How to Get a PhD or DPH in Nutrition

Nutrition is a cornerstone of preventive healthcare and a top priority for public health officials worldwide. Nutrition researchers are leading the debate on health policy and dietary recommendations. Nutritionists can make a difference through groundbreaking research, illustrating the complex relationship between food, health, and public policy. They may create public education campaigns or train the next generation of nutritionists. Or they can shape public policy directly as a policy advocate or government agency director.

A doctoral degree in nutrition sets you up for a leadership role in academic research or public health administration. Whether you choose an academic PhD or a professional practice Doctor of Public Health (DPH), you'll acquire the perspective, contacts, and advanced research expertise to impact public nutrition and preventive healthcare.'s guide to preparing for the nutrition doctorate helps you build a solid foundation for success. Achieving the highest degree in the field takes planning and discipline. By developing a sense of your research and career objectives, you'll enter the PhD or DPA program with a clear vision of the road ahead.

A Guide to the Doctoral Degree in Nutrition

Nutrition as an academic discipline dates back to the early part of the twentieth century. Research in food and human metabolism in the early 1900s led to the establishment of the American Dietetic Association (ADA) in 1917 and the American Institute of Nutrition in 1933. In the words of the discipline's pioneer, Graham Lusk, "Nutrition may be defined as the sum of the processes concerned in the growth, maintenance and repair of the living body as a whole or of its constituent parts."

In the latter half of the twentieth century, nutrition researchers expanded the field to include public policy as well as scientific research. As nutritionist Alfred Harper put it in 1970, "There is a science of nutrition, and the practice of nutrition." Today's nutrition programs advance nutrition as both a scientific field of inquiry and an applied practice. The discipline incorporates elements of food science, biochemistry, physiology, dietetics, and the clinical sciences.

To learn more about nutrition as an academic discipline, visit the following Guide to Majors, where you'll find a specific section devoted to Nutrition and Food Science.

Doctoral Degrees: PhD or DPH in Nutrition?

Doctoral degrees in nutrition reflect the discipline's dual focus on scientific research and applied practice. The right doctoral degree for you will depend on your research and career objectives.

The PhD in nutrition focuses on scientific research and typically leads to an academic career as a researcher or university professor. PhD dissertations emphasize original research in food science and human metabolism.

The DPH (Doctor of Public Health) in nutrition focuses on the intersection of scientific research and public policy. Research projects emphasize the application of scientific research to specific public health problems. Public health researchers also conduct original social science and epidemiological studies to develop public policy.

Aside from the research emphasis, the two degrees are close cousins. Both considered terminal degrees in their respective contexts, the PhD and DPH are designed to be equal in prestige and rigor.

Resource's Online PhD Degrees and Doctoral Programs resource page offers an in-depth look at the PhD and an overview of professional practice doctorates.


A doctoral degree in nutrition offers the opportunity to specialize in a number of research areas, ranging from biology to public health education.

Academic specializations focus on a field of scientific inquiry, such as:

  • Immunology
  • Human Metabolism
  • Dietetics
  • Nutritional Epidemiology and Biostatistics
  • Food Science
  • Food Biotechnology
  • Molecular and Biochemical Nutrition

Applied specializations may focus on a specific population:

  • Petrinatal Nutrition
  • Pediatric Nutrition
  • Geriatric Nutrition
  • Animal Nutrition

Or a particular public health issue:

  • Sports Nutrition
  • Obesity and Weight Management
  • Nutrition Policy
  • Holistic Nutrition
  • Community Nutrition
  • Clinical Nutrition
  • Diabetic Nutrition

Each doctoral program represents a different set of focus areas, depending on faculty residents and research resources. Since some PhD or DPA programs will accommodate your research objectives better than others, it's important to define your specialization interests from the outset, if possible.

