The Uncertainty of an Exercise Science Degree

TAGS: strength and conditioning profession, So You Really Wanna Be an Exercise Science Student?, networking, internships, Brandon Smitley, training athletes, personal training

I often get messages from undergraduate students asking me what to expect when going into exercise science (or a related field). They come to me looking for advice and wisdom so that they don't make the mistakes I made in undergraduate and graduate school. Teammate Joe Schillero wrote an excellent article that I think all students in the field really need to read. I won't focus on what Joe discussed. Instead, I'll discuss the aftermath of going through a program and some of the things you might encounter.

A few years ago, I finished up my bachelor’s degree from Purdue University in health and fitness. I performed internships and clinicals, took extra classes, worked as a personal trainer at the recreational center, and competed in bodybuilding competitions. I thought I was well rounded after graduating in December 2011 and thought, “Sweet! Let’s go get a job, make some money, and love what I do!”

Man, was I flipping wrong! I went all spring semester without finding a job. I was still working at the rec center and just finding ways to finish off my lease. Without much to do, I took an internship down in North Carolina for the summer of 2012. I won't say that this was the best internship, but I learned how to work with minimal equipment, put in long hours, network, and develop my training philosophy. I was still looking for jobs but couldn’t get any bites.

joe and brandon exercise science 070114

After my internship, I headed back home to live with my parents where I started working part-time at a gym. The money was hardly worth it, but I enjoyed the few kids and clients I worked with and I helped change lives. I was still bumming off mom and dad and submitting applications and resumes on a daily basis. I finally got sick of searching and told myself that I needed to be more desirable, so I applied for my master’s at Indiana State University. The university was close to where I lived with my parents, had a good physical education program, and I could still work. I applied that fall and started classes in the spring. While on campus and talking with my adviser, I met with the head strength coach, David McMannus. I asked if he had any room for volunteer interns for 15–20 hours per week. He openly accepted me to be in the room all spring. With school and interning, I dropped my part-time job with a few months to go.

In the meantime, I searched for summer internships nearby or those that required only a two-hour round-trip commute. I reached out to Wil Fleming, an outstanding weightlifter, strength coach, and business owner. I interviewed for an internship with him and his staff and was offered a position. While interning for Wil, I worked full-time at Lowe’s to pay for the gas I was using to drive 100 miles a day. I was still bumming off my parents for a roof and some grub. Reaching out to Wil was one of the best things that I ever did. It really helped my growth as a coach and grabbed my interest to open my own facility some day.

After interning for Wil that summer, I went back to finish my graduate work while taking a graduate assistant position. This was the only time when I didn’t do any work that was fitness related. However, my graduate assistant work gave me good managerial experience. Finally, in May 2014, I finished my coursework with the exception of an independent study due by August.

So here I am now…in the same position that I was in two years prior. I’m still pushing resumes and job applications while training a few clients from my parents’ garage, attending seminars, and working with a few online clients and Purdue Barbell. That is my journey in “exercise science.”

I’m here to tell you that this field, while growing, still has many flaws in its infrastructure. Strength and conditioning jobs are a revolving door and oversaturated with young professionals trying to break in. Personal training jobs tend to be part-time and with lousy pay while companies use your revenue to pay the bills. People are just flat out lazy and don’t want to exercise or already think they know everything about training. Personal training only requires a simple certification and $500 (making you fairly replaceable). If you get lucky, you might find a private facility and become an independent contractor, but this is hard and usually requires knowing people. You're also left to bring in clients.

brandon smitley exercise science client 070114

I’m not trying to be harsh—just merely lay down the simple facts of the field. This field is hard and, if anyone tells you otherwise, he's full of shit. It isn't like nursing, engineering, or teaching. All your experience has to come on your own from internships (99 percent of which don’t pay). If you aren’t self-educating and training, you'll have a long road. It’s almost required to have a graduate degree and certifications to make it through the first cut of resumes. If you do have these, many see you as “overqualified” because they don’t want to bring in someone who may know more than they do. This is a very ego-driven profession, and people don’t want to share their so-called secrets or have someone knock them down a few pegs and teach them something.

If I were to go back and do it all over again, I would get a minor in business, marketing, administration, or writing/communication. Why? If you understand the business side, you'll likely stand a better chance at getting your name out and building more clients. If you go with the communication side, you can easily write and do speaking engagements or social media (and be qualified).

You have to be incredibly dedicated and truly want and love this profession if you want to make it. If you think an interest in "working out" and getting a degree while partying are enough, you’ll never make it in this field. It’s ruthless, it’s hard, and it’s all about networking and marketing.

While I’m not having the easiest time finding a job, I do love what I do as well as those I’ve had the pleasure of working with. It’s all a matter of patience and consistency and doing the intangibles that others can’t see to build character and value. When I do find a job, I sure as hell will have experiences to share in an interview that most can’t.

For those of you who are undergraduates in the field, I wish you the best of luck. Please don’t hesitate to reach out to me on the Q&A for any guidance. I’ll do whatever I can so that you aren’t stuck in my shoes at the end of the day.

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