Last Updated on October 5, 2022
Interview with Dr. Laura Kunkel
Bryan Haggerty of Sports Degrees Online interviews Dr. Laura Kunkel of The University of Texas at Arlington. They touch on her career, the current job market and opportunities for students with a Master’s in Athletic Training, and what to look for when comparing master’s programs.
About Dr. Laura Kunkel
Dr. Laura Kunkel is the director of the Master of Science in Athletic Training at the University of Texas at Arlington. She is also a member of the National Athletic Trainers’ Association (NATA), Southwest Athletic Trainers’ Association (SWATA), and Commission on Accreditation of Athletic Training Education (CAATE).
Can you tell us a little bit about your academic journey and how you found your way into athletic training?
When I was a teenager in high school, I was interested in sports medicine. But at that time, I really didn’t want to go to school as long as it took to get a medical degree plus go on to specialize in sports medicine. Then we eventually got an athletic trainer at our school and I got to see that it didn’t take that much schooling and the athletic trainer spends a lot more time with the patients and develops relationships with them, so I just fell in love with it. For my academic journey, I did my undergraduate degree at Augustana University in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. At that time you could become an athletic trainer with a bachelor’s degree which is obviously changing now, but I got my degree there and became certified and I went on to get a master’s degree at University of Florida where I was a graduate assistant. I worked for a while, then eventually went back to school to get my doctorate while I was still working full time.
I worked for a while, then eventually went back to school to get my doctorate while I was still working full time.
What was the name of the master’s degree that you earned?
Yes, the long version that they have there is called “applied physiology and kinesiology with a concentration in athletic training sports medicine”.
You’ve had some wide ranging experiences as an athletic trainer, before you’ve settled into your position as a professor. You’ve worked at the various ranks in collegiate sports as well as professional ranks – tell me about some of the teams and organizations you’ve worked with.
When I was a graduate assistant, I was actually at a high school outside of Gainesville and my goal was always Division II or III college but I’m glad I got that high school experience because it was really rewarding and it taught me to be resourceful and creative. Here in Texas a lot of the high schools have a lot of resources and really nice equipment, but that’s not the case around the country.
The first high school I was at, I think both of them actually, I had an ice machine and a hydrocollator (what you keep hot packs in) hot pack (hydroxylation for hot pack). And then I had some various rehab equipment. I learned to be very resourceful and creative when I didn’t have all the bells and whistles. And I really enjoyed working with that age group – it wasn’t exactly what I wanted for the rest of my career, but I’m glad that I did it because it is really rewarding to work with that age group. So that’s while I was a graduate assistant.
I knew I wanted to work in the college setting and because I didn’t have a lot of resources at the high school, I really hadn’t done much post surgical rehab during my time as a GA because I just didn’t have the resources, so they went to physical therapy. During my last semester at Florida I did an internship on campus [focusing on] post surgical rehab of some of the athletes there. I was able to get some more experience and feel a little more comfortable with that when I went on to take a job in the college setting.
I then took a position at Heidelberg University in Ohio which is a Division III school and I worked with football, women’s basketball, and track and field. I was there for two years, and I really enjoyed it. I’ve seen all levels [of college athletics] and division three was my absolute favorite. I really enjoyed working with those athletes. They aren’t on scholarship so they are doing it because they love the game. Not that Division I or II athletes don’t love the game, but sometimes their sport is paying for their school, so it kind of feels like it’s a job. My athletes [at Division III] were very good and talented, they just might not have the [physical gifts of top-tier Division I athletes]. [For example], my quarterback was 5’7″ – he was really good, he just didn’t have the height. [But again], I really enjoyed my time working with Division III athletes.
When I left Heidelberg I went to Augustana where I went to undergrad which is a Division II school which is actually transitioning to Division I now. There I worked with football, men’s basketball, and track and field. I [always] knew I wanted to work at a college, preferably Division II or III and that I wanted to work with football. I wanted to be a preceptor for athletic training students. And I was able to do all of those things, so that was really great for me. Then I kind of started thinking, so what’s next then if I’ve already reached this goal? I found out I really enjoyed being a preceptor and I was pretty good at it too.
