Why Athletics Resembles Academia

Today it’s four years exactly since my first blogpost appeared. Four years of having fun writing about different sorts of things: academic life, committee work and membership, the issues facing women and the joys and frustrations of working at disciplinary interfaces. I have been encouraged by the comments I receive in person, on Twitter and in formal responses on my blog. It makes me feel I am not simply talking to myself but reaching out to different communities and individuals whom I may never meet.

However, today, in celebration of my fourth anniversary, I am going to write about something completely different: athletics. It isn’t something I usually broadcast that I have a penchant for athletics; watching that is, not participating. (The nearest I got to the latter was when I was a girl guide and took part in some local inter-troop meet aged about 12.) This summer the TV has covered both the Commonwealth Games and the European Athletics Championship and there has been plenty to enjoy (including a good smattering of medals). The reason I want to write about the topic here is that it seems to me that if you think about an athlete’s career it has striking similarities to an aspiring academic’s.

In either arena first you take up something simply because you love it and it satisfies something inside you. Then you start getting serious and realise to be any good you’ve got to work really hard at it and it begins to take over your life. For the athlete this extends to diet as well as the training itself, probably a lot of travel and, to start with, little coming back by way of reward. Then you become noticed and begin to be recognized nationally because you start winning. At this point, if you are lucky, you may get some funding to keep you afloat, but it’s amazing how many individuals seem to live on thin air, family savings and part-time jobs. The lottery funding doesn’t extend by any means to all those who would like to devote themselves to the sport. Even if you get funding one year, there is absolutely no guarantee you will get it the next. Sacrifices have to be made.

Few people can win the medals and, without these you aren’t particularly likely to get signed up for big sponsorship deals. For every Jessica Ennis (-Hill)  advertising Santander there are hundreds who started at the bottom of this ladder but didn’t reach very far up it. Many will have had to give up their dreams without fulfilling them. Others may have had the potential to go far but their careers were destroyed by injury or illness. Others perhaps did not have the right psychological mind-set to turn their talent into winning ways. Or simply that luck was not with them: they didn’t find the right coach, or there wasn’t a suitable track close enough to make their parents willing to act as chauffeur week in week out. There are so many things to derail the talent that in other circumstances might have thrived.

Does this all sound reminiscent of the academic ladder? The precise challenges may be different: a pulled hamstring is unlikely to jeopardise an academic career, and the critical decision points are typically rather earlier for an athlete, but the sharpness of the pyramid, the many who start who can’t possibly attain their dream goal of Olympic gold/faculty position are rather similar and the element of luck and circumstances beyond one’s control also have close parallels in the two career trajectories. I think it’s worth remembering this because often academia is singled out as a career which is uniquely good at encouraging people at the start and then spitting them out half way along. However to my mind it really is not alone in doing this, there are many equally tough careers to choose. For instance you could argue that the law also only sees a tiny number of graduates make it all the way to judge or QC, but that doesn’t mean that those who instead become a conveyancing solicitor or helping out part-time at the Citizens’ Advice Bureau aren’t doing valuable and satisfying work. Likewise I think there are many ways in which a science training can be used to great advantage without that implying necessarily clinging to the academic ladder. Working outside academic science does not equate to failure, yet that equation is often made both by those inside and those who feel forced out.

Homily over. To return to the European Athletics Championship, where one of the big stories was the gold won by Jo Pavey. Newspapers everywhere referred both to her age – 40 – and that she was a mother of two when she won the 10,000m race. Unlike the ‘Oxford housewife wins Nobel’ headline  referring to Dorothy Hodgkin in 1964, I felt the headline for Jo Pavey was appropriate because her age and maternal status are relevant to her athletics ability whereas Hodgkin’s domesticity was totally irrelevant to the science she did. That a woman of Pavey’s age could still beat everyone else in a 10k race, and less than a year after giving birth to her second child at that (when most of us would still be struggling with exhaustion and the weight gain associated with child-bearing, as I remember only too well) will have been an inspiring message for many, whether elite athlete or just plain Saturday jogger. The headlines may not sit comfortably with the Finkbeiner test (developed in the context of female scientists), but I do believe they are justified.

