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Arnold School of Public Health


EXSC Ph.D. program ranks #1

September 25, 2015 

Department of Exercise Science’s Ph.D. program ranks #1 in the nation

As the Department of Exercise Science marks its 25th anniversary, faculty, staff and students are celebrating another hard-earned victory: the #1 spot in a nationwide ranking of doctoral programs by the National Academy of Kinesiology (NAK). Kinesiology, the study of physical activity and its impact on health, society and quality of life, is the broader discipline under which exercise science falls, and NAK is one of its guiding institutions.

Because such a distinguished organization assigned the rankings, the accolade is especially rewarding for the Arnold School of Public Health’s biggest department. “This is a huge honor from one of the most important professional organizations —certainly the most important in terms of doctoral reviews—connected to the field of exercise science,” says Jim Carson, chair of the department. “They know the science, and they know the programs; they know what they are looking for.” 

The honorary organization’s purpose is to promote the study of human movement and physical activity, and it only accepts members (i.e., Fellows) by election. The exercise science department boasts three faculty members among the elite ranks of NAK Fellows: Steven Blair, Russell Pate, and Sara Wilcox.

The Academy is also known for its rigorous Doctoral Review Program. Beginning in 1995, they started reviewing doctoral programs that focus on the study of physical activity at five-year intervals. The rankings are based on a comprehensive information package submitted by the programs that evaluates the quality of both the faculty and the doctoral students in the program. The quality of a program’s faculty is considered by reviewing metrics on productivity (e.g., publications, presentations), funding (particularly federal grants) and visibility (e.g., service and leadership roles). Student measures include entrance exam (i.e., GRE) scores, graduate assistantship support, doctoral publications and post-graduation employment (e.g., post-doc positions, employment in the field).

In addition to the numerous variables considered, the process looks at a five-year span for each program. They don’t just look at one year of data every five years—they look at five years of data. Reaching #1 under the scrutiny of such a meticulous review process was no accident for the department whose leadership first set their sights on advancing their existing doctoral program to the top tier 15 years ago. Larry Durstine, Distinguished Professor of Exercise Science, was the department’s chair involved in organizing an external review of the Exercise Department in 2000. “The feedback indicated that if we wanted to rise to the upper echelon, we needed to further develop our Ph.D. program,” says Carson. “So we recruited top-notch faculty and students, increased our federal funding and cultivated the program.”

By the time the 2000-2004 rankings came out in 2005, the program was able to secure the #8 spot. Between 2007 and 2010, with Carson serving as the graduate director at the time, the number of doctoral students doubled to approximately 40. Amidst this growth, the EXSC doctoral program was enhanced through the development  of three specialty areas: Applied Physiology, Health Aspects of Physical Activity, Rehabilitation Sciences.

Meanwhile the undergraduate program has nearly 1,200 students while the two master’s degree and the Doctorate in Physical Therapy programs add another hundred. Enrollment in kinesiology-related programs, such as exercise science, has bourgeoned across the country with some states seeing 50% increases over a five-year period. The fact that kinesiology is one of the fastest growing areas of study makes the #1 ranking even more impressive. There is competition. Everywhere.

“When we talk about comparing universities and our programs, we look at peer institutions—where we are—and peer aspirant institutions—where we are trying to go,” Carson explains. “These rankings tell us that our doctoral program competes at the highest level with both our peer and our peer-aspirant institutions, and it really speaks to the quality and accomplishments of our faculty and our students.”

Carson also recognizes how critical the exercise science staff have been to the program’s success, especially Latoya Townes, the graduate student services coordinator, who he calls the “backbone of the program.” A 14-year veteran of the department, Townes works with students from “application to graduation,” investing as much as anyone in the doctoral program’s success. “I am ecstatic and proud to see this national recognition bestowed upon our faculty, staff and students,” she says. “It is an absolute honor to work with such a talented group.”

Kim Hetzler is a doctoral student who helped Townes compile the large volume of data for the rankings application, getting a first-hand look at the department’s achievements. “The level of excellence expected by this department is very high,” Hetzler says. “I think the high standards for both academics and research are what makes the department deserve the #1 ranking.” But what she loves about the department is the people. “Being able to rub shoulders with some of the most respected scientists in the field is amazing, and everyone I have had the chance to work with, whether research-wise or through departmental events like Open House, is so willing to go out of their way to help the students,” she says. “I think we're lucky to have a very cohesive department, full of so many great minds.”

Bringing together such a high caliber group of individuals seems to be the secret to the department’s—and the program’s—success. “This ranking is a testament to the efforts put forth by members of the department over the past 25 years and a reflection of the emphasis we put on our doctoral program more than a decade ago—all the way up to our activities today,” says Carson. “It’s a major win and welcome validation for all of us.”