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An Examination of Identity Roles and Transition of Graduate Student-Athletes

By Liz Gregg, North Florida; Amanda Pascale, North Florida; Andrea Buenano, Cincinnati

Collegiate student-athletes often encounter challenges when balancing their athlete and student identities. Much of the literature on athletic identity focuses on undergraduate student populations. An increasingly common practice is for student-athletes who earn an undergraduate degree to use any remaining athletic eligibility while pursuing a graduate degree. A 2015 survey of Division I athletic programs determined that about 2% of student-athletes were graduate students. The proportion of graduate student-athletes is greater in revenue-producing sports where strong athletic identity is most prevalent. In 2014, approximately 4% of men’s basketball and football players were enrolled in post-baccalaureate programs, and football players represented about 36% of graduate student-athletes. The total number of graduate student-athletes nearly doubled from 2007 to 2014.


The increased numbers of graduate student-athletes can be attributed in part to the introduction of the 2006 National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) graduate transfer rule that allows student-athletes with remaining eligibility either to pursue a graduate degree either at their undergraduate institution, or to transfer and play immediately at another school. Other changes such as increased academic support, due in part to the adoption of the NCAA Academic Progress Rate policy in 2003, have increased the numbers of graduate student-athletes. The trend suggests that numbers of graduate student-athletes will continue to increase. Little is known about the graduate student-athlete experience, and it stands to reason that graduate student-athletes may face more challenges related to balancing their student and athlete identities than undergraduates.


In our recently published research in the Journal of Intercollegiate Sport, we examined how graduate student-athletes balance their identities as both a graduate student and an intercollegiate athlete. Using role strain theory and transition theory as theoretical lenses provided perspective on the graduate student-athlete identity negotiation process and shaped how we made meaning of the findings. We explored how student-athletes arrive at the decision to pursue graduate study, challenges they face when the role demands of their dual identities conflict, and strategies they use to manage their expectations of themselves as athletes and graduate students. Analysis of the data revealed three major themes: (a) life revolves around sport, (b) graduate student-athlete role conflicts, and (c) preparation for life after sport. These themes are explored in more detail below.


Life Revolves Around Sport. For graduate student-athletes, sport was the center of their lives. All six participants shared that they had always known they had wanted to play their sport and sought opportunities and schools that would allow them to pursue their passion while also earning their degree. When asked to describe their typical day, all participants detailed regimented schedules that revolved around their sport. These days included activities such as weights, practice, rehabilitation, stretching, talking with coaches, eating to fuel their bodies for performance, or in some cases, hanging out with teammates at the gym or using the locker room facilities to get ready for their day. Several students shared that they used space around the athletic facilities for studying.


The athlete role differentiates these students from typical graduate students. Reminiscent of academic clustering, several of our participants indicated that their graduate program was not their original choice for study but was selected because they felt it would be more compatible with their athletic demands. Half of our participants noted they had planned to pursue a different degree but decided on a program they deemed compatible with the demands of their sport.


Of our six participants, five were enrolled in online programs. For some, athletic advisors encouraged them to pursue their degree online, while others individually concluded that online offerings would best accommodate their busy schedules. While online programs brought flexibility, some participants expressed that they found the online format to be challenging, and they might have selected a face-to-face format if not simultaneously pursuing sport. One participant expressed the online format of his classes as his biggest challenge.


These additional examples indicate the importance of the role of “athlete” for these students. Not only were day to day decisions and schedules based on the expectations and demands of their sport, but also major life decisions such as which graduate program to pursue. While sometimes our participants were able to accommodate both athletic and scholarly demands, there were instances where these two roles came into conflict and created strain for students, the second theme of this study.


Graduate Student-Athlete Role Conflicts. Our participants reflected on several aspects of graduate study that they felt conflicted with the expectations of their athletic demands. Several participants stated they were assigned more group projects in graduate school than they were during their undergraduate programs, and that the nature of work was challenging particularly when they were expected to work together with classmates during their athletic season, while also traveling.


Traveling was commonly mentioned as one of the biggest sources of role conflict. Many participants talked about being proactive as a strategy to balance competing demands of sport and school, but that at times the conflict was unavoidable. Several participants spoke about the standards for success in graduate school as compared to undergraduate study added to their pressure as a graduate student-athlete. For the participants in this study, in order to remain in good standing, students were required to obtain no less than a “B” average, and grades below a “B” could jeopardize their status in the program. In their undergraduate programs grades of “C” were acceptable.


A female participant felt she was held to higher standards than her undergraduate teammates and was expected to set an example for them. She also indicated she was sometimes resentful of the amount of work she put into setting a good example through success in her graduate program, and diversely she embraced her new leadership role because she recognized her personal transformation. The recognition of her personal transformation via her adoption of new roles with corresponding role demands foreshadowed her process of preparation for her life after sport, the third theme of this study.


