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

Written on November 8, 2011 at 8:04 pm, by Eric Cressey

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

Then, skip one meal of eating out a month and devote a few bucks to joining Elite Training Mentorship for continuing education, and you’re in a great position to not just get to the front of the industry, but stay there, too.

Finally, 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?

I look forward to your responses in the comments section.

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  • Tyler

    Hey Eric,

    First of all, I just wanted to say that I loved the article. I learned much more about the exercise science degree from your article than all of the college advisors that I’ve spoken with. Which brings me to my situation. I’ve just finished my junior hockey career and will be playing college hockey this fall. I know for a fact that I want to go to grad school for Physical Therapy, but I want to get a bachelor’s degree where I can make a decent living if grad school doesn’t work out.

    My two questions are: 1.) Is a bachelor’s degree in exercise science alone enough to get a decent job as a strength and conditioning coach? If so, what kind of salary would I be looking at?

    2.) Which major would take more time to earn a bachelor’s degree, exercise science or athletic training?

    I know I want to be a physical therapist, but I also want to have a decent bachelor’s degree as a back-up plan.

    Thanks for the great info!

  • http://ericcressey.com Eric Cressey

    Tyler,

    1. Yes, I think so. Salary is entirely dependent on location, responsibilities, etc. I know people making well into 6/7 figures without a college degree!

    2. Might be slightly longer for the athletic training major because of the hours requirement.

  • ab mo

    noting to say

  • Jordan

    Eric, I really liked what you had to say. I’ve been researching a Physical Therapy profession and the statistics show that exercise science is the top undergraduate program for a graduate school physical therapy program. If I’m sure about going down the road of Physical Therapy, would you recommend exercise science still, or some other undergraduate program?

  • http://ericcressey.com Eric Cressey

    Jordan,

    I’d probably try to get into a program that combines the ugrad PT degree with the DPT designation.  I believe UCONN works this way, for instance.

  • Cody

    Love the article, what steps would you recommend for someone wanting to start going after a degree in exercise science. I ran a CrossFit gym in Virginia before moving to Washington in which I decided I really enjoy working with athletes and would like to further my education. Any advice would be great.

  • http://ericcressey.com Eric Cressey

    Cody,

    As you can probably tell from the articles, I’d recommend minoring in EXS and doing athletic training or physical therapy, if you’re going to take the time to do a degree.

  • Jacob

    Is there any advantage of going PT over AT or vice versa?

  • robynn

    Hey Eric,

    Quick question, I am doing my undergrad in Exercise science with a concentration in cardiac rehab, I want to get my master but not sure if I should just continue with exercise science?

    Thanks for your help

  • http://ericcressey.com Eric Cressey

    Robynn,

    I can’t speak to how it is nowadays, but in my experience, cardiac rehab folks are almost always getting master’s degrees in exercise physiology and then going for ACSM’s registered clinical exercise physiologist test.

  • http://ericcressey.com Eric Cressey

    Jacob,

    Absolutely.  You can diagnose and bill insurance.

  • cs

    If you want to go into sports medicine and then an orthopedic surgeon. Do you exercise sxience or athletic training needa to be my undergrad major

  • Tom K

    Hi Eric,

    Thank you for taking the time to consistently share your knowledge with us. You are without a doubt an authority in your area and it’s refreshing to see how you give back to the health/fitness community.

    At the end of your article you say, “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.”

    I’m 32 years old and have worked my way up the corporate ladder. I work in Silicon Valley as a CTO for a public company and I’ve been in software development/engineering in one way or another since I was 12 yrs old. I’ve always enjoyed the problem solving aspects of what I do, but I’ve noticed that I’ve been getting more and more interested in exercise fitness.

    I currently make $200k/year salary, have full benefits (401k, health, etc) and a large chunk of RSUs/stock options. I’m sure it would take a long time to get to a similar income level, but even at $125k/yr I could meet all my financial obligations like mortgage/family expenses. I’d be looking more at the benefit of doing something I’m really interested in and helping people vs continuing in tech and losing interest.

    My question is how would you recommend investigating and pursuing a career change to the fitness industry for a person like myself?

    Thanks!

  • http://ericcressey.com Eric Cressey

    Tom,

    What percentage of personal trainers do you think make $125K/year?

    I’ll give you a hint: less than 1%.

  • Tom K

    Hi Eric,

    Thanks for getting back to me.

    I’m sure it’s rare, but so is my income level at my age ;) .

    What about if you were mentoring someone like me?

    A 32 yr old guy with basic lifting (consistent the last 6 years) and a past collegiate athlete (heavyweight rower at UC Berkeley) who loves nutrition and has a general fascination with optimizing performance for anything (tech, health, etc).

    What path would you recommend?

