Sunday, August 13, 2017

What is unusual about this MIT grad student in Applied Math?

(Thanks to Rachel Folowoshele for bringing this to my attention)

John Urschel is a grad student in applied math at MIT. His webpage is here.

Some students go straight from ugrad to grad (I did that.)

Others take a job of some sort and then after a few years go to grad school.

That's what John did;  however, his prior job was unusual among applied math grad students

He was in the NFL as a professional football player! See here for more about the career change, though I'll say that the brain-problems that NFL players have (being hit on the head is not a good for your brain) was a major factor for doing this NOW rather than LATER.

How unusual is this? Looking around the web I found lists of smart football players, and lists of football players with advanced degrees (these lists were NOT identical but there was some overlap) but the only other NFL player with a PhD in Math/CS/Applied math was

Frank Ryan- see his wikipedia page here. He got his Phd WHILE playing football. He was a PhD student at Rice.

I suspect that a professional athlete getting a PhD in Math or CS or Applied Math or Physics or... probably most things, is rare.  Why is this? NOT because these people are dumber or anything of the sort, but because its HARD to do two things well, especially now that both math and football have gotten more complex. Its the same reason we don't have many Presidents with PhD's (Wilson was the only one) or Presidents who know math (see my post on presidents who knew math: here) or Pope's who are scientists (there was one around 1000 AD, see here).

If you know of any professional athlete who has a PhD in some science or math, please leave a comment on such.

(ADDED LATER- a commenter pointed out Angela Merkel who has a PhD in Physical Chemistry,
is chancellor of Germany, and there is a musical about her, see here.)

(ADDED LATER- some of the comments were for Olympic Athletes and hence not professional and another comment pointed this out. So I clarify: Olympic is fine too, I really meant serious athlete.)


  1. Not a professional athlete, but a leading politician with a PhD and research career: Angela Merkel.

  2. Anna Giordano Bruno

  3. Ryan Williams? ��

  4. AH- on Wikipedia there is

    one Ryan Williams- Computer scientist
    one Ryan Williams, American Football
    two Ryan Williams, Australian Football
    two Ryan Williams, English Football
    one Ryan Williams, baseball player
    one Ryan Williams, American Actor
    one Ryan Williams, Politician.

    So Ryan does more than prove just
    complexity theory and algorithms!

  5. Harald Bohr, the brother of the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Niels Bohr. He got his PhD at University of Copenhagen in 1910. He was also a member of the Danish national football (soccer) team for the 1908 Summer Olympics, where he won a silver medal.

    1. To be pedantic, Bill asked for professional athletes. Professional athletes were not allowed into the early Olympic games.

    2. Thanks for pointing this out and allowing me to clarify- olympic is fine also- I really meant serious athlete.

    3. Then consider Edwin Hubble (astronomer, first to show universe is more than Milky Way, Hubble constant, space telescope named after him.) He was also a serious athlete: star of the University of Chicago basketball team 1907-1909, when Chicago won the Big Ten Championship (and was eventually declared national champion by the Helms "foundation.")


  7. Hi Bill.

    Not a PhD on paper (per se) but capability wise in terms of originality, drive and interest surely PhD material.

    Very accomplished engineer and inventor with many patents behind his back. Worked for General Motors in Detroit, Michigan.
    Also, what sugarcoats his case, he reprises in Donald E. Knuth's The Art of Computer Programming: Volume 4 Pre-Fascicle 5C ... exercise 162 on Soma-type related endeavors involving tatamis and other entities ... Oh, yes, he was in correspondence with Martin Gardner.

  8. Marvin Powell played for the Jets and got a law degree in the off-seasons

  9. Eric Zaslow is a great mathematical physicist and wrote a book on ultimate frisbee:

  10. If you consider chess a sport then Greg Hjorth was a Professor of Mathematics in mathematical logic at UCLA and University of Melbourne and an International Chess Master. Similarly Reuben Fine was a chess grandmaster as well as he earning a doctorate in psychology from USC.
    Cricketer Mike Brearley captained Cambridge University, Middlesex, and England. He He was the President of the MCC and is now a psychoanalyst, psychotherapist and part time cricket journalist for The Times. He holds an honorary doctorate from Oxford Brookes University.

  11. Roger Bannister, the first man to run a mile in under 4 minutes, also had a long career doing medical research. In fact, he set the mile world record while working as a doctor.

  12. Bob Etter (Ph.D. in Math, placekicker in NFL and WFL).

  13. The President of Singapore, Tony Tan, has a PhD in math and was a math lecturer. To be fair in Singapore the head of government is the Prime Minister and Lee Hsien Loong doesn't have a PhD, but he was Senior Wrangler (i.e. top math undergrad) at Cambridge.