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Nutrition, the science of nutrients and physiology, plays an important role in human and animal health. Nutrition professionals research nutritional biochemistry, educate patients in healthy eating habits, and shape public health policy.

A master's degree in health in nutrition prepares you to play a leading role in preventative care and nutrition advocacy. Earn a master's degree online or on campus in a year or two, building your scientific knowledge while you hone practical skills with a clinical internship or research assistantship.

WorldWideLearn.com's guide to the graduate program in nutrition helps you prepare for the master's degree by focusing your career goals and finding the academic resources to achieve them. You can emerge from the program with the skills and credentials to lead the public to a healthier future.

Guide to Master's Degrees in Nutrition

Nutrition sits at the intersection of science and public health. At the graduate level, you can expect to gain an understanding of scientific phenomena such as:

  • Vitamins and minerals
  • Human and animal physiology and metabolism
  • Biochemistry
  • Developmental nutrition

Professional development in nutrition introduces you to:

  • Diet-related epidemiology
  • Dietetics
  • Nutrition counseling and education
  • Food processing and product development
  • Nutrition policy

Academic and Professional Master's Degrees

Most graduate-level programs in nutrition address both the academic and professional elements of the discipline--the scientific foundations and public health applications. Different master's degrees have evolved different emphases, however. The right master's degree for you depends on your career goals.

Academic degrees focus on nutrition as an applied research discipline.

  • The Master of Science (MS) in nutrition is the most common academic qualification. After a curriculum emphasizing the science of nutrition, students typically complete a research project in collaboration with a faculty mentor. The MS leads to academic teaching, research, or clinical dietitian careers.
  • The Master of Arts (MA) approaches nutrition through social sciences such as education, sociology, and public health administration. The MA culminates in a written master's thesis.

Professional master's degrees prepare graduates for careers in public health or clinical dietetics.

  • The Master of Public Health (MPH) emphasizes the administrative skills critical to public health as a professional practice. Courses, projects, and internship experiences are designed to foster skills in program planning, policy making, needs assessment, and public health research.
  • The Professional Science Master (PSM) degree in nutrition or food science offers a combined science and business curriculum. The program prepares graduates for R&D and business leadership careers in the food and pharmaceutical industries.

Specializations

A master's degree offers the opportunity to explore a specialized nutrition topic in depth, either through advanced coursework, an internship, or research. Choose among these nutrition specializations:

  • Dietetics, the study of food preparation and optimal eating habits
  • Food Studies, the critical examination of food as a sociological and cultural phenomenon
  • Food Science, the examination of nutrition as a physiological phenomenon
  • Community Public Health, the study of policies and programs to support public health
  • Nutrition Education, the study of public health communication and teaching

Within these areas of expertise, you can focus your studies on a specific topic. For example, food science incorporates specializations such as developmental or pediatric nutrition, biochemistry, therapeutic nutrition, nutrient metabolism, and more. Dietetics experts may focus on specific health conditions such as renal, diabetic, cardiovascular, or pediatric dietetics.

Career Track

A master's degree in nutrition sets you up for a range of academic and professional careers in nutrition.

Nutrition Researcher

A graduate degree in nutrition may lead to a research career in an academic, government, or commercial R&D lab. Nutrition research may develop scientific knowledge or apply existing knowledge to develop new products or policies. Examples of nutrition research include: cell-based lab experiments, clinical trials, policy analysis, and product development. Academic research jobs may require a PhD in nutrition.

Clinical Dietitian

Clinical dietitians work directly with patients, using nutrition therapy to treat a medical condition. Hospitals, nursing homes, doctor's offices, and health clinics employ these nutrition experts. Many dietitians develop expertise in a particular area, such as pediatric nutrition, renal nutrition therapy, or critical care support. Most states require practitioners of medical nutrition therapy to hold a 'registered dietitian' (RD) license.