    I’d really like to know your thoughts. If the standard income level for something you recommend is much lower than $125k/year – no problem I’m sure I can supplement it if need be.

    Thanks again

    -Tom

  • Eric

    Hello Eric,

    I am currently pursuing an Exercise Sports Science major with a concentration in Pre PT, and I want to become a physical therapist. Realistically, I know the field is highly competitive and I’m worried that I won’t be able to get into graduate school. I without a doubt want to go to graduate school, even if I’m unable to do physical therapy. So my question is, what other options do you recommend for me regarding graduate school if I am unable to pursue physical therapy?

  • http://ericcressey.com Eric Cressey

    Eric,

    You could do a master’s in athletic training or look at a PTA option.

  • amigo2020

    this article is so Funny, i guess everyone here started to read about this weird degree (Kinesiology or exercise science)…. an advice from me to you guys try switch out from this unknown degree that well not get any where. Try to study something like Engineer, Accounting,MBA, Science teacher….etc

    Even Though with the economy we have its really hard to find a job …. but stick to something known

    You mention ATC and Phys
    again its really hard to find a job in ATC and if you do its really competitive

    Phys…. its reallly reallly hard to get in this program you need a high GPA and its crazyy competitive (limited seats)…

    its really sad … we had do so many science class like 3 phys (meach, Elec, waves, and three math CAl 1 and cal 2 a and linera algbera, 2 general chemisrty 1 and 2…

    when you started this program you will not use any of these classes ….

    you will end up studying anatomy,physiology and rehab classes …

    this degree is not even considered as professional practitioner like phys or even message therapy!!! read about it and you will see.

    Bottom line now … if you decided to stick to this degree make sure you have good grades so you can pursue a master in pyhsio later on.

    if you cant do physio so these are the options:
    (1) make sure to do as much certificates as you can like CSCS,PTS,FMS Level 1 and 2,nutrition certificate, Biosignature certificate,Fascia stretching level 1 and 2 (Good certificate, Darby Certification…. and make sure you do message therapy (all kind if you can)
    you will end up makin more money in message therapy than exercise science

    You don’t need to do all these certificate but it will you help A LOT to find a job

  • Israel Branford

    Eric Cressey, my name is Israel. I really needed your advice because you were in my shoes. I’m at a crossroads in my career. I got my undergraduate degree in Exercise Science, and I currently work at Gold’s Gym. I also work at a Physical Therapy clinic as a tech. I really enjoy this field, but I’m unsure of what to do next. I love teaching people, but I’m not to fond of selling. Unsure if I want to put myself in the hole with more education. I actually came out of school with small amounts of debt, and I want to keep it that way.

  • http://ericcressey.com Eric Cressey

    Israel,

    It’s really impossible to say, as only YOU know what you enjoy doing.  If you don’t know yet, then volunteer in a few different realms and see which is something you can see yourself doing for years to come.

  • Israel Branford

    Eric, do you know of any opportunities for volunteering or interning? Do you have any positions available?

  • http://ericcressey.com Eric Cressey
  • Israel Branford

    Eric, I think you’re amazing. I read your blogs and articles, and I can see myself doing that as well. I find what you have to say fascinating. I’m currently studying for my CSCS certification. When did you figure out what you wanted to do? What age were you? I am also applying to Physical Therapy School. This road has been so tough, and I still have a long way to go, but thank God for you, I have some hope. Thanks a lot.

  • Jeff

    Hi Eric,

    I’m currently 3 quarters through my masters of science in Kinesiology and looking to make a career move here in Canada. This is an online course that I started while teaching ESL in Korea. I figured that I needed the credentials of a Masters as my undergrad was in His/Geo. Anyways I know its not ideal as there is no hands on. What would you recommend for me to do now that I am back in Canada, intern at strength and conditioning facility?

  • http://ericcressey.com Eric Cressey

    Jeff,

    You’re never going to regress from taking on an internship!

  • Scott B

    Hi Eric,
    First off, thanks for the great articles and taking time to answer all of our questions! A two year old blog post still gathering comments speaks volumes to the issues you raised. Like some of your readers, I am in that late 30’s/early 40’s category of career transfers in to fitness with no college degree. I have 6 years of previous corporate training experience for Whole Foods that transfers well in to the health field and am also engaged to a Physical Therapist. I also should be a NASM CPT by the end of the month. I would love to have a training business that primarily helps my fiancee’s patients with rehab and after reading your articles, I am caught between just becoming a Physical Therapy Assistant or a Personal Trainer with certificates that would aide my knowledge. Does it make sense to battle the General ED classes at a Junior College, enroll in a PTA program, and be patient for 3 years or to continue my personal training certification & education with some of the resources you recommended? Thanks for any advice!!!
    Scott

  • http://ericcressey.com Eric Cressey

    Scott,

    It’s your call, but if you’re looking to be a rehab extender, you shouldn’t need a PTA program.  I’d probably stay the course with self education and use your wife’s expertise as a resource that allows you to expand your skillset in different, complementary ways.

