Study Alternative Medicine: PhD, Master's Degree & Online Class Info

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What will you learn in a graduate alternative medicine program? Read about degree requirements, the pros and cons of graduate degree programs, and the potential careers available to graduates.
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Alternative Medicine PhD, Master's Degrees, and Online Classes at a Glance

Alternative medicine is also known as complementary alternative medicine (CAM) because it is often used in conjunction with conventional medicine. Master's and doctoral degree programs for alternative medicine prepares students for careers that focus on acupuncture, herbal medicine, meditation, body work, lifestyle counseling, and other non-conventional medical categories.

The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) notes that complementary alternative medicine is based on the ancient whole medical systems of Ayurvedic medicine and traditional Chinese medicine. Ayurvedic medicine uses herbs, massage, and yoga to heal the body, mind, and spirit. Traditional Chinese medicine uses herbs, meditation, massage, and acupuncture to restore balance to the body's energy levels. Modern versions of whole medical systems include naturopathy and homeopathy. Naturopathy uses lifestyle changes and diet, in addition to joint manipulation, massage, and herbs to help the body heal itself. Homeopathy uses highly diluted versions of substances that may be too potent to use it their undiluted forms to activate the body's ability to heal itself.

With a master's degree in one of the alternative therapy disciplines, you can find work in hospitals, clinics, fitness centers, colleges, and other teaching institutes. Doctorate or professional degrees prepare students for careers as chiropractors, naturopathic physicians, and acupuncturists. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), in May 2011, the median salary for chiropractors was $66,000, and employment from 2010 to 2020 is expected to grow 28%, which is faster than average.

Master's Doctorate
Who is this degree for? Students interested in studying alternative methods of wellness - Medical students who want to augment their traditional medical training
- Law school students who plan to focus on the legal aspects of alternative medicine
Common Career Paths (with approximate mean annual salary) - Midwives ($64,000)*
- Therapeutic herbalists (N/A)
- Nutritionists and dietitians ($53,000)*
- Naturopathic physicians ($70,000)*
- Chiropractors ($66,000)*
- Postsecondary CAM Teachers ($72,000)*
- Acupuncture & Oriental medicine practitioners ($70,000)*
Time to Completion 2 years full-time 2-5 years after the master's program
Common Graduation Requirements Supervised clinical practice and observation to gain hands-on experience A master's degree plus:
- Additional related courses
- Several hundred hours of supervised clinical practice and observation to demonstrate mastery of the degree program's focus
- May need licensing and/or certification
Prerequisites Bachelor's degree and related experience may be preferred Master's degree in a related field and work experience may be preferred
Online Availability Yes, but rare from accredited schools None currently available

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (May 2011 figures).

Master's in Alternative Medicine

Master's degree programs in alternative medicine can usually be completed in two semesters, and the type of classes taken will depend on your area of study. However, most alternative medicine students are required to complete certain core courses. These courses typically include human physiology and an overview of complementary alternative medicine.

The master's degree is usually the most advanced degree offered for many of the alternative medicine disciplines. According to the BLS, many students who enter master's degree programs for alternative medicine already have some experience in this area. A master's degree program may be used if you're looking for job advancement and to deepen your understanding of alternative medicine.

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • According to the NCCAM, more people are turning to complementary and alternative medicine for their health needs, so this is a growing job field for graduates.*
  • The federal government has become more involved with regulating complementary and alternative medicine for safety and effectiveness purposes, which has added credibility to this field.*
  • Most graduate alternative medicine programs offer on-the-job training.*

Source: *National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine.

Cons

  • According to the NCCAM, well-documented clinical trials of alternative medicine therapies are still a work in progress, so some jobs in alternative medicine may not command the same level of respect as jobs in conventional medicine.
  • Getting a master's degree without years of hands-on experience may limit you to entry-level jobs upon graduation*
  • Accredited, stand-alone master's programs are hard to find

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Courses and Requirements

The degree of focus offered for a particular discipline depends on the school. A traditional school may offer one master's degree in alternative medicine, so that degree program may only offer courses on many of the essential elements of alternative medicine. Examples of these are classes on pharmacology, mind-body medicine, evidence-based medicine, clinical nutrition, botanicals, and supplements. These degrees may be offered as 1- or 2-year programs that can be used to get entry-level jobs, or in preparation for entering a doctoral program, law school or medical school.

Schools that specialize in teaching alternative medicine usually offer a greater variety of options for students who want to devote more time to one discipline during their master's degree program. For instance, if you're interested in becoming an acupuncturist or a holistic nutritionist, then an accredited school that focuses on alternative medicine may offer you the type of degree focus and hands-on training you want.

