Study Nutrition: Master's Degree, PhD & Training Info

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What kind of job can you get with a master's degree or PhD in nutrition? Find out degree program requirements, online degree program options and info on courses in the field of nutrition.
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Nutrition Degrees: At a Glance

Nutritionists and dietitians are experts who advise people on what to eat in order to lead a healthy life. Nutritionists and dietitians typically work in hospitals, cafeterias, nursing homes and schools. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), employment of dietitians and nutritionists was expected to increase 20% from 2010-2020.

Many states and employers require nutritionists to be licensed, which typically involves graduating from an accredited bachelor's degree program and completing several hundred hours of supervised training. As a result, most nutritionists have at least a bachelor's degree in dietetics, nutrition, biology or a related field. Graduate degrees are also common and prepare individuals for careers as registered dietitians (RDs), nutrition specialists and educators.

Master's PhD
Who is this degree for? - Students with bachelor's degrees who want to specialize in nutrition
-Students who want to become registered dietitians
- Students who want to complete an MS degree in nutrition only (without the RD credential)
- Master's degree holders
- People who want to teach at the postsecondary level
Common Career Paths (with approximate annual salary) - Dietitians and nutritionists ($55,000 - may vary with experience)*
- Health educators ($52,000 - may vary with experience)*
- Postsecondary health specialties teachers ($99,000 - may vary with experience)*
Time to Completion Approximately 2-3 years (full-time) Approximately five years (full-time)
Common Graduation Requirements - Coursework
- Research thesis (for non-RD path only)
- Dietetic internship (for RD path only)
- RD exam (for RD path only)
- Research, write and present dissertation
- Pass qualifying exams
- Complete coursework
- Teaching or research assistantship, if applicable
Prerequisites - Bachelor's degree
- Approximately 60 credits in prerequisite courses (can be completed after enrollment)
- Official transcripts from bachelor's and master's degree programs
- Letter of intent
- Recent GRE scores
- Courses in anatomy, physiology, research and statistics
Online Availability Yes Not available as of November 2012

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

Nutrition Master's Degrees

Master of Science degrees in nutrition are typically geared toward two types of students: those who want to become registered dietitians (RDs), and those who want to complete a Master of Science (MS) degree program without the RD credential. Individuals on the RD path complete a 2-year MS degree program plus a dietetic internship before taking the RD exam. Students who are only interested in the MS degree do not have to complete a dietetic internship and may graduate after approximately one year, after successfully completing their research thesis. Regardless of path, students should note that prerequisite courses are commonly required, although they do not necessarily have to be completed prior to enrollment.

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • Students with a wide range of backgrounds and undergraduate degrees are accepted in nutrition master's degree programs.
  • According to the BLS, employment growth of nutritionists was expected to be stronger than average from 2010-2020.*
  • Although a bachelor's degree is the baseline academic credential for nutritionists, master's degrees are very common.

Cons

  • Admission to dietetic internships is highly competitive.
  • In order to maintain the RD credential, you must complete continuing professional education courses over the course of your career.
  • Each state has its own set of regulations and licensing requirements, which can pose a challenge for professionals who move frequently or are unsure where they will settle down.

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

Common Courses and Requirements

In a nutrition master's degree program, students must complete an accredited Didactic Program in Dietetics (DPD) and complete a dietetic internship. The DPD may consist of approximately 18 courses at the undergraduate and graduate levels. These prerequisite courses may be completed before you enter the program, or they can be taken while you complete your MS degree (but they must be taken before you are eligible to participate in a dietetic internship).

Common courses in a nutrition master's degree program include:

  • Pediatric nutrition
  • Critical care nutrition
  • Research methods in nutrition
  • Diet management
  • Nutrition and aging

Online Degree Options

Online master's degree courses in nutrition are available, and admission and curriculum requirements are very similar to those of traditional on-campus programs. If you are considering an online program, note that you may have some in-person requirements, such as completing your internship at approved sites in your geographic area.

Getting Ahead with This Degree

Consider that the needs of certain populations (such as children or the elderly) and health conditions (such as heart disease) are gaining increased attention for preventative services in the healthcare industry. It may make sense to specialize in a particular niche, such as pediatric nutrition, to better market yourself upon graduation.

Nutrition PhD Degrees

PhD programs aim to train students in the foundations of sound nutrition and the issues that contribute to health and disease. PhD programs typically prepare students for careers as researchers, professors and clinical practitioners. To successfully graduate from a nutrition PhD program, you need to complete academic credits, pass preliminary examinations in your field and conduct research, and write and present a dissertation. Students should note that it may be challenging to find PhD programs specifically in nutrition, but interdisciplinary programs in nutrition, physical activity and/or wellness are available and feature similar curricula.

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • Doctoral study is essential to establishing a career as an independent researcher or postsecondary professor.
  • It is common for doctoral programs to offer research or teaching assistantships to qualified students; however, these opportunities may be selective and competitive.
  • Small class sizes emphasize student-professor interactions.

Cons

  • Acceptance into PhD programs can be competitive because only a handful of applicants are enrolled each year.
  • You may be over-educated for careers outside of research and academia with this degree.
  • Obtaining a PhD may not provide higher salaries or more job opportunities, since most careers in this field require a bachelor's or master's degree.

Common Courses and Requirements

Because PhD programs tend to be highly specialized, programs of study vary greatly based on the background and interests of each student. As a PhD candidate, you will likely complete academic coursework, perform research, obtain passing scores on a doctoral examination and prepare for your doctoral dissertation (which you must research, write and present to a faculty panel). Some programs may also require students to serve as teaching assistants for at least one semester.

Common courses may include:

  • Health program evaluation
  • Research, grant and scientific writing
  • Advanced human nutrition
  • Epidemiology
  • Technology and health promotion

Online Course Options

As of 2012, online PhD degrees in nutrition were not available. If you find an accredited online program, consider that you may need access to an approved site at which you can conduct research.

Stand Out with this Degree

Students who plan to pursue careers in academic research and education can leverage their school's academic journals to publicize their original research projects and papers. If you plan to pursue a career in education, consider that you may be able to secure additional teaching experience as a volunteer at a local school, hospital or nonprofit organization.

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