A Professional Doctorate Student’s Journey at the University of Birmingham

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By Nick Gearing

I started my Professional Doctorate (Prof Doc) journey in 2020, at the time I had dropped out of working in football and was looking to get back into the industry and felt that exploring a research question that was often debated on social media would be an interesting way of linking in with professional football clubs, networking and ultimately taking myself back to the industry that I wanted to work in. Whilst my original intention was to essentially look better in job interviews with a PhD to my name, after some conversations with Professor Barry Drust, I started to realise that the Prof Doc is actually more about being a Prof Doc student rather than just doing a PhD. The latter involves undertaking the research whilst the former involves living the research, taking a real interest in what’s actually going on, speaking to people that the research may interest, and therefore creating better research and upskilling myself as I became more involved. 

As it stands, I have now collected all of my data for my Prof Doc and I am now in my writing up year. My first study was written up in 2021 when my supervisor Professor Matt Bridge suggested that I present it as a poster at the World Conference of Science and Soccer 2022. This was a long way outside my comfort zone to travel to Portugal and go into a room of mainly academics when I see myself more on a practitioner side than research. What I found was a lot of like-minded people and a lot of people that were willing to have a conversation about how my research (and research in general) can actually impact the real world of football, which is something that has underpinned my whole journey. At this conference, I made some great connections, one of them being Dr Steve Barrett at Playermaker, that I would actually go on to work closely with for one of my final studies. 

Since this conference, I have actually presented at the following year’s Conference of Science and Football 2023 in Groningen, the Netherlands, to present my second study which involved interviewing Academy coaches from the most productive football Academies in Europe to understand how they have developed some of the current best players in world football. The final study of my project has involved using Playermaker technology in some of these academies to understand how many touches, passes, use of dominant/non-dominant feet, as well as a lot of physical data occurs for players aged 10 to 18 across European football academies, something that has never been done before and has the intention to impact the real football in world. 

Going back to my first study, a couple of years on from writing it, I submitted it to the Journal of Sport Behavior and with this being a very new process to me was extremely excited to find out recently that this work is to be published in their journal in March 2024. The process involves submitting the paper, having independent reviewers look at the paper in detail and give feedback, with several changes to wording or additional details added along the way. For me, someone that went into professional football as a Coach/Analyst, as well as being a person that originally grew up in an environment that this was not the norm, I had never expected to have my work published, but hopefully for me now this is the start of being able to impact the football world with my research as I continue to try and bridge the gap between academia and the football world. 

During this Prof Doc journey, I have returned to football in a role as First Team Scout at Nottingham Forest Football Club. Having a full-time job alongside the Prof Doc brings challenges in itself with juggling workload and sometimes results in peaks and troughs of Prof Doc productivity, but I feel the immersion in the research and learning more about every angle of football rather than just doing the Prof Doc has made a huge impact on my practice as a start, but also my critical thinking skills and the way I see and interact with the job that is a big part of my everyday life. 

Nick Gearing – nxg019@student.bham.ac.uk


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