Questions to Ask Before Starting a Sports Management Graduate Degree

An Interview with Dr. Brian Turner of Ohio State University

Dr. Brian Turner

Dr. Brian Turner is an Associate Professor and Program Coordinator of the Sports Management Program in the Department of Human Sciences at The Ohio State University. One path to increase opportunities for those looking at a career in sports is to pursue a graduate degree. In this interview, Dr. Turner shares advice on the questions to ask before applying to a graduate program.

For those interested in the sports industry who are considering any Master's Program, what questions should they be asking themselves?

Turner: First, students need to ask themselves what are the reasons and/or goals for seeking a master’s degree? They should know exactly what they want to accomplish from a master’s program. Graduate school is a serious commitment and the decision to attend should be thoroughly examined. I see too many students wait until the last minute and decide to apply to graduate school after they are unsuccessful on the job market.

In my opinion, students should look at graduate school as a way to increase their skills and differentiate themselves from others. A master’s program should give the student a focused learning experience and the opportunity to gain hands-on involvement in the sport industry. The reality is a master’s degree has become a requirement for many jobs in the sport industry, even entry level positions. For example, when Ohio State's athletic department posts job openings, they routinely receive several hundred applications. They use an online system that eliminates applicants who do not meet the minimum job requirements. So, if the position requires a master’s degree, any applicant without one is automatically rejected for consideration.

What questions should they be asking of the graduate programs they are applying to?

Turner:  First, what is included in the program’s curriculum, both the required courses and electives. Unfortunately, there are still programs out there that require courses that are not really relevant to today’s sport management students but have been offered historically and never eliminated. A program’s curriculum should give students a solid foundation in the business of sports.

I would also ask about the internship program at the school. Is it required or is it an option? What are the requirements (e.g., full-time/part-time)? Where have students interned in the past? In our program, the internship is a full-time commitment (i.e., students do not normally take classes the semester they do their internship) and is typically the culminating activity. We also offer practicums (what I would consider mini-internships), so students can work in the field while still taking classes. Along with that, I would ask about the program’s relationship with local sport organizations. Finally, I would inquire about the alumni of the program. Where have they secured positions in the past?

What characteristics differentiate Ohio State's Master's Program from others in the market?

Turner: Ohio State's program is 40 years old, so we are one of the more established master’s programs in the country. We are approaching 1000 graduates, with alumni working in all areas of Sport Management. We are a selective program, accepting the top 20-25 applicants each year (we usually receive 70-80 completed applications), so we get some incredibly talented students. I believe our relationship with our athletics and recreational sports department separates us from other programs. For example, our athletic director, Gene Smith (along with his wife Sheila), teaches a course for us each year entitled “The Business of College Sports”. The athletic department has always offered internship opportunities for our students. Our recreational sports department is one of the largest in the country and celebrated their 100 year anniversary last year. Approximately 10 of our current students are graduate administrative assistants in their department.

Finally, being in the 15th largest city in the country, there are many opportunities to gain experience in the area. Besides our athletic and recreational sports departments, Columbus has NHL (Blue Jackets) and MLS (Crew) teams. Additionally, we have the AAA affiliate of the Cleveland Indians (Clippers) and Columbus is home to the state high school athletic association. Because of Ohio State, we host many Big 10 Conference and NCAA Championship events. Students in our master’s program can tailor their experiences to their own interests. They have not had a difficult time securing internships or volunteering with one of our local sport organizations. Most importantly, they have been very successful in the job market.

What are the experiences employers tell you they want to see in those seeking sports careers - whether undergraduates or grad students?

Turner: Over the years, a consistent theme that organizations have stressed has been communication skills, both oral and written. So, any experience where the student has the opportunity to speak in front of others could help position them for jobs in the sport industry. Similarly, experiences where the student writes can be valuable (I always tell students to keep a portfolio of anything they write for an organization; it is a requirement for their internships).

More and more, employers are expecting applicants to have problem-solving and critical thinking skills, so any experience where students work on projects and develop strategies for finding solutions to issues an organization faces will be helpful. This semester, my graduate ​sport marketing class is working with our athletic development office on creating a new program for the department. Classroom activities like this one can really support the development of problem-solving and critical thinking skills.

As a final point, any sales experience a student has could separate them from others. I always tell my students if you can generate revenue, there is a position for you in sports.

What advice would you give to students starting a program to maximize their educational experience?

Turner: Get involved – volunteer any time you can to gain more experience. The classroom is obviously very important in a master’s program, but just as important to me is the opportunity to gain focused practice working in the sports industry. Professors and staff can send out emails with opportunities, but it is ultimately up to the student to take the initiative to contact an organization. The more experiences a student can get during their master’s degree, the more employment opportunities they are going to have in the future.

A pet peeve of mine is students who ask if I'm going to help them get an internship. As a professor, I can point them to opportunities, but in the end, it is the student who is going to secure the internship based on their credentials. Students who are willing to volunteer often have an advantage in doing this. They should see their program as a way to build their resumes.

Thanks to Dr. Brian Turner for sharing his insights on the graduate school decision process.