Community Health Educator

Health educators teach the public about good nutrition and develop public health programs to support healthy eating habits. They may work in the context of a public health agency, advocacy group, health club, or wellness center. Specialties include nutrition education, chronic disease prevention, and developmental nutrition. Some states require licensure.

Public Health Policy Analyst or Administrator

A nutrition graduate degree qualifies you to analyze the effectiveness of nutrition education programs and advocate policies that promote nutrition. Nutrition is the focus of several public health agencies, including the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), USDA, National Institutes of Health (NIH), and Centers for Disease Control (CDC). In addition, you can take a position at a nonprofit such as the American Diabetes Association.

A clear objective can help you make the most of the resources available to you in the graduate nutrition program.

Plan for a Master's Degree in Nutrition

A graduate degree in nutrition can open doors to advanced careers in dietetics and public health. Set yourself up for success by planning your master's degree step by step.

Step One: Find the Right Graduate Nutrition Program

Graduate nutrition programs have evolved to accommodate diverse student needs. You can earn a master's degree online or on campus, prepare for a clinical or academic career, pursue a specific research topic; complete a government or clinical internship, or collaborate with a renowned expert in your field.

To find the program that best suits your goals and ambitions, take into account these four criteria:

1. Accreditation

Accreditation offers a balanced measure of program quality, based on a periodic program review by an independent agency. Accreditation not only indicates the educational quality and value of your master's degree, but also influences your eligibility for financial aid. The U.S. Department of Education Web site posts a searchable database of approved accreditation agencies.

Resources

WorldWideLearn offers a starting point for your research, with links to accredited campus and online master's degrees in nutrition.

The American Society for Nutrition lists graduate nutrition programs nationwide, but does not vet programs for accreditation status. Cross-reference this list with WorldWideLearn.com and/or the U.S. Department of Education Database of Accredited Postsecondary Institutions and Programs.

The Commission on Accreditation for Dietetics Education (CADE) lists CADE-accredited master's degree programs in dietetics and nutrition, including those leading to the Registered Dietitian (RD) credential.

2. Program Format: Campus or Online

Next, decide whether to earn a master's degree online or on campus. Digital learning tools have made the virtual classroom a worthy--and in some respects, superior--alternative to the campus original.

  • Online master's degrees offer access and convenience. Working professionals can work toward the degree without putting their job and family obligations on hold. And all students can access programs from anywhere in the world. This worldwide learning makes for a diverse classroom, with wide-ranging professional and cultural expertise.
  • Campus degrees offer a different kind of access, including collaboration with professors, local clinical training, the use of campus research facilities, and in some cases, teaching assistantships. Aspiring academic researchers and professors depend on these resources to prepare for doctoral research and a teaching career.

Resources

WorldWideLearn.com features Online Degree Programs and Campus Education sections to help you find programs with your chosen delivery format. Search Degrees by Location for campus graduate programs in your area.

3. Academic Resources

Each nutrition master's degree program features a unique selection of academic resources to accommodate different professional goals and research interests. Consider these factors to find the right match for your ambitions:

  • Curriculum and Specializations
  • Degree Format and Requirements
  • Faculty Expertise
  • Research Facilities
  • Employer and Clinic Relationships
  • Career Support Services
  • Student Life

Prioritize these resources according to your professional needs. For aspiring clinicians and academic researchers, top priorities may include faculty collaboration, research facilities, and clinical experience. Professionals may derive more value from strong career services and public health or commercial partnerships.

Resources

WorldWideLearn.com features an interactive search tool to help you identify schools that match your program criteria. Complete an online form stating your preferences, and arrange for school representatives to contact you to answer your questions about the nutrition master's degree program.

School Web sites publish information about the master's degree program in nutrition, with links to degree requirement handbooks, course descriptions, internships and lab facilities, and faculty resumes or publications.

