Exercise Science Graduate Programs: Master's Degree, PhD & Online Degree Info

About this article
Master's and PhD programs in exercise science can lead to careers in academia or private business. Get the truth about the requirements, courses and online options, and find out what you can do with your degree.
View available schools

Study Exercise Science: Degrees at a Glance

A graduate program in exercise science can prepare you for several careers in the health and fitness industries. Not all of these careers require a graduate degree, and some have additional certification or licensing requirements. As an exercise science professional, you might work one-on-one with individuals or coordinate programs for larger groups. While on the job, you must be aware of your clients' well-being, ensuring they are not over-stressing themselves and are performing exercises correctly.

Many jobs related to exercise science were projected to see an employment increase in upcoming years. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), athletic trainers could see employment opportunities grow 30% from 2010-2020, which is much faster than the average for all occupations; however, this is a small career field, which limits the total number of openings created. If you're interested in high-level research or teaching at a university, you might consider becoming a postsecondary teacher. The BLS reported that postsecondary teachers could expect to see employment grow 17% over the same time period.

Master's PhD
Who is this degree for? Individuals interested in working in the fitness industry, either in a personal setting or directing others Individuals who want to pursue research and/or teach at the university-level
Common Career Paths (with approximate annual salary) - Athletic trainer ($42,000)*
- Fitness trainer and aerobics instructor ($31,000)*
- Wellness coordinator ($28,000-$57,000)**
- Fitness specialist ($23,000-$47,000)**
- Exercise physiologist ($29,000-$54,000)**
(In addition to the careers available to master's degree holders)
- Postsecondary teacher, other ($64,000)*
Time to Completion 2 years, full time 4-6 years, full time
Common Graduation Requirements - Around 30 semester hours of coursework
- Thesis or project
- Advanced coursework
- Student teaching
- Comprehensive exams
- Doctoral dissertation and defense
Prerequisites - Bachelor's degree
- GRE scores
- Bachelor's or master's degree
- GRE scores
Online Availability Yes No

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (May 2012 figures, median salary), **PayScale (December 2012 figures, 10th-90th percentile)

Master's Program

Master's degree programs in exercise science typically award a Master of Science. In some cases, these programs cover nutrition science or health promotion. Concentrations might be available in areas such as performance enhancement and sport psychology.

Pros and Cons


  • Can prepare you for most entry-level positions in exercise science
  • Concentrations might be available in specific areas within exercise science
  • Might prepare you for professional certification exams
  • Might offer thesis and non-thesis options


  • Might not be necessary for some positions in exercise science; for example, graduates might compete with bachelor's degree holders for trainer or coach positions
  • Might require the completion of prerequisite coursework prior to being admitted
  • Might not prepare you for an academic career in research and/or teaching

Coursework and Requirements

In addition to exercise science courses, these programs typically include a course in research design and data analysis. You also might need to meet additional requirements, including attending seminars and completing a project or thesis. Some of the topics you might study include:

  • Exercise and nutrition strategies
  • Exercise and sports nutrition
  • Nutritional biochemistry
  • Advanced nutrition science
  • Exercise bioenergetics

Online Programs

Online master's programs in exercise science typically deliver lectures through streaming video and might include PowerPoint presentations and online discussions. Since these programs do not have a clinical component, you might already need to be a working professional so that you can complete labs at your workplace.

How to Get Ahead with This Degree

To set yourself apart from others, you might consider specializing in an area of exercise science, such as orthopedics. This might involve completing an internship, which can help familiarize you with exercise or treatment equipment used in your specialty area. Being certified as an athletic trainer and in CPR also might be requirements for some positions.

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) Programs

If you plan on pursuing a research career in exercise science, you'll likely need a PhD. PhD programs typically include extensive research requirements. Similar to master's programs, concentrations are available at this level. Within these concentrations, you'll generally select an even narrower frame on which to focus your doctoral research. Doctoral programs can be lengthy time commitments, and earning this degree is not required for many careers in exercise science. Credits from a master's degree can sometimes be applied toward completion of these programs.

Pros and Cons


  • Can prepare you for teaching and research positions at the university level
  • Credits from a master's program may be transferable to these programs
  • Concentrations within exercise science are offered


  • Programs can be lengthy
  • May be overqualified for positions outside of academia
  • Must meet residency and extensive research requirements

Coursework and Requirements

PhD programs typically include coursework in research and experimental design. Aside from your coursework, you'll have responsibilities that may include student teaching and attending research seminars. The capstone requirement is the completion and defense of your doctoral dissertation. Topics you might study include:

  • Applied statistics
  • Graduate physiology
  • Molecular cell biology
  • Exercise physiology
  • Motor control

Online Programs

Online PhD programs in exercise science are rare. This is likely due to the significant research requirements. If you find a program, you should review it to ensure that it's properly accredited and can lead you on the right career track.

How to Get Ahead with This Degree

To make yourself more marketable, you might consider pursuing research in an area that can be applied across exercise science, such as aging and chronic disease. You also might consider focusing your research on a specific population, such as the elderly or children. While in school, you should take advantage of courses that cover the technology used in research and experimentation. Similar to a master's degree holder, you might want to pursue professional certifications.

Popular Schools

Featured Schools

Northcentral University

  • Ed.D. - Sports Management
  • PhD in Education - Sports Management

What is your highest level of education?

Trident University

  • Health Sciences (Ph.D.)

What is your highest level of education completed?

Regent University

  • Doctor of Strategic Leadership - Healthcare Leadership

What is your highest level of education completed?

University of Toledo

University of North Carolina at Greensboro