Case study


Callum Thomas came to study his masters at Derby to fulfil his dream of working with professional footballers. Now he’s ready to carve out an academic career, starting with a long Covid research project.

Clear focus

Football was always Callum Thomas’s passion. He was sure that was the direction his career was heading in; following his Sports Science undergraduate degree, his dream was to work with elite footballers.

Fast forward two years and that’s all changed. After completing his MSc in Applied Sport and Exercise Science at Derby, Callum is now a Research Assistant at the University, on a project looking at long Covid recovery. His longer term aim is to study a PhD and to become a lecturer. And he’s recently completed his first marathon.

Callum's story

Callum analysing athlete on treadmill

View Callum's story video transcript

Practical experience

Callum’s change of mindset has been a gradual one. Keen to gain applied experience, which was not a major part of his first degree, he was impressed by the amount on offer at Derby. This practical experience ranged from physiological testing for runners, cyclists and triathletes at the Human Performance Unit (HPU), to helping Derbyshire County cricketers with their battery testing days.

He also worked with his supervisor, Dr Mark Faghy, on a project that investigated breathing muscle warm-ups for amateur footballers, to find out if they improved repeated-sprint performance. “This was the first project I led independently,” he remembers. “I felt like I was really taking the lead and moving forward.”

Good advice

Advice and support from the teaching team started to influence Callum’s view of his future. “Mark Faghy explained to me that working in football can entail a lot of long hours and you don’t always have the job security. A lot of jobs in football are for performance analysis, coaching and so on, whereas I’m more interested in physiology. Talking to Mark made me think more about where I wanted to go.”

Guest lecturers also gave Callum a different perspective: “One of these was Mark Nesti, a sports psychologist. One thing I took from him was about immersing yourself in what you do. Despite having a role as a sports psychologist, he would volunteer for goalkeeping practice at the football clubs. He’d let nine out of ten shots in for each player, but he’d be bonding with the players, understanding how things work.”

This was something that Callum put into practice on a project he was involved with after his masters. “I took on an assistant coaching role with a group called Running with Jake, an online running coach. We were testing his runners at the HPU. Taking Mark Nesti’s advice on immersing myself, I decided I needed to understand more about marathon training. So I started with a few Parkruns, joined a local running club, and last year I ran my first marathon in Manchester.”

Creative thinking

With his masters complete, Callum continued to work for the HPU and also supported teaching, helping students in modules such as physiology, anatomy and research methods. And then the pandemic struck. “It was difficult for the HPU to do any testing with athletes,” explains Callum. “So Dr Tom Outram, the head of the HPU, asked me to find a solution. We came up with an outdoor running protocol which allowed us to test quite a few people, and also a cycling option, which included moving the bike to the Sports Centre balcony. This approach brought in quite a bit of business – I was really pleased as I’d come up with that solution myself. It meant we were able to keep supporting people to run and cycle during the pandemic.”

With an eye on his future PhD and a career in lecturing, Callum knows that he needs to build three main foundations: research, teaching and business. “My experience at the University so far and my new Research Assistant role will help me develop in these areas. I’ve also broadened my clinical experience as a volunteer vaccinator with St John Ambulance, and I’m working on the business side with the HPU and a company in Birmingham developing a similar testing system.”

High standards

It’s been quite a journey since Callum first arrived at Derby. He has, he says, grown in confidence and maturity. And he’s found it tough: “I remember how harshly the first practical assessment was marked, but then I realised that was about meeting professional standards. It’s a really friendly place here at Derby – everyone makes you welcome – but there are high standards, and you need to meet them. That spurred me on to take that thinking across to every other piece of work.”

Despite the tough times, Callum knows that his masters has put him in a good place to embrace what lies ahead:

Callum Thomas

I would put a lot of who I am now down to the masters course. It gave me so much, including confidence, communication and relationship building skills, and allowed me to form some excellent contacts.

Callum Thomas
MSc Applied Sport and Exercise Science