Informational interviews and campus visits give you an inside perspective on a particular graduate nutrition program. Set up interviews with faculty, alumni, and current graduate students to learn about current research opportunities, academic support resources, and the value of the degree on the job market. Campus visits give you an opportunity to tour facilities and get a feel for the program's academic orientation--a useful perspective, even if you plan to earn a master's degree online.

4. Quality and Selectivity

Finally, rank the programs on your list according to quality and selectivity. Look for schools that admit students with academic backgrounds similar to your own. Factors in this final assessment include:

  • Reputation
  • Selectivity
  • Job placement
  • Student demographics

Resources

Admissions Departments supply useful information about selectivity (average admitted students' GPA and test scores), job placement (starting salaries, signing bonuses, and employer information), and student demographics (work experience, percentage of international students). Ask a school representative or admissions counselor for these information sheets.

Rankings give you a general sense of the program's reputation. Authoritative rankings of nutrition master's degrees are hard to come by, but U.S. News & World Report's Best Graduate Schools in Public Health offers a close alternative.

Step Two: Apply to Graduate Nutrition Programs

The admissions application represents your opportunity to showcase your unique experience and abilities to the graduate nutrition programs on your list. The following steps help you put your best foot forward:

1. Complete Prerequisites

Most master's degree programs in nutrition set eligibility requirements for graduate study. These prerequisites generally include:

  • A bachelor's degree in nutrition or a related field from an accredited institution
  • Basic nutrition or science courses, if your undergraduate degree is in another field
  • Standardized tests such as the GRE and the TOEFL (for international students)

2. Prepare Application Materials

In addition to an online information form, you can expect to submit the following materials to support your application:

  • Academic transcripts
  • Letters of recommendation
  • Test scores
  • Personal statement describing your background and research interests
  • Resume and any publications

Start collecting these documents well in advance of the deadline to ensure that all pieces of the application arrive in time.

3. Finance Your Master's Degree in Nutrition

There are several ways to finance your nutrition master's degree. Many students choose to earn a master's degree online to preserve their main source of income. An employer may also offer continuing education incentives, such as tuition assistance or loan forgiveness programs.

Financial aid programs help you cover the remaining cost of a graduate degree. Sources of school funding include:

  • University and private scholarships
  • University, corporate, and professional association fellowships
  • Public and private research grants (NIH, etc.)
  • Graduate research and teaching assistantships
  • Federal and private student loans

For more information, visit the WorldWideLearn.com resource page on graduate education funding.

Step Three: Build an Academic Network

Finally, establish yourself as a member of the academic community. Connect with nutritionists and clinical dietitians who share your research interests by:

  • Joining Professional Associations. Major organizations include the ADA (American Dietetic Association) and the ASN (American Society for Nutrition).
  • Attending Networking Events and Conferences. Universities, professional associations, public health agencies, and nutrition-related nonprofits sponsor conferences and other events to foster exchange among nutritionists.
  • Reading Journals. Prominent publications include The Journal of Nutrition, The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (AJCN), and European Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

The opportunity to connect with professionals who share your commitment to healthy eating and public nutrition education is a key privilege of graduate education. The relationships you build now can sustain you throughout the program and your health career.

Conclusion

A master's degree in nutrition requires focus and commitment. To help you reach your goal, plan your academic journey each step of the way. Identifying the right resources from the outset can help you make the most of your graduate education. You can gain the expertise and connections to make a difference as a public health professional, either through research, policy, or clinical practice.

Sources

  • American Dietetic Association.
  • 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, Food Studies, and Public Health: Masters Degree Programs, NYU Steinhardt.
  • Dieticians and Nutritionists, Bureau of Labor Statistics (2009).
  • Graduate Program Directory, American Society for Nutrition.
  • Graduate Program in Nutrition, Penn State University.
  • International Organization of Nutritional Consultants (IONC).
  • List of Accredited Schools & Programs of Public Health, Council on Education for Public Health.
  • MS in Human Nutrition, University of Bridgeport.
  • Online Programs in Health and Nutrition, The Sloan Consortium.

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