“We’re all mad here “The Chesire Cat, Alice in Wonderland
To anyone who asked me during my studies, if I would recommend doing a PhD alongside working in sport, my answer was always “DON’T“. It’s been almost a year since I submitted my thesis; a lot of the time I still stand by that answer.
Having completed it though, and the “I can’t do this anymore!” total breakdown conversations to my parents a thing of the past, I am glad I did it.
I’ve had a go at writing some of my realties and learnings of doing a PhD whilst working. If you’ve done one/doing one, you might relate to this. If you are thinking about doing one, it might help you make a decision, or at least know what you are letting yourself in for.
First up, working 6-7 days a week, any number of hours, and days off being cancelled at the last minute, is not conducive to a fresh thinking researcher. Can you honestly tell me that when you get home after your 100mph back to back to back days, you’ll be in the right head space to study? To open your laptop for a few hours (more) and analyse data on the athletes you spend most of your life with? Or read research about practices you do every day? Or try to write scientific reasons for the chaotic madness that is your sport? Because lets face it, it is very unlikely you’ll have the time to research something that isn’t directly related to the job you do.
This also stands if you don’t work full time in sport/don’t get paid a full time wage and your PhD isn’t funded. This was me for the first two years. At one point I was working in a conference centre 7am-2pm then working at a football club 3pm-7pm. I had to do this in order to pay the bills and fund my research (that I never had time for). At the weekends I would go into Uni for a few hours, before going to work at a hotel. This is not maintainable. I wouldn’t have got a GCSE out of the work I was producing and I was a total mess.
Then, because of your job(s), your research has to be in your free time. Can you deal with the guilt you feel if you spend your free time doing anything but studying? You are three years deep with not a chapter to show for it yet. Anyone who is funding you is starting to ask questions, even your supervisor, who usually takes months to reply, has emailed three times this week asking for your latest draft. Can you really afford to spend your half a day off this week having a few drinks with your mates?
And what about the emotions that come with it? Trying to get your chapters published is a rollercoaster on its own. Nothing is more heartbreaking than reading the comments of the third reviewer, viciously pointing out every limitation, not a care for the innate difficulties of applied research. You have to spend even more time, not progressing with your PhD but explaining your one chapter so far to anonymous strangers. “A sample size of 25 is not enough” Hey man, tell the Premier League, it’s not my fault that is our squad size. “Using two different monitoring tools across training and matches is not scientifically sound and creates error”. Yea, I know, I’ve done my best, but have you tried asking a group of players who have never done it before to wear a GPS unit during an important fixture? Did you know they will blame the unit if they lose?
At this point I printed off my paper, just so I could dramatically rip it up and throw it away.
If you’ve got this far (I don’t actually know if anyone reads this far into my posts), and you still think doing a PhD appeals to you then maybe you should do one. It at least means its beyond a “yea, that might be a good thing to do” thought.
Like I said at the start, I don’t regret doing it, so whilst it wasn’t easy, I feel like it added more than it took.
I finished my undergrad wanting to learn more. I wanted to know how to be the best sport scientist. I graduated alongside 250 other sport scientists just at my uni. I wanted to stand out. I am very academic and not very practical. For me, at that time in my life, doing a PhD was a great idea.
Because of my research, I was constantly asking “Yea but why?” or “How do you measure that, how do you know?” and that in turn, made me a better practitioner. I always want to find answers or solutions, have a purpose or rationale for everything. That is a skill I have learnt over the last few years.
I got to extend the best parts of uni beyond three years 🍷💃. The friends I made will always be a big part of my life and who I am now. Not only that but it’s different at PhD level, everyone is there because they are passionate about their work. It means I got to meet people with the most unbelievable minds and experiences.
Also, I got to spend years becoming a complete nerd in sport science and football, which was my dream 🤓. No one knows more about my research than me (the general field yes, but my research, no).
And finally, I made it through a pretty tough journey. The sense of achievement that comes with that is invaluable. I’ve learnt that I am stubborn, resilient and a problem solver. I like that. That I am passionate about what I do, and that I love learning. The reason why I opened my laptop after work and used my free time to study is because I believe in what I do, and even now, I am interested in it. When anything else in my life goes tits up, I always have that.
So yea, you have to be pretty mad to do a PhD. Do it.