Study Physical Education: Master's Degree, PhD & Online Training Info

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What will you learn in a graduate physical education program? Read about degree requirements, the pros and cons of a master's and doctoral degree and potential careers.
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Physical Education Master's and Doctoral Degrees at a Glance

Depending on the state you wish to teach in, a graduate degree in physical education might be necessary. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), some states require kindergarten through high school teachers to earn a master's degree after becoming certified as a teacher. These positions often have other certification requirements as well, such as being certified in First Aid and CPR.

The BLS indicates that employment opportunities for elementary school teachers were expected to increase 17% from 2010-2020, while high school teaching positions were expected to increase just seven percent over that same period. If you are interested in earning a doctorate and working at the post-secondary-level, the BLS states that employment opportunities were expected to increase 17% from 2010-2020, although the outlooks vary by subject.

Master's Doctorate
Who is this degree for? Individuals who want to teach in elementary school through high school Individuals interested in performing research or teaching at the university level
Career Opportunities (with median annual earnings) - Secondary school teachers ($54,000)*
- Middle school teachers ($53,000)*
- Elementary school teachers ($53,000)*
- Professor ($59,000)*
- Educational administrators ($84,000 -typically requires experience in addition to degree)*
Time to Completion 1-2 years (Full-time) 3-5 years (Full-time)
Common Graduation Requirements- Master's thesis
- Student teaching
- Doctoral dissertation
- Teaching or research assistantships
- Residency period
Prerequisites Bachelor's degree Bachelor's or master's degree
Online Availability Yes No

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (May 2011).

Master's Programs in Physical Education

Master's degree programs develop or improve your instructional skills and teach you how to apply educational concepts to physical education. These concepts may include assessing student performance and developing the curriculum An undergraduate degree in exercise science, kinesiology or other area related to wellness or health can be a good lead-in to a master's in physical education, but no specific undergraduate degree is required as long as you meet a school's prerequisite requirements. If you don't already hold a teaching certification upon enrollment, you might be able to find a master's program that will satisfy the requirements for that credential.

Pros and Cons


  • Programs specific to teaching may require student teaching experience
  • Some programs are available online
  • Coursework may be applied to a Ph.D. program


  • May not qualify an individual for a university professor position
  • Teacher certification may be required to apply to some programs
  • May need to complete prerequisite courses in areas like biology and kinesiology

Common Courses and Requirements

The coursework of a master's program in physical education is designed to teach you how to instruct and assess student performance. The capstone requirement is often a period of student teaching in which you work under the supervision of an experienced teacher. Some possible topics include:

  • Teaching Methods
  • Assessment
  • Human growth and motor development
  • Adapted physical education
  • Research methods and statistics

Online Degree Options

Online master's programs that include curricula similar to traditional on-campus programs are readily available; some may have on-campus requirements for specific courses. Since some online programs do not have residency requirements, they may require that you already have your teaching certification in physical education.

Getting Ahead with this Degree

You may consider earning a nationally recognized certification related to the physical education of a specific population, such as the one offered by Adapted Physical Education National Standards. To be eligible for this certification's exam, you must have at least twelve semester hours devoted to the physical education of individuals with disabilities. You may also consider becoming certified as a personal trainer through a respected organization. Once certified, you may take advantage of educational opportunities, such as self-study courses and workshops. Two such organizations are the National Academy of Sports Medicine and the American Council on Exercise.

You may also set yourself apart from other candidates by becoming proficient in physical education software programs that record and evaluate student performance. Additionally, being knowledgeable about equipment like pedometers and heart rate monitors may also be helpful.

Ph.D. Programs in Physical Education

A Ph.D. in Physical Education is designed to prepare graduates to do research or teach at a post-secondary level. In addition to coursework, doctoral students often work as teaching assistants and must complete a thesis. While a master's degree isn't required for admittance, the coursework from a master's program can be counted toward the completion of a doctorate. Experience in physical education is required for admission to a doctorate program in this field. Unlike master's degrees, these programs aren't available online.

Pros and Cons


  • Qualifies you for teaching positions at the university-level
  • Programs are available in specific physical education topics
  • Opportunity to work and research in labs with advanced technology


  • Small number of programs available
  • Typically require at least several years to complete
  • Not available online

Course Requirements

The requirements for a Ph.D. program include theoretical and practical coursework. While theoretical coursework includes topics in theory and research, practical coursework focuses on skills that can be applied in a professional practice. Some possible course topics include:

  • Educational statistics
  • Educational psychology
  • Research methods
  • Qualitative research in education

Online Degree Options

Because of the research intensive nature of Ph.D. programs, they are not readily available in an online format. Many programs have residency and experiential requirements that require you to be on campus.

Standing out with this Degree

You may set yourself apart in this field by performing research and writing your thesis on a current topic related to physical education, such as childhood obesity or elderly fitness. Doctoral candidates may also stand out by pursuing a concentration. While concentrations vary by program, some options may include curriculum and instruction, physical education pedagogy and adapted physical education. Through research, you may also develop technological skills, such as working video recording equipment, which can help with evaluating the performance of students or test subjects.

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What is your highest level of education?

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign