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Sport PhD paves the way for a globally-focused career

Dr Kim Encel has forged a study and career pathway that’s taken him from sport research into women’s football to a specialist role with UNESCO.

When Kim Encel began his undergraduate degree at Deakin, he admits to being a starry-eyed sports fan with his sights set on a career with the Australian Football League (AFL). 

‘I started a Bachelor of Exercise and Sport Science, majoring in psychology, with the idea of being a psychologist with the North Melbourne football club as I wanted to help my beloved team achieve ultimate sporting glory!’ he says.

While North Melbourne may still be waiting for premiership glory, Kim has gone on to forge a study and career pathway that’s taken him from ground-breaking research in women’s football to his current role as regional sport consultant with United Nations Education Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO).

Before becoming a sport consultant in 2020 with UNESCO Viet Nam, Kim completed a PhD with Deakin Business School that explored the evolution of the AFL’s women’s league (AFLW).

His thesis – Women’s Professional Sport: A Case Study of the AFLW Evolution – was inspired by completing his psychology honours then working in a research-focused role with the AFL that investigated rule modifications in children’s Australian football.

‘That’s when things started to shift. No longer was I focused just on enhancing performance, but now on management, and that’s where the opportunity to do my PhD on the AFLW came from,’ he says.

While professional sport had always been Kim’s passion, he says the under-representation of women in the field has always been a concern.

‘Understanding how a male-dominated organisation, such as the AFL, could inclusively develop a women’s professional sport competition absorbed me. I wanted to understand if the AFLW could increase the involvement of women and girls to make sport a truly level playing field. The AFLW certainly helped but we still have a long way to go.’

Although UNESCO is universally-recognised for its cultural work, Kim says the organisation provides important contributions across other areas such as sport.

‘UNESCO does a range of work across its five key sectors and one of these is Social and Human Sciences. My work is focused on “Sport and Physical Education” which sits under this area,’ he explains.

Kim is responsible for reinvigorating the Youth and Sport Task Force – a group of approximately 60 young people from 28 countries across Asia – who are all working in sport development. 

‘It’s my job to increase their impact in their community, but also globally as a collective. It’s really exciting and I can’t wait to see what comes from these inspiring youth,’ he says.

Reflecting on the role his PhD has played in his career success, Kim suggests that undertaking research at Deakin has taught him how to approach issues and problems from multiple perspectives.

‘There’s never one simple answer. Knowing and applying this is appreciated in so many different areas of work. For example, in my role at UNESCO, I’ve designed and developed sport for development projects from scratch. Previously, I hadn’t done this much of this so I wasn’t sure if my work would be up to standard. But by being able to do background research, apply evidence, and write in a logical way to address a problem … it came naturally after finishing a PhD. A lot of the benefits are invisible until you are put in different work situations.’

After notching up more than seven years of study at Deakin, Kim now looks back on a journey that was not only supported by ‘kind and caring people’, but one that provided valuable learning and networking opportunities – especially during his PhD.

‘This included attending 60 AFLW matches, conducting over 120 interviews and focus groups with key stakeholders alongside working in AFL House one day a week. I was also able to travel to conferences in the USA, Sweden, Japan Canada and across Australia to present my AFLW research and make important connections,’ he says.

‘Through all these opportunities, I was able to understand the heartbeat of the AFLW. Not only was this invaluable for my PhD, but these skills helped me develop into the consultant I am today.’

You can read more about Kim’s research in an article he wrote for ABC news about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and the opportunities it may present for women’s football.