Five reasons to play sports
in graduate school

The writer, top left, with the Isotopes, Weill Cornell Graduate School’s championship softball team. The team plays games on summer evenings at Randall’s Island near Manhattan. IMAGE COURTESY OF ROBERT FRAWLEY

I am a sixth-year graduate student in the physiology, biophysics and systems biology program at Weill Cornell Graduate School. I am also a competitive swimmer and recreational softball, dodgeball, volleyball and inner tube water polo player. 

I’ve been an athlete for most of my life. Not the kind of athlete with name recognition — I wasn’t a popular quarterback or a basketball player — but an average, dedicated swimmer all the way through high school and college. When I got to graduate school and the mandatory practices that I’d attended for years evaporated, I found I needed to impose some of the structure and rigor of a sports schedule upon myself. My mind and body just didn’t feel right without the daily exercise and focus of sports.

During my time at Cornell, I’ve observed the habits of many of my fellow graduate students and found consensus among them that engaging in sports can enhance the experience of pursuing a degree in biomedical sciences.

Finding a sport and sticking with it not only is a great way to stay sane during graduate school but also confers a number of other benefits. The top five of those benefits make my list below.

Sports improve time management and professional development

Sports can help to set our daily rhythms. Whether it’s exercise in the morning or a game after work, sports always have framed my days and forced my schedules into place.

Swimming put restraints on my free time in college, and I found myself putting real effort into scheduling my work and working efficiently. Imposing game and practice commitments on myself as an adult in graduate school functions in the same way. Obviously, my research comes first. I will skip a game to conduct an essential experiment. But the threat of missing a sporting event is usually enough for me to work efficiently during the day.

Sports also make us tired! Some nights it’s a huge relief to fall asleep on time instead of listlessly editing a draft or watching Netflix until the early morning hours. This early bedtime makes waking up less painful, so I can get into lab on time the next day.

Sports may have a bigger effect on work routines than just improved time management. In James Shulman and William Bowen’s book “The Game of Life,” the authors note that those who play a sport on the side typically make more in salary than their nonathletic counterparts. This finding is supported by a 2014 survey sponsored by ESPN-W and the Women Athletes Business Network, which showed that women who participate in sports are more successful. Whether by working better in a team, having mastered time management or just maintaining a certain confidence, it may be that athletes have an edge.

Sports improve mental well-being

We swimmers never were expected to throw or catch much of anything, and, as a whole, swimmers are not famous for their coordination. This meant that to play sports other than swimming I not only had to learn the rules but also to develop new skills from scratch. Honing a new physical skill is a fantastic mental challenge completely different from the work we graduate students do in lab and a great way to shake out the cobwebs and step back from research.

Sports also can be exhilarating and truly improve your spirits. I can vouch for this and always have liked what public radio host Ilya Marritz of New York’s WNYC said about his first time playing football: “Here’s the funny thing: I step onto the field all anxious, but the moment we start playing catch all that mental junk just disappears, my mind empties, I only want to play.”

That’s what I feel every time I step out onto a sports field. Anxiety over paper submissions, troublesome experiments or running out of reagents temporarily melts away.

Science backs this up. The Mayo Clinic notes that exercise improves mood and boosts energy, and playing sports regularly can help combat depression and anxiety. A 2008 paper in the journal Psychology of Sport and Exercise showed that men with severe mental illnesses could restructure their lives through sports.

Sports make time pass more quickly

It is my personal experience that having sports events in your schedule helps break up the humdrum, research-and-lab-meeting routine. It gives contour and relief to your week. You can spend a few days looking forward to a game, and the day or two after reveling in the fun of it. Having one or two big events a week can help graduate students keep their heads above the rushing tides of research science.

Sports improve physical well-being

Any number of sources will tell you that running around is good for you. It increases cardiac strength, improves muscle tone, pumps blood, clears lymph and resets your body. Sports can help aid digestion and relieve migraines, and, at the end of the day, exercise can make you think more clearly. Doctors recommend 30 minutes a day of activity if not more, and schools across the country are fighting to keep recess and mandatory physical education requirements. Exercise is important, and playing games is one of the most social, enjoyable ways to do it. New research even suggests that bouts of aerobic exercise may increase neurogenesis, based on evidence in mouse models.

Sports forge bonds

Finally, sports are social. Having a team to play on is a great way to get to know your fellow students, lab mates and co-workers and a great way to meet new friends, potential collaborators and that postdoc or principal investigator who may someday find you a job.

Playing on a team is a very different social dynamic than sitting in a lab or office, and it creates camaraderie and memories that last. My graduate school is fairly large, and students can get inundated with lab and class work, but I will always remember the classmates who played on my softball team — the Isotopes — every summer, and, sure enough, those are the Ph.D. alumni with whom I have kept in closest touch.

In closing, sports have made graduate school far more bearable and enjoyable for me. I’ve had numerous peers express their gratitude for the opportunity to play sports and get out of the lab. It doesn’t have to be much, but I believe picking one sport to commit to in graduate school gives students just the break they need to withstand the physical, experimental and academic rigor of a Ph.D. program.

Robert Frawley Robert Frawley is a Ph.D. student at Weill Cornell Graduate School, where he works with faculty at the Hospital for Special Surgery.