Life after Sport. Each of our participants detailed how they intended to prepare for life after sport. Several participants directly discussed that pursuing a graduate degree played a significant role in their transition. Several participants expressed that they originally pursued graduate study only to continue playing their sport, however as they progressed through their program they began to view it as an opportunity to transition out of sport into the “real world”. Findings indicated these graduate student-athletes viewed their sport as their job. They felt their position as a graduate student-athlete was helping in their transition to life after sport. They also felt the time required by their sport was interfering with their ability to take full advantage of the opportunities they felt their classmates had.


Participants in this study possessed a strong sense of athletic identity, especially when they initially entered their graduate degree programs. Their athletic identity was evidenced in their day-to-day commitment to their sport and the way in which they described prioritizing sport over opportunities provided to them as graduate students such as networking. Perhaps the most obvious display of strong athletic identity was participants’ choice to pursue graduate study in the first place, tempered by consideration of their athletic demands as a major factor in their choice of program of study. From a role theory perspective, it is plausible that these student-athletes felt the pull of their athletic identity role demands with such gravitas that the result had compelled them to make future shaping decisions that were compatible with their athletic identity. From a transition theory perspective, this phenomenon may be evidence of graduate student-athlete transition embracing strategies, or the utilization of available support.


We found that participants selected graduate programs of study based on their athletic demands, as opposed to opting for the most applicable degree for their future career interests. Further, this choice was influenced by athletic advisors demonstrates one way in which graduate student-athletes are different from other graduate student populations. Athletic advisors would benefit from working with career services to support student-athletes from avoiding academic clustering and providing job readiness skills and opportunities for student athletes to further their careers. The need is evident to better support graduate student-athletes’ decision-making for success in the long term, not just for the duration of their athletic eligibility.


Several participants noted the differences between their undergraduate and graduate studies. They pointed to several ways in which their graduate experience was different from their undergraduate experience. Some fundamental differences between graduate and undergraduate student experience contributed to graduate students understanding and operationalizing a sense of belonging differently than they did as undergraduate students. While athletic identity exists for graduate student-athletes, it appears to be operationally different from undergraduate athletic identity, and is predicated based on the sport the student-athlete participates in.


Much of the literature on student-athletes and athletic identity examines undergraduate populations. This literature largely suggests that students who possess strong athletic identity may have a difficult time transitioning out of sport, particularly if they do not have a defined plan for post-baccalaureate life. As participants in this study progressed in their graduate programs, many highlighted the ways their program helped them to prepare for life after sport. In analyzing these graduate student-athletes’ words, it became apparent that, whether intentionally or not, participants were utilizing their graduate program of study as a transition strategy, a means to prepare them for what several participants termed the “real world”. While they may have entered their graduate programs with a strong athletic identity, they recognized and embraced being “held to a different standard” in their sport, among their teammates, and in the classroom.


Acknowledging the differences between themselves and their teammates may have allowed space for them to dissociate from the notion that their contributions were only athletic, and thus more successfully prepare for transition away from sport.


Connecting these ideas with those presented in this study, we postulate that the space provided to fully explore academic pursuits in graduate school allows for the development of a more balanced identity, which helps in successful transition out of sport. From this perspective, we conclude that pursuit of graduate study may serve as a catalyst for transition, and that perhaps not intentionally, but rather more organically, student-athletes’ graduate school experience becomes part of their strategy for transition.


Implications and Recommendations. Findings from this study have important implications for practice and policy. From the reflections provided via these student-athletes’ experiences, graduate school can offer an important space for natural transition out of sport and school. Many of the students indicated that they were not able to take advantage of opportunities that could have expedited the identity-balancing process. We recommend that athletic and academic administrators and coaches work together to create opportunities for graduate student-athletes to substitute for experiences that they may not be able to participate in as a result of their time commitment to their sport. Such experiences could take the form of introductions and scheduled networking time with professionals in their field of study, or pre-arranged one-on-one or small group time with professors to promote mentorship relationships. For students who select sport administration or a related master’s program, graduate assistantships could be an effective way for graduate students to take on increased responsibilities and broader roles, which could facilitate a shift in identity and smooth transition to the career side of sport. Findings from this study could be used by academic advisors, coaches, and recruiters to begin to work more closely with graduate program faculty to successfully recruit and support graduate student-athletes who show potential for a successful transition away from sport and school. University administrators, coaches, and faculty should encourage graduate study for student-athletes and continue to seek ways to support graduate student-athletes in their identity transition process.