How to balance doing a PhD and being a student athlete

TASS National Lead for Research, Emma Vickers, in action as an athlete (Credit: Table Tennis England)

British Psychological Society PhD Award winner. Former international table tennis player. Performance lifestyle practitioner. When it comes to juggling a dual career, Dr Emma Vickers certainly practices what she preaches.

Now, as she takes on a new role as TASS’s National Lead for Research, the expert in student athlete transitions reflects on her personal experiences of undertaking a PhD whilst competing for England in her sport.

Here are Emma’s tips on how to balance the unique pressures of postgraduate research with the demands of being a talented athlete…

1) Doing a PhD can be a lonely experience, surround yourself with a support network.

Doing a PhD can sometimes feel isolating. You may spend a large amount of time on your own, reading and writing. If you have a long day of working on your own, training in a group session can help you feel more connected with the world again and take your mind off your research. It’s a good idea to make sure your entire support network is aware of the demands of a PhD and the current challenges you are facing. Spending time with other PhD students is also key as you can share common challenges.

2) You need to be even stricter with your time than in your previous degrees.

During your undergraduate or master degrees you may have had lectures and seminars, however, much of your time doing a PhD will be independent study and it is down to you to structure how you spend your day. It could be a traditional 9 to 5 schedule, or you might prefer to fit your work around your training commitments. Never start a day with a blank mind and always make sure you have tasks set out the day before, as it can be very easy to spend a lot of time procrastinating and not making any progress. A ‘to do’ list does wonders!

3) Find great supervisors that not only challenge you academically, but understand and support your sporting commitments.

As an athlete, you spend a lot time travelling, and therefore may be away from your office or your university regularly. Having a supervisor who not only pushes you to do the best research you can, but also has an understanding that you will be doing work on the move and may need to be flexible when you have your supervisory meetings is ideal.

4) Challenge yourself by presenting at conferences and taking on other opportunities.

Many conferences run over a number of week days or on weekends, and you may need to miss training or competitions. However, in the long run, by challenging yourself at these events will better prepare you to defend your viva as you will feel comfortable speaking about your research in front of people. You may also have opportunities to take on extra work that come alongside the PhD, such as teaching. As an athlete, you may have had limited time to pursue vocational work, and so this is a good opportunity to get some experience.

5) The final few months will be stressful and may interrupt with your training.

Prepare for the final period of your PhD as you may find yourself working extremely long hours perfecting your final write up. This experience is nothing like your undergrad or masters! This may interfere with your training or competition schedule, as you may not anticipate the amount of hours you need to put in for your final submission and your viva. Make sure that your athlete support team are aware of this as you may need to adjust your schedule in this period, or avoid this period clashing with major events.

6) Try to avoid working too late at night.

Having to fit in training commitments is a demand that many PhD students don’t have to cope with, and you may find yourself working late to compensate. However, this can make you tired for the following day and interrupt how productive you are with both training and PhD work. The last thing you want to do is to be worrying about your research during the night and struggling to sleep. Try to focus on getting early nights and starting the day bright and early!

7) Motivation for both your PhD and sport may fluctuate.

You will experience times when you don’t feel that you can manage the demands of both your sport and PhD together, and you will most certainly have times when you question why you are doing either! Keep your goals in mind, imagine that elusive graduation moment or major competition win, and don’t be afraid to take a few days away from each if you feel you are stuck in a rut.