Hot Ticket at Rutgers: Students Flocking to Exercise Science/Sport Studies Major

Hot Ticket at Rutgers: Students Flocking to Exercise Science/Sport Studies Major

Department turning out next generation of physical therapists, entrepreneurs

Andrea Kwok, a science and exercise major in the Rutgers Department of Exercise Science and Sport Studies, enjoys the "serious science" the discipline demands.
Kyle Sweet
Time was, announcing you were majoring in exercise science earned you a sneer and dismissal as a “just another jock.”

Nobody’s dissing you now. More likely they’re rushing to hire you.

America’s aging population, an influx of returning vets and burgeoning participation in youth sports have combined to ratchet up the demand for physical therapists, personal trainers and other allied professionals.

“Not to make light of physical education, but a lot of people still think the program is for future gym teachers,” acknowledges Andrea Kwok, a senior exercise major from West Long Branch. “They don’t realize there’s serious science going on.”

The major has become one of the hottest tickets on campus, growing in the last eight years from 300 students to a total of more than 1,200 in two tracks: exercise science and sports management.

Neil Dougherty, acting chair of Rutgers’ Department of Exercise Science and Sport Studies, has had a ringside seat as his department morphed from a teacher-trainer program to an incubator for future physical therapists, doctors, physicians’ assistants and researchers.

The major has become one of the hottest tickets on campus, he says, growing in the last eight years from 300 students to a total of more than 1,200 in two tracks: exercise science and sports management.

On the management side, graduates are going into intercollegiate athletics, marketing, pro sports, running a sports business or going on to pursue careers in sports law, Dougherty says. Majors in exercise science are preparing for graduate programs in physical therapy, medicine or advanced research.

Andrea Kwok conducts research on the effects of exercise and cognition with fellow student James Perucho.
Kyle Sweet
His department is turning out the next generation of sports entrepreneurs in such fields as intercollegiate athletics, marketing and sports agency. Count among them Benjamin Platek of Piscataway, human resources coordinator for the New Jersey Devils hockey team – at 27 one of the youngest in his field.

A 2009 graduate of the sports management track, Platek oversees the HR needs of more than 160 full-time and 480 part-time workers at Newark’s Prudential Center and other related venues. A former intern at Madison Square Garden – a job he says he got through Rutgers’ broad network of connections – Platek has hired many Rutgers alumni in his three years on the job, including Marissa DiCosmo, a 2012 grad who is now the Devils’ fan experience representative.

“Many of our students come here seeing a career in pro sports as the only option. One of our jobs is to introduce them to other aspects of the sports world,” says David Feigley, a former chair of the department and now a professor of sports psychology, sports sociology and statistical research.

Noting that sports represent a $500 billion a year industry – yes, billion with a B – Feigley’s fellow faculty member Mike Finkelstein points out that Rutgers graduates have found careers in orthopedic facilities, health clubs, merchandising, event planning, hospitality and travel, in addition to customer relations and ticket sales.

“Here in New Brunswick we’re sitting in the middle of one of the most important sports/media markets in the world,” notes Finkelstein. “We have a very nice reputation among the major leagues.  If you graduate from Rutgers with an exercise degree, you have a pretty good chance at getting the job you want.”

Benjamin Platek certainly did.

From his third-floor office on the southwestern side of the Prudential Center, the Manhattan native oversees staffing for Devils’ events and games, dealing with such day-to-day issues as managing employee benefits, hiring, and keeping on top of changing health-care policies.

In addition to season tickets to the games for himself, his wife and his parents, the job comes with more intangible perks. “Who else in the middle of the day gets to walk down the hall and watch a hockey practice?” Platek says. “Who else gets to put on skates every Thursday morning, suit up and play a scrimmage on the ice before the players come on?

Andrea Kwok, working to finish an honors research project on the effect of exercise on cognition and depression, looks down the road five or 10 years and sees herself as a physical therapist in a sports clinic or a rehab facility for stroke patients.

“I thought for a while about being a surgeon, but I want more interaction with patients,” says Kwok, who says working in a sports therapy clinic gave her insight into – and admiration for – the field of physical therapy. “I got a thrill out of seeing the progress they were making because of me,” she says.

Kwok chose exercise science as her major not only for its career possibilities but also for the rigorous course work it requires. “I was especially excited that we would get to work in a cadaver lab,” Kwok says. “I loved it from the start – it didn’t gross me out at all.”