But spot the analogy again. Female athletes have to try to work out how to fit childbirth into their careers. Should they put it off until their competitive days are over, or gamble on being able to get back to full fitness in time for one of the major championships? 2012 Olympic Heptathlon Champion Jessica Ennis-Hill is currently away from the sport having recently given birth, timing it so that she should nevertheless be able to compete in Rio in 2016 – it’s still a risk but one she was prepared to take. Many women equally fear taking time away from the bench yet the changes consequent on childbirth I would hazard are less likely to impact directly on a scientist’s career than on an athlete’s: loss of muscle tone isn’t an issue, for instance.

Not achieving what one has set one’s heart on and devoted much of one’s early life to is clearly heart-breaking in whatever field of endeavour. But academia is not the only career full of obstacles and challenges, it is just one of many where the rewards are great if talent and luck happily combine – but too often they don’t. It behoves all of us senior scientists to do what we can to ensure that talent is supported wherever it is found and that constructive careers advice is always available to students whose paths cross our own. If everyone offered this support, never used younger scientists as expendable bench-monkeys and did their best to point out appropriate opportunities (within academia and outside) perhaps there would be less ill-feeling about the pyramidal career structure that exists. At the moment the sense of injustice can feel very painful for many who set out with such high hopes; that is a tragedy.


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7 Responses to Why Athletics Resembles Academia

  1. GMP says:


    Also hilariously discussed by CPP on DrugMonkey blog in 2008.

    Scientopia is down at the moment, but the wordpress version of the same post can be found here.

  2. Joseph Conlon says:

    I like the analogy, the more so as it applies in a different place: exams. Performing well in exams has a lot of similarity to performing well in an athletic event. I am thinking a bit about marathons here, but I think the analogy goes beyond that. It is about bringing many months of prior study (training) together to peak over a period of three or so hours. If you have not learned the subject assiduously over a long period leading up to the event, two or three days of last minute training\cramming will not help. Good sleep the night before helps. Last minute illnesses can derail everything. Specificity of training is beneficial, whether it is sitting down to do a past paper with no notes for the exact exam time, or running ten miles at the exact pace you plan to run a marathon at.

    And finally, there is the on-the-day variability. Performance correlates well with the combination of talent and effort invested, but it is still possible to have an unexpected shocker and know there is no going back to the start line.

    As a research scientist I have always missed exams, and the days when the knowledge needed was known to be contained in a nicely circumscribed syllabus. It was a time when the scientific world was a simpler, easier and more innocent place, focused on NST Part IA IB II and Maths Part III exams 🙂

  3. rs says:

    The only difference is that in athletics, you sort it out who can go higher in high school leaving chance to pursue something else, however, it academia this happens in 30s and 40s when people have invested half of their life. Academia is actually more cruel than athletics.

    • Laura says:

      Except that

      1) Adults go into academia, beginning PhD studies in their mid-20’s or later,. As such they have maturity and responsibility to manage their career paths (as do adults outside academia). Athletes “choose” athletics when they are barely in their teens, an age at which people are not considered responsible enough to make significant life choices.

      2) A commitment to athletics interrupts years associated with core schooling, as well as social and emotional development. Some athletes do fine, of course, but others are left deficient in basic competencies.

  4. tom schuller says:

    Interesting analogy. but there is at least one big difference: most scientists won’t peak as early as most athletes, so for the latter there is much more of a question of what they move on to. I interviewed the Olympic gold medallist David Hemery, and he was interesting on the need for athletes to concentrate hard on what they are doing, but to be able to prepare for life afterwards. It’s an issue both for those who succeed and those who don’t – maybe even more so for the former.

  5. Fred says:

    My life is running totally out of control at the moment due to flirting with an academic career for too long. I got into science because it genuinely fascinated me, but it’s also warped my perspectives to the point that I don’t recognise myself anymore. I’m fearful that I’ve ruined my life through an inability to ask for help

  6. Ursula Martin says:

    In his book “Masters of Theory: Cambridge and the Rise of Mathematical Physics”, http://www.amazon.co.uk/Masters-Theory-Cambridge-Mathematical-Physics/dp/0226873757 , Andrew Warwick looks at the history of mathematics education in Cambridge in the first half of the nineteenth century, among other things drawing attention to the fiercely competitive nature of the examinations, the emergence of a tradition of sport and exercise to build stamina, and hence the belief that a certain kind of physical strength and “manliness” was necessary to be a successful mathematician. It is a long book, but very readable.

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