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Athletics To PhD: It's Worth The Sacrifice

Applied Kinesiology lecturer in Strength, Conditioning and Fitness at Stellenbosch University, Dr Shaundre Jacobs, talks about her career in sports sciences and the sacrifices she has had to make along the way.


Dr Shaundre Jacobs.

Growing up in Strandfontein, Western Cape, Shaundre says she has always been an athletic kid. Her grandfather played rugby and cricket, so it isn’t surprising that she pursued a career in sports. “I was part of the Western Cape team for athletics. I never knew one could study sports science until a visit to Stellenbosch University for scientific testing: strength, speed and flexibility tests for athletes. I asked the woman conducting tests if there was a study course for what they were doing? She said I will need to have mathematics and biology [Life Sciences] both in higher grade, so by the time I was doing standard eight [grade 10], I chose my subjects strategically,” she says.

Very often the world of sports is seen as a man’s world and like many other women, Shaundre had her moments whereby she was made to feel out of place, but that didn’t stop her from reaching her goals. “When I wanted to work in rugby, I was told there were only two spaces for women: being a first aider or a physiotherapist, but I wanted to be a strength and conditioning coach. It’s sad that in 2020 women still need to defend their space in elite sports. As a woman you’re always questioned; you always have to motivate as to why you do certain things. In the sports environment – especially in male-driven sports like rugby, football, etc. – you have to be tough, assertive and confident. Sadly, you need to stand your ground and make sure you’re not seen as a walkover,” she adds.

Part of the sacrifices she had to make for her career was to limit the time spent with family and friends. Dedication to her work takes up a lot of Shaundre’s time, something that was very evident prior to her studying for a PhD.


“A career in sports means travelling locally and internationally, which at times makes it hard to be with loved ones. When I studied for my PhD, it was tough. I didn’t get to see my family as much as I would have liked. My degree was a joint degree from Stellenbosch University and Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB) in Belgium and because their school calendar is different from ours, on our local holidays I’d still be studying. I now understand why a lot of people choose not to do a PhD. I lost weight – I don’t eat when stressed – I weighed 49kg. My muscles took strain from spending long hours at the library but in the end, it paid off. It was great to see my family proud during my public defence presentation [presenting a dissertation to a panel of experts and the general public]. I’m the first person in our family to hold a PhD qualification."

“If sport is your passion, follow it. It’s not going to be easy but don’t be discouraged. If someone tells you, you can’t do it, let that inspire you to go for it. Very often athletes in their prime tend not to study further. In elite sports, you can get a traumatic injury that can set you back years. Most times in situations like that sponsors withdraw from you; you don’t have money coming in and you can’t make a living, hence I always encourage athletes to study further. Yes, it’s hard to compete in sports and study at the same time, but at least you’ll have a qualification in case your journey comes to an abrupt end. At Stellenbosch University, we have a big culture of supporting Maties Student-Athletes because they are students first and then athletes. We encourage students to get their education first and then pursue their sporting careers… this they get to do simultaneously.”

Shaundre quit competing in elite sports in 2013 to complete her Master's degree (Msc) in Science at KU Leuven University, Belgium. She says this was a traumatic experience for her as competing in athletics at a high level became part of her identity. However, she still competes in racing events. She also keeps active by cycling, mountain biking and trail runs.


Author: Yonga Balfour