These schools may offer many of the same core courses that traditional schools offer, but these schools may adjust the teaching of those courses so that they directly relate to the focused degree. For instance, if you want to become a therapeutic herbalist, a traditional school may offer an overview of herbs and how they benefit the body. In contrast, a specialist school will devote most of the master's degree program to an in-depth study of herbs and how they affect the body.

Online Degree Options

It's hard to find accredited online master's degree programs for alternative medicine. Of the few available, most may only offer certificates, not degrees. One of the difficulties in finding programs taught entirely online is that the successful completion of these degrees requires that students put in hours of supervised hands-on training. If you're interested in getting a master's degree online, the closest option may be a hybrid program where a few classes are taken online. The courses taught in these certificate programs may be the equivalent of the core alternative medicine classes provided in master's degree programs.

Stand Out With This Degree

To stand out with this degree, real life experience is a must because, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), most employers are looking for people with real hands-on experience, even for entry-level jobs. Although most of these master's degree programs require supervised on-the-job training, students should go beyond these requirements and try to get work with established alternative medical professionals and businesses. Internships and volunteer work are to options for getting the experience you need.

Degree Alternatives

If you're interested in becoming a researcher and want to focus on a more conventional master's degree, consider a master's in biochemistry or biophysics. For career advancement, consider getting your PhD after a few years of work experience. According to the BLS, careers for biochemists and biophysicists are expected to grow by 31% from 2010 to 2020. This growth rate is much faster than average. In May 2011, the median yearly income for these careers was $79,000.

PhD in Alternative Medicine

Although there are many alternative medicine disciplines, accredited schools only offer doctorate-level programs for a few of them. Doctorate degrees are available for acupuncture and oriental medicine, naturopathic medicine, and chiropractic care, among others. According to the BLS, although you can become a licensed acupuncturist with a master's degree, a doctorate may be required for advancement, unless you work in a private practice.

There is also frequent overlap with these degrees, and some schools offer dual programs. For instance, if you may want to get your doctorate in naturopathic medicine, you can study for a dual degree by combining this with a doctorate in acupuncture. In addition, according to the NCCAM chiropractic care is often combined with other alternative therapy methods like acupuncture, so chiropractic students may have the option of getting a dual degree in chiropractic care and acupuncture.

Supervised clinical training is required to successfully complete this degree. Some programs also require a residency program. Residency programs can add a year to your doctoral program. Doctoral graduates can find jobs in community care sites, hospitals, clinics, private practices, public and private corporations, federal, state and local government, research facilities, and schools.

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • Flexibility to combine more than one discipline to fit your career goals
  • Extensive, supervised hands-on training during the degree program prepares you for the real world
  • Satisfaction of learning to teach people how to use their entire body as a system of wellness

Cons

  • A doctorate may not be a substitute for years of hands-on, real-world experience.
  • According to the NCCAM, clinical research on alternative therapy is still evolving, so graduates may face skepticism from those who favor conventional medicine.
  • Although alternative medicine is a growing field, competition may be stiff because there are fewer jobs compared to those in conventional medicine.*

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Courses and Requirements

Doctoral candidates must pass rigorous in-class tests, as well as performing well during hours of clinical practice where they meet with and diagnose patients under supervision. They're also required to complete hours of observation where they spend time following alternative medicine professionals during their work days. The number of hours will vary depending on the school and the program, but students may see several hundred patients and have to complete at least 1,000 hours of clinical instruction before they can graduate.

This hands-on clinical experience is vital because, just as graduates of conventional medical schools are expected to have on-the-job training, the same holds true with alternative medicine graduates. According to the BLS, most employers expect graduates to have already demonstrated some skill in real-life medical settings.

For a Doctor of Chiropractic (D.C.) degree, students are expected to complete a 4-year program that is a combination of in-class work and supervised clinical work outside of class. Classes in research and biomedical sciences are a couple of the areas chiropractic students must cover in this program. Students who want to specialize in a particular area of chiropractic treatment may also choose a residency program, which could add an additional 2-3 years to their program. Doctorate-level alternative medicine professions may also require licensing and certification.

Online Degree Options

No accredited school offers doctorate degrees programs that can be completed online at this time. Students may be able to take a class or two online, but most of the program still has to be completed in person. Interested students should discuss this during the application process.

Stand Out With This Degree

These degrees prepare graduates to become doctors who care for patients in hospitals and clinics, provide health education for schools and businesses, or to become researchers for public and private companies, government agencies, and schools.

According to the BLS, most employers expect doctorate graduates to have real-world experience. To stand out from others who have this degree, you should have related experience beyond the supervised clinical experience you gained to receive your doctorate. If you don't have extensive related work experience, consider getting a dual degree to increase your job prospects.

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