Nutrition Career Tracks

Nutrition doctorates offer a diverse array of career possibilities at universities, public health agencies, nonprofit foundations, and private companies. Recent PhD and DPH graduates at a leading university found jobs as university professors, senior researchers at public policy think tanks and government agencies, and program administrators at the National Cancer Institute and the American Cancer Society.

Generally speaking, a PhD in nutrition leads to an academic career as a scientific researcher and university professor. Professors split their time between advanced scholarship and teaching the next generation of nutritionists. Many PhDs also go on to research positions in the public and private sector.

A DPH in nutrition leads to leadership positions in research, policy advocacy, public education, and nonprofit administration.

An aging population and the obesity epidemic are fueling demand for public health leaders with an expertise in nutrition. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, career opportunities should be best for nutritionists with an advanced degree.

Plan for a PhD or DPH in Nutrition

The highest degree in the field of nutrition involves two years of advanced coursework and two to four years of independent research. Completing this rigorous program takes focus and a solid plan of action. Start building your path to the doctoral degree by following this preparation checklist.

Step One: Find the Right Graduate Nutrition Program

Program research is a critical stage in the application process. The following guide to the research process helps you find the programs that best suit your goals and interests. You'll find links to useful online resources for each step.

1. List Accredited PhD or DPH Programs

Start by surveying your program options. Online directories and accreditation agencies offer starting points for your research, with lists of programs that meet basic quality standards. Accreditation by an independent agency is an important feature of any program you consider. National and regional agencies conduct regular program reviews to ensure the quality of the program and the value of the degree. The U.S. Department of Education maintains a database of approved accreditation agencies.

Resources represents a selection of accredited online and campus doctoral programs. Search Degrees by Subject to find an online or campus PhD or DPH in nutrition, or browse a list of university partners.

The Sloan Consortium, an organization representing online higher education, offers a list of Online Programs in Health and Nutrition. You'll find a selection of online PhD programs and professional doctorates.

The American Society of Nutrition maintains an online graduate program directory.

2. Choose Campus or Online Format

Advances in educational technology have made online degrees a viable alternative to campus nutrition programs--even at the doctoral level. The right program for you depends on your learning style, personal circumstances, and career objectives.

Online PhD and DPH degrees bring doctoral education to mid-career adults for whom a full-time campus program is not an option. The independent learning format works well for working professionals, especially those who can develop a research project in the context of their professional role as a nutritionist. Most online programs feature the applied DPH degree, though some schools offer an online PhD as well. Many online PhD programs in nutrition encourage or require temporary campus residency.

The campus format remains the preferred option for aspiring academics. Full-time campus study affords access to the resources on which an academic career is built: faculty mentors, a network of peers, state-of-the-art research facilities, and teaching assistantships.


For more information, check out the following sections that discuss online degree programs and campus education.

3. Explore Academic Programs

This is the heart of your program research: exploring individual academic programs. Doing your homework at this stage directly impacts your success down the road. Look for programs and potential mentors aligned with your interests, and you'll find the resources you need to achieve your goals.

The following factors will give you a sense of the program's areas of focus:

  • Faculty research topics
  • Research facilities
  • Specializations
  • Curriculum and course requirements
  • Special programs: foundations, conferences, publications, research centers, etc.
  • Relationships with government agencies and policy foundations, for public health doctorates
  • NSF funding, for scientific research doctorates
Resources kicks off your program research by matching you with schools that meet your specifications. By filling out a simple online form indicating your academic program criteria, you'll be connected to school representatives who can answer specific questions.

School Web sites offer detailed program information. You'll find links to faculty bios, publications, dissertation titles, and course descriptions, along with basic information about specializations and degree requirements.

Academic Journals represent a good resource for identifying leading scholars and programs in your field of interest. Major nutrition journals include:

  • The Journal of Nutrition
  • The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (AJCN)
  • European Journal of Clinical Nutrition
  • British Journal of Nutrition
  • Journal of the American College of Nutrition
  • Journal of Human Nutrition and Dietetics
  • Nutrition Journal (online peer-reviewed journal)

4. Evaluate Program Quality

Finally, pare your list down to five or more schools that meet your quality standards and match your admissions profile. The best schools are also the most selective; improve your odds of admission by choosing schools whose admissions statistics (average GPA, test scores) reflect your own academic record.

