Nutrition is a complex multidisciplinary field that brings together the biological sciences, economics, politics, human behavior, and environmental science. I chose to pursue a graduate degree in nutrition because I was fascinated with food, and had fallen in love with chemistry (weird I know). I wanted to study the pathophysiology of lipid metabolism and diabetes, was sick of dietitians preaching uninspired methods (carbohydrate counting for diabetes), and I wanted to work in a challenging and meaningful field.
My Career Change
Deciding on a nutrition graduate program has been an exciting and yet overwhelming experience. Sitting with my fellow accepted nutrition graduate students at the various schools I have been accepted into over the past month, has pushed me to reflect on the 4 year post-baccalaureate journey I’ve taken from a political science bachelors degree into the medical field.
To those of you considering a similar career change, know that moving from social science into the medical sciences is challenging, expensive, and a longer process than going into many other fields, often times with a lower payoff (financially). If you understand that going in, than I applaud you to go for it, and get into this challenging, fascinating, yet extremely rewarding field.
As I come to a final decision on the five very different graduate programs in nutrition that I have been accepted into, I feel like I have spent a lot of time and gained a wealth of information on the different graduate programs available in this field in the United States, and the process of applying to these different programs.
Coming from a liberal arts education, I know that I struggled with the research process, because unlike medical school, PA school, PT school, dental school, and nursing school, nutrition programs are not streamlined. What I mean by this is that there are many different types of degrees, different program focuses, and different prerequisites. Used to dealing with other health programs, both the health advisor at my undergraduate institution and my pre-health advisor didn’t have much to offer in the way of advice. I did most of my research through Google and some on LinkedIn, but found it difficult to discover a consolidated guide to nutrition programs. Hopefully any of you future nutrition folks will find this post helpful when determining where and how to apply.
Different Degrees/Career Types
Here’s the deal with going into the field of nutrition:
Most degrees are going to be somewhat specialized, so you want to have a relative sense of where you want your career to be prior to applying. If you choose to pursue your MD you will have more flexibility to adjust while in school, although you will have very little training in nutritional science. Degrees in nutrition, however, vary greatly in terms of the focus and material taught, so make sure to do your research and some soul searching.
Note: Health Coach/ Life Coach/ Nutritionist
The first thing to understand is that there are many ways to get into the field of nutrition. In fact, many people work or market themselves as nutritionists without a degree in nutrition and with little to no education or training. Good news is if you want to be a health coach, you don’t need an expensive education. Bad news is you have very little credibility in the medical world because of it.
Registered Dietitian (RD/RDN)
Often when people think of nutritionists they think of registered dietitians. The RD is a clinical credential. You NEED this degree if you want to be a clinical dietitian or be in most patient-facing positions. In order to become a registered dietitian, you must first complete a didactic program in dietetics (DPD), then you must match with a dietetic internship and complete your clinical rotations, and finally you must sit for and pass an exam.
- Didactic Program in Dietetics (DPD):
- Most didactic programs in dietetics are offered at the undergraduate level. Students complete a number of lower and upper division science requirements typically in the departments of chemistry and biology, along with a number of nutrition requirements. Students typically major in dietetics if DPD is completed in undergrad.
- If you have already graduated with your bachelors (like me), you have a couple of options. You can re-enroll in an undergraduate institution and earn a second bachelors (sounds painful), you can complete a didactic program in dietetics as a post-bacc student (a few schools offer this), or you can complete a coordinated masters and DPD/RD program (GCPD programs). You can search for GCPD programs here.
- Dietetic Internship (DI):
- There are a number of dietetic internships offered throughout the United States. After completing your DPD program, you can opt to go through a complicated matching process where you rank your internship choices. Different internships have different focuses, but they all include clinical rotations. Most include rotations in the following areas: Medical Nutrition Therapy (MNT), Community, and Food Service.
- Matching for an internship is stressful and highly competitive. Students who hold a master’s degree are at an advantage, and very soon, everyone hoping to obtain the RD credential will have to have a master’s (something to keep in mind).
Master’s of Science v. Master’s of Science in Public Health v. Master’s of Public Health (MS/MPH/MSPH)
When looking at different graduate programs in nutrition, the type of degree is often dependent upon which school the nutrition department is housed in. If the program is housed in the public health school, than the degree awarded is typically a MPH. If the nutrition program is housed in the school of biological sciences, exercise physiology, nutritional sciences, etc. than the degree awarded will typically be an MS.
- Programs located in the public health school will typically include some public health requirements such as nutritional epidemiology and biostatistics.
- Programs in other schools may have different focuses such as a stronger emphasis on bench laboratory sciences or specific aspects of nutrition. For example: USC’s program housed in the School of Gerontology has a focus on aging populations.
- The only school that I know of that offers an MSPH is Columbia whose program is randomly housed in Teacher’s College rather than the school of public health, but I’m assuming has somewhat of a public health focus.
- Coordinated Programs:
- There are a number of graduate programs that coordinate the DPD and/or DI (dietetic internship) with a masters program. You can find a list of these accredited programs by state at the American Dietetics Association Website.
Doctoral Degrees (PhD, Dr.Ph)
A number of schools offer doctoral degrees in nutrition. Most of these programs are going to be extremely research intensive, so if you know that your interest is in research or working in academia, these are the degrees for you. It’s important to note that a number of these programs require applicants to have completed a master’s degree prior to applying, so it’s important to check with each school to determine your eligibility.
Although I am considering pursuing a PhD, I knew I wanted both a master’s degree as well as a clinical degree. The following is a table of all of the programs I looked into, and some of the pre requisites/requirements for each. Please note that these prerequisite requirements may change from year to year, and that some of these prerequisites haven’t been updated for two years. Also, know that these are not the only graduate programs in nutrition. These are simply the only graduate programs that I seriously considered, and I only ended up applying to five of them.
Conquering or just Completing your Pre-recs
Every nutrition program has a different list of prerequisites, so I would advise you to begin with the prerequisites that are common to most of the programs you are looking at. Almost all programs require general chemistry and organic chemistry, so I would begin there. Most programs also require physiology and biochemistry, so these are also good courses to take prior to submitting your application.
It is important to contact the schools you are considering early on. Most schools accept online courses or community college courses as prerequisites, although taking your prerequisites at a 4-year college will make you a stronger applicant. Some schools require a number of specific prerequisites or all prerequisites to be completed prior to submission of your application.
If you are switching careers, and have completed pretty much none of the prerequisites, then I would advise completion of a post-baccalaureate program, as it will be easier than fighting with undergraduates to get into lectures and labs. You can search for postbac programs on the AAMC site, although you want to make sure that the program offers the prerequisites you need (many pre-med programs don’t offer nutrition or physiology). I completed the gen chem series at UCSD and then entered the UC Berkeley Extension post-baccalaureate pre-health program, which allowed for flexible completion of prerequisites for a number of different health professions. My classes at Berkeley were extremely rigorous, as I was taking classes such as organic chemistry and anatomy for the first time. A number of students had already taken these courses in undergraduate, and were hoping to increase their GPA before applying to medical school. Others like me were hoping to change their careers and starting from scratch. I learned a lot very quickly and made great friends and study buddies.
Every program I applied to required the GRE, but many of them will accept the MCAT and some will accept the DAT in place of the GRE. Although most programs don’t seem to care too much about GRE scores (after all the GRE has little to do with nutrition), a poor score could be a reason to throw out your application. Most schools require applicants to get scores at or above the 50th percentile.
My advice would be to take a course or get a tutor (Manhattan Prep offers challenging practice), and to not expect your best