out for opportunities - perhaps with the university department doing sports science support work or through a national governing body or home country institute. Even for basic posts, you'll be expected to have experience."

Take the time to think carefully about which type of study - research-based or taught; Masters or PhD; full-time or part-time - will suit you best, he adds. "There's also the level of specialisation to consider," he says. "For example, there are now specific courses in sports psychology, as well as sports psychology modules on Masters in sport and exercise sciences. If sports psychology was an interest of yours, you'd need to make a choice of whether to go for the stand-alone course or the more general one, where you'd also get to study other subjects.'

Steve Garland, an exercise physiologist at the EIS, believes he benefited enormously from taking a break between undergraduate study and his PhD to find the right type and subject of study, with the right supervisor: "I didn't want to go into it just because it seemed like the right thing to do. I wanted to find something that'd really drive me."

Having eventually chosen to do a PhD in exercise physiology at Southbank University in London, he cautions people about the lack of funding opportunities. "It isn't easy to get financial support, but I managed to get just enough to get by," he says.

For a Masters programme, you probably won't get any funding at all for the £3,000 to £3,500 fees. But as Dr Claire Palmer, of the British Association of Sport and Exercise Sciences (BASES), points out, the long-term rewards - both financial and job satisfaction - have been shown to be well worth the initial investment, regardless of whether you choose a Masters or a PhD.

She suggests checking to see if the staff of your chosen university are accredited by BASES and if you're applying to a Masters course, check out the research activity of the department and what opportunities there are for Masters students to get involved in this research. "It may also be worth checking out the staff to student ratio and what careers past students have gone onto," she says.

Don't just assume you'll get accepted by a university, she warns. "The pre-requisite is normally a 2.1 or First at undergraduate level and, even then, it can be competitive."

But if you have the passion, tenacity and ability, you could find yourself accepted into a study area that is both exciting and fast-moving, as well as one which may open many doors.