Assess programs based on these characteristics:

  • Reputation
  • Selectivity
  • Graduation Rate
  • Job Placement Statistics
  • Career Support Resources

Rankings offer an easy way to compare the reputation and selectivity of different PhD programs in engineering. The major rankings include:

Admissions Department Data Sheets offer the most reliable source of information on selectivity, as well as job placement statistics and other interesting demographic data.

Campus Visits can help you decide among top contenders, offering an inside perspective on the graduate student experience. Tour campus facilities, meet with advisors, and attend a graduate course.

Step Two: Apply to Doctoral Programs in Nutrition

Once you've settled on a shortlist of schools, you're ready to set the application process in motion. The following overview gives you a sense of application logistics. For specific application requirements, contact each school's admission department.

1. Complete Prerequisites

Standard prerequisites for a doctoral degree in nutrition include:

  • A bachelor's or master's degree in public health or science. If your degree is not in a closely related field, you may have to complete prerequisite courses before applying.
  • GRE exam
  • TOEFL exam (for international students)
  • Work experience (for some professional practice doctoral programs)

For assistance completing these prerequisites, consult's Education Resources Guide. You'll find information on test preparation, online courses, and more.

2. Prepare Application Materials

To apply, complete each school's online or paper application. Doctoral programs generally require that you submit the following materials to support your application:

  • Academic transcripts
  • Three faculty or professional letters of recommendation
  • A statement of research interests
  • Standardized test scores

3. Secure Financial Aid

Financial aid packages will vary from school to school. University funding sources include:

  • Scholarships and grants
  • Teaching and research assistantships
  • Tuition waivers

To cover your remaining expenses, explore the following private and government financial aid resources:

  • Federal Pell grant
  • Private scholarships
  • Employer tuition funding
  • Federal or private student loan


Step Three: Join the Academic Community

Once you've taken care of application logistics, you're a step away from becoming an academic. Start building professional relationships now by taking advantage of the following networking resources:

1. Subscribe to academic journals

The nutrition journals listed above can help you gain an insider's appreciation for the latest trends and leading researchers in the field. You can also start gathering ideas for your own research project.

2. Attend conferences

There's no substitute for face-to-face conversations. Find colleagues who share your passion for nutrition and public health education at conferences and other networking events.

3. Join professional associations

The American Dietetic Association (ADA) and the American Society for Nutrition are the most prominent professional associations for nutrition experts. You'll also find smaller organizations dedicated to specialty interests.

A PhD or DPH in nutrition offers access to a world of scholarly and professional opportunities. Planning your path to the doctoral degree sets you up to take full advantage of the resources available to you as a graduate student. With a vision of your professional future as your guide, you'll emerge from the doctoral program with the expertise and the credential to make an impact in nutrition research and policy.



  • Assessment of Research Doctorate Programs, National Research Council.
  • Best Public Health Graduate Schools, U.S. News & World Report (2009).
  • Database of Accredited Postsecondary Institutions and Programs, U.S. Department of Education.
  • Department of Nutrition, Harvard School of Public Health.
  • Dieticians and Nutritionists, Bureau of Labor Statistics (2009).
  • Graduate Program Directory, American Society for Nutrition.
  • International Organization of Nutritional Consultants (IONC).
  • List of Accredited Schools & Programs of Public Health, Council on Education for Public Health.
  • Online Programs in Health and Nutrition, The Sloan Consortium.
  • PhD Program in Nutrition and Health Sciences, Emory University.
  • The Top American Research Universities, 2008 Annual Report. The Center for Measuring University Performance.
  • Todhunter, E. Neige, PhD. "Reflections on Nutrition History," The Journal of Nutrition (1983).