  • Omar

    Hi Eric,

    Thanks for the article. I want to know your opinion about the nutrition RD route. I am a trainer working for a gym for the last 4 years,and I’m completing my first two years of prerequisites.I was planning to finish the exercise science degree but after reading some post here I don’t think its worth it. I love the nutrition aspect of training, and I am thinking of changing to that major and then get my CSCS. Would that be a good option? Thanks in advance.

  • http://ericcressey.com Eric Cressey

    Omar,

    That could definitely be a great approach, as it won’t hurt to move EXS to a minor. You’d still be able to train people as long as you’re certified, and we all know it’s what you do to continue to be educated once you’re in the field that matters.

  • Anthony Waggoner

    Hello Mr. Cressey,

    You had me completely convinced, and I was extremely backing you with regards to your education and knowledge, until you said the statement, “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.”

    I am a current student at CSU, Chico, and am Exercise Physiology Major. One doesn’t simply “do” a physical therapy degree. It is typically a three-year doctorates program. There is a distinct differentiation between an ATC and a DPT licensure.

    Best of luck to you and others in their future,
    Anthony Waggoner

  • http://ericcressey.com Eric Cressey

    Anthony,

    I’m aware of that. Did I imply something else? Sorry if it was unclear.

  • Denise

    Hello Eric,
    Couple quick questions of you. Looking to become an Exercise Therapist once all said and done. First step towards this goal is to become a certified trainer through ACSM and then self study therapeutic exercises for: pain control,flexibility, balance and the like. Wondering can I enter into ET without having an DPT,PTA, EXS or Kinesiology degree?

    The second question I have is that I have a degree in Business Admin, would go back to school to receive a PTA etc…but the cost is far out reach for me unfortunately. With having a admin along with ASCM cert will this not be good enough to make it very far with what I’m trying to accomplish?

    Let me know your thoughts when you have the time/chance.

    Thank you Eric

    Denise

  • Paul Learmonth

    Hi Eric

    Do you know about the differences in the Australian system? I believe were in a similar system. My issue is, I’d like to travel to America and work with my Australian qualification.

    I’ve completed our Personal Trainer qualification (certificate III/IV in fitness).
    My grades in high school weren’t great so I’m in an exercise science first year degree now (with excellent results). The options for me going forward in Aus. seem to be some sort of science undergrad with a masters in Osteopathy or Physiotherapy, or continue in exercise physiology (science) and come out in the same boat I’m in now. However, here we can bill insurance (some) for exercise physiology sessions too. I’m still leaning towards Osteopathy, however ( a big however), here it’s just Manual treatment and not a medicine qualification so it isn’t really recognised in USA as far as I can see.

    What’s your thoughts?

  • kari

    Eric Thank you got the article. I was pursuing a degree in exercise science upon more research exercise physiology kept coming up can you explain the difference? Also if I were to complete my bachelors in exercise science would I still be able to get into a pt school?

  • http://ericcressey.com Eric Cressey

    Kari,

    I would say that exercise physiology would be more clinical in nature. Cardiac and pulmonary rehab come to mind, if that makes sense?

    Yes, I know a lot of people who have done EXS and then gone on to PT school.

  • http://ericcressey.com Eric Cressey

    Denise,

    You should be able to do so without a degree, but I’d inquire to ACSM to be sure.

    I don’t think the lack of a PTA degree would be a problem, but again, there is no way to no for sure. I’d say to try applying to positions and see how it goes!

  • Denise

    Hello Eric,
    Thank you for your response, and will take your advice. :)

  • Anthony

    Eric,

    Seeing as this article is nearly three years old now, I was wondering if you have any updates to your list of resources for self teaching?

    Thanks,

    Anthony

  • http://ericcressey.com Eric Cressey

    Hi Anthony,

    Yes, I keep a running list at http://www.ericcressey.com/resources.

  • http://www.jmcustomfitness.com Jordan Moorhead

    Great article. I’m currently finishing my Bachelors in Marketing and taking prerequisites for a masters in EXS. Glad to see that is something you might recommend Eric!

  • Riley

    I think an important point to mention around graduate degrees is how students will learn to read, interpret, and criticize the scientific literature. Until you have done research and have hands on experience with the challenges involved it is much more difficult to understand the strengths and limitations of any particular study. While I agree that graduate school isn’t for everyone, this is one benefit that is tough to gain any other way.

  • Chris

    Can you explain more about how your friends became exercise physiologists at NASA? I am still contemplating whether or not I want to continue on to graduate school? Thanks


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