Study Sports Medicine: Master's, Doctorate & Training Info

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What will you learn in a sports medicine program? Read about degree requirements, the pros and cons of a master's and doctorate and potential careers.
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Master's and Doctorate in Sports Medicine at a Glance

With the growing recognition of the Athletic Trainer (AT) as an allied health professional, sports medicine programs are increasingly coming under the title of athletic training. Sports medicine is a larger field including multiple disciplines. On a sports medicine 'team,' there can be several different kinds of medical professionals, including but not limited to primary care physicians, orthopedic surgeons, athletic trainers and physical therapists.

Master's programs in athletic training prepare students for state licensing exams and to perform as athletic trainers in a professional setting. Doctoral programs in this field are fairly new, and prepare professionals to take on educational roles at the postsecondary level or to rise to other leadership positions. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the number of athletic trainers is projected to grow 30% from 2010-2020. While this rate is much faster than the average across industries, this is partially due to the limited size of the field.

Master's Doctorate
Who is this degree for? Individuals interested in careers in sports medicine People who want to move beyond practice to positions as professors or researchers
Common Career Paths (with approximate median annual salary) - Athletic trainer ($42,000)*
- Health services manager ($86,000)*
Same as master's, plus:
- Postsecondary teacher ($80,000)*
Time to Completion Two years full time 2-5 years
Common Graduation Requirements - Roughly 10-15 courses
- Master's exams
- Clinical requirements
- Roughly 20 (or 12 more for those with completed master's) courses
- Doctoral exams
- Dissertation proposal for research programs
- Dissertation for research programs
Prerequisites Bachelor's degree with a strong background in the sciences or anatomy Master's degree in athletic training, sports medicine or similar degree
Online Availability No No

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

Master's in Sports Medicine

A master's degree in sports medicine is a professional degree recognized by the American Medical Association (AMA) as an allied health profession. Accreditation of programs is done through the Commission on Accreditation of Athletic Training Education (CAATE). Additionally, the Board of Certification for the Athletic Trainer offers a certification test that is used by many, but not all, states. One of the requirements of certification is completion of a CAATE-accredited program. In addition to graduating from an accredited program, individuals may also need to complete certification requirements. Graduates of this program will be prepared for licensing at the state level.

Pros and Cons


  • Athletic training is a professional sports medicine degree that prepares students for licensing as athletic trainers at the state level
  • Some insurance companies have begun covering the medical care provided by athletic trainers
  • Because of the relatively lower cost of athletic trainers compared to other medical professionals, they are often a cost-effective alternative for minor sports injuries


  • Athletic training credentialing and licensing requirements are not consistent across states
  • Those seeking credentialing to work in public schools may also need to complete separate teaching certification
  • Athletic training master's programs generally lack a research training component

Courses and Requirements

Course topics covered in an athletic training professional program include a wide variety of modalities and approaches to health and healing. Athletic trainers are also required to have a certain amount of clinical training as well, and clinical hours will be included in the course requirements of most programs. Courses will cover such topics as:

  • Athletic training theory
  • Exercise and rehab for chronic diseases
  • Exercise and the mind
  • Exercise in healing and therapy
  • Pharmacological agents
  • Human mechanics
  • Orthopedic patient assessment
  • Sports medicine
  • Sports nutrition

Online Degree Options

As athletic training master's programs involve significant hands-on training, there are no accredited programs offered online as of December 2012. In order to gain a master's degree in this field, you'll need to complete a standard, on-campus degree program. Online programs can be useful due to the flexible schedules that they offer, but they are not always available.

Stand Out with This Degree

In order to stand out with this degree, you may want to take advantage of as many clinical practice opportunities as possible. This will include those offered within the training program, but you may also ask program mentors if you can shadow them in their own private practices, as well as seek out volunteer opportunities and look for possible internships through outside sources.

Degree Alternatives

For those looking to become professionals in sports medicine, there is also the option of becoming a sports physician, with a full Doctor of Medicine (M.D.) degree. Upon completion of a medical program, doctors will take part in a sports medicine or orthopedic residency program. Physicians who devote their careers to sports medicine may specialize in sports medicine or in orthopedic surgery. They are integral parts of the sports medicine 'team' and work in concert with other members to support and heal patients.

According to the BLS, general practitioners earned a mean annual salary of about $177,000 in May 2011. The BLS also indicated that, from 2010-2020, physicians and surgeons in general were expected to see a 24% growth in employment, which is faster than the average for all occupations.

Doctorate in Sports Medicine

Doctorates in athletic training generally come in two varieties. One is the research PhD, which is designed to prepare professionals for teaching positions. These programs may be part of exercise science or other similar programs, and it may be necessary to work with faculty to develop the research program and path you wish to follow. Doctorates may also be available through Doctor of Education (Ed.D.) programs, which focus on the teaching aspects of the field. Professional, non-research degree programs, such as the Doctor of Athletic Training (DAT), may also provide the further education you seek. However, it's important to note that earning a doctorate is not required to work in many different aspects of sports medicine.

Pros and Cons


  • Many of these doctoral programs function as preparation for teaching at the university level
  • Doctoral programs with research requirements train candidates for independent research and publication
  • Doctoral programs may increase your chances of promotion to leadership roles in the athletic training field


  • Research doctorate programs are quite rare, and may require relocation
  • A doctorate in athletic training is a significant commitment of both time and money
  • Doctoral programs that train in athletic science may do so under other titles, such as exercise science, or may require an interdisciplinary program be developed with faculty

Courses and Requirements

In addition to courses similar to those for the master's degree in athletic training, candidates for doctoral programs will also need to fulfill research training requirements before completing dissertation and publication requirements. Doctoral programs may not be offered in athletic training, but instead in related fields such as exercise science, kinesiology and physical education. In some cases, students will need to work with faculty members to develop interdisciplinary programs that address specific areas of research.

Online Degree Options

Research doctoral programs in general are not offered through online delivery, though they are sometimes offered through hybrid programs. Although sports medicine research doctorates have not yet become available through these avenues, clinical doctorates in athletic training are becoming available through hybrid programs. These programs are generally shorter in duration and do not have research requirements.

Stand Out with This Degree

Doctoral programs focusing on sports medicine are likely to be research degree programs. These programs train students in research methods and prepare candidates for publication and teaching. Because these programs are likely to be research-focused, you may want to communicate with staff before applying, communicating your goals and determining if the degree is a suitable match. Within the program, if you pay careful attention to maintaining close professional relationships with both fellow candidates and mentoring professors, they can both become part of your professional network as you continue your career.

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