For generations, there was really only one career option for anyone with a life science PhD, and that was academic research. PhDs were openly discouraged from leaving university labs to enter the pharmaceutical industry or to pursue “alternative careers” as Medical Science Liaisons or Life Science Consultants, for example. Luckily, this dogmatic mode of thinking has begun to change and now universities provide opportunities for students to supplement their scientific training with courses, internships, and experiences that will make them competitive for careers outside of the lab.
Alternative careers for life science PhDs tend to combine field-specific knowledge with more translatable skills such as the ability to critically analyze peer-reviewed research or effectively communicate dense scientific topics. Thus, it is surprising that the health and fitness space, an industry based on human physiology and biochemistry, has yet to make a strong push for the presence of life science PhDs.
The need for a branch of health and fitness labeled as “evidence-based” says it all, namely because of what lies outside this category. For example, commercially available weight training programs and nutrition regimens usually have little to no scientific validity, often promote incorrect ideologies about health, especially concerning fat loss, and can even be detrimental to one’s overall health goals. Practices and traditions based on hearsay and solely anecdotal evidence have dominated nutrition and fitness for decades, with little attention paid to peer-reviewed research. That said, anecdotal evidence can be invaluable when used to further validate scientific findings and make research accessible to the general public. This is a concept that founders of Mind Pump Media Sal Di Stefano, Adam Schafer, and Justin Andrews understand well and employ to provide credible nutrition and fitness advice to their followers. Mind Pump Media is health and fitness enterprise that consists of a podcast, YouTube channel, website, and various other resources that promote evidence-based fitness, nutrition, and overall health.
With over 50 years of fitness and nutrition training experience between them, Sal, Adam, and Justin are highly integrated into this space and are fully aware of the pseudoscience that taints it, but also recognize that with the spread of misinformation comes a rare opportunity to educate. This is where Ph.D.s come in. Mind Pump does a great job at providing evidence-based information, but they can’t do it alone. There is an entire industry in need of individuals well-versed in reading scientific literature, identifying necessary controls, interpreting results, and making generalizable, yet accurate, conclusions. Regardless of research background, these are the skills that we’ve consciously, or unconsciously, developed through our training as PhD students, and what better way to use them than to help people understand their bodies and take health into their own hands.
Feasibility: Is this a sustainable career option?
The current state of the field suggests that health and fitness is quickly realizing the short and long-term value of PhDs, which is particularly important in a market that fluctuates with the latest fitness trends. In an interview with Mind Pump, Sal Di Stefano said, “When running my health and wellness clinic, I found a large, and increasing, demand for high end, specialized health and fitness.” This “specialized” form of health and fitness requires greater knowledge of biological and scientific processes, and provides a perfect opportunity for PhDs to leverage their advanced training.
PhDs in health and fitness is an emerging career path, but once established, seems to be one that will serve as an alternative career for PhDs for quite some time. “The health and fitness space is growing, and I believe it will continue to grow with the aging of our population,” says Sal. “Many people will be entering the nutrition and fitness space not necessarily to improve aesthetics, but to improve their overall health.” With this, field-specific knowledge on neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s will become more important. There will be an ever-increasing need for evidence-based health principles in the general public, and job security for those who are able to communicate and help employ these principles.
How do I prepare for a career in health and fitness?
As a PhD student., I would say that fine tuning your ability to read and interpret data from across fields will be most important. For example, if your research project is about cancer migration, make sure you can also critically read a research paper about HIV-1 infection or obesity. Simply, diversify your scientific knowledge base. A broad knowledge base will allow you to enter any branch of health and fitness, even if it isn’t necessarily your wheelhouse.
Also, I would brush up on your biochemistry knowledge and become familiar with the biological mechanisms behind and treatments for some of the most common ailments the plague our population. Some of these include obesity, diabetes, cancer, neurodegenerative disease, and sexually transmitted diseases.
Lastly, you can start practicing now by leveraging social media as a platform to market yourself as a PhD scientist. Social media outlets such as Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn are good for this, but also consider writing for a blog or shooting videos on YouTube. No matter your intended field, displaying your competency as a trained scientist will be essential.