I started thinking about being a clinical coordinator for a program where I would oversee the preceptors and work on developing them into being better preceptors. An opportunity came up at Texas Wesleyan University in Fort Worth so I applied there and was able to get my first academic job working as a clinical coordinator. Since then I’ve always still tried to keep my hand in the game doing some contract work.
I was there for eight years and while I was there I got the opportunity to work with a professional golfer dealing with some back problems. This came through my network, being connected. From there I was asked to come to UT Arlington. It kind of fell in my lap. I went there to take a position overseeing our standardized patient lab, which was something new and challenging. Then about a year ago our program director left and I was asked to take over his position. So I’ve been in the program director role for about a year now.
Well that’s quite a journey. It’s funny, you started out in athletic training because you didn’t want to go through all those years of school but you ended up getting your PHD doctorate after all.
I know. I say that all the time. They told me it was going to be four years plus a residency, then a fellowship and I said “no” but now I’ve gone to school just as long anyways. It’s funny how you change and grow and come up with new goals. I ended up going to school probably longer than I would have anyways.
Committing to all those years of school sounds daunting before you start but then you get in it and before you know it you’re halfway done already.
Yeah, it goes fast.
There are a lot of kinesiology and exercise science programs out there. Athletic training seems to be the niche within these larger fields. Why do you feel like athletic training as a profession could be a great choice for young people out there who either were an athlete themselves or people who are passionate about sports?
A lot of people want to stay around sports and they like working with people who are highly motivated, so if they are interested in health care and they want to work with athletes or highly active people, I think it’s a really good fit. For me, because I also majored in exercise science, I [had the chance to] work with some older populations, which I found [very] rewarding [while I was doing it], but [at the end of the day] it just wasn’t the population I wanted to work with. I wanted to work with people that were highly motivated to get better, who really pushed themselves on a daily basis and are mentally tough. So that’s why athletic training was a good fit for me compared to say physical therapy where you may work with athletes [from time to time] but you also work with people who got injured at work and may or may not [be motivated to get better quickly]. Athletic trainers also work with non-athletes too–[more all the time, in fact]–but in general it’s active people that we work with.
As the head of a department who [understands the field of athletic training very well], what are some of things prospective students should be looking for when trying to compare the athletic training master’s programs?
First and foremost, every program has to post their first time pass rate on the board of certification exam, so I think that’s very important. It’s important that you can pass that exam once you are done. So I think that’s important to look at. And schools also have to report employment rate in athletic training within six months of graduation, so I think that’s important to look at as well. Then I would ask questions about their accreditation status or look on the CAATE website (Commission on Accreditation of Athletic Training Education), that’s CAATE.net. There, you can clearly see any accreditation actions that have been taken [and find out] if there’s been [any] kind of non-compliance with accreditation standards or things like that. So I think those are important questions to ask and look into.
I did notice that your program [at University of Texas at Arlington] has recently been re-certified by the CAATE. Can you tell me a bit about that process – is that something that most [athletic training] programs out there have? Is that an exclusive certification?
To be eligible to take the national certification exam, the Board of Certification (BOC) exam, you have to graduate from a CAATE accredited program. Now Texas is unique in that Texas is the only state that allows you to become a licensed athletic trainer without getting that certification. So there are undergraduate programs in Texas that are not accredited and people can become eligible to take the Texas exam and become licensed in Texas but they can’t work anywhere else. But aside from that, across the country, the programs have to be accredited by the CAATE for students to be eligible to sit for that exam because that’s what they need to get licensed.
What are some factors that you think set the University of Texas Arlington’s athletic training program apart from other similar programs.
We have a really high first time BOC pass rate, it’s 95% right now (three year aggregate rate). We also have our own standardized patient lab. A standardized patient is someone who is trained to act as a patient for students. We train them as actors and use them quite a bit in our program so students get that experience of being one-on-one with a patient without anyone there to help them. They don’t have anyone to look at and say, what do I do? We do that quite a bit and we have our own standardized patient lab. A lot of programs [out there] that are using standardized patients, they use [another department’s] lab (i.e., nursing lab) or something like that. But we have our own and we have a faculty member who is dedicated to our standardized patient program. So that’s unique about (our program).
We also have a really robust inter-professional education program. So by definition, it’s students from two or more health professions learning from, with and about each other and the idea is for patient safety. One of the top causes of death in the United States is medical mistakes. [For this reason], all health care programs have an inter-professional requirement where they need to be learning with and from and about other professions so they work well together after they graduate, for what’s best for the patient. We do quite a bit of that in our program compared to other programs.
Another thing would be our location. We are in a big metroplex. Some of the best paid athletic trainers are Texas high school athletic trainers and we are in a big metro area where students can get a lot of good experiences and network quite a bit. Also our accreditation status. We are accredited till 2029, so we are in a good place there. When we went through re accreditation we had no non-compliances which is pretty rare. I would say those are probably the highlights.
What can you tell us about the career prospects for those who graduate with a master’s degree in athletic training? How is the job market?
That can depend on whether or not you are limiting yourself. If you are saying, “I went to UT Arlington, I want to stay in DFW (Dallas-Fort Worth), I don’t want a job outside of DFW” then it’s going to be a little harder. But the Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook has athletic training growing 16% from 2019 to 2029 which they call much faster than average. And O Net, which also looks at the outlook of careers has [classified athletic training] at “bright outlook”. It’s constantly growing. [The field has changed considerably in recent years] from traditionally working in high schools, colleges and professional sports, to now there are athletic trainers in every branch of the military [and also] throughout various industrial [and corporate] settings. Amazon has at least one athletic trainer at every one of their distribution centers. Different car manufacturers like GM have athletic trainers, as well as Cirque Du Soleil, ballet [productions] and more. [Because there is now] a big focus on […] safety in the United States, I think [athletic training] is going to continue to grow. COVID has been interesting but overall I think it’s going to grow.
Now why would you say the need for athletic trainers is growing in those different kinds of areas, including corporate ones? Is it just safety or is there a change in the approach of health care?
So a lot of these industrial, construction, police and fire [department] settings where people are working with big equipment or on the line, a lot of [these companties] have found they are saving a lot of money by having the treatment and rehabilitation in house versus having to send [injured employees] to a physical therapy. So the companies are saving a lot of money that way. I think Boeing was the first to do it and they were saving millions of dollars.
Also just being able to have someone right there who can respond to an emergency or evaluate an injury without always involving urgent care or the ER – it’s really grown a lot [for these reasons]. The military has found that they’ve had more injuries [recently] (this is what I’ve heard as I don’t have a quote from anyone) [and there is speculation that it could have something to do with the general fitness of those who are entering the military]. [Since injuries have been on the rise, the military has begun] using athletic trainers a lot in the prevention aspect as well as treatment [of injuries] to keep people active as long as they can [especially during boot camp] and safely return them.
The same is true for police and fire [departments] – [they are finding that they are] able to save money by having [athletic trainers] in-house – providing some preventative programs to keep [staff members] healthy and on the job – while saving money.
That makes lots of sense, and I think that trend means good things for the field of athletic training going forward.
It saves a lot in workman’s compensation if they can keep people working and catching injuries early enough [so] they don’t have to take time off.
Is there any advice that you’d like to share with the next generation of people following in your footsteps into athletic training?
I would say it’s a really cool job. I know when I still go out and provide care at events and things, I kind of sit there in awe and think, “I get to watch this game and if someone gets injured I get to help them and that’s just awesome.” I would also say from an advice standpoint, take advantage of every learning opportunity you can get. The schooling goes by really fast and you never know what you are going to see if you go help out at that tournament [that you have been invited to] – [an event that you might not] have to be at but [that you] want to help at.
You never know what kind of injuries you’re going to see and get experience with. You also never know who you’re going to meet. Networking is really big, just from my story to you, the only reason I’m at UT Arlington is because they knew me and they went and said, “hey we have an opening, do you want to come [join our team]?” There is a lot of that in athletic training, being able to network and meet people because you never know who is going to have a job opening and what opportunities might fall on your lap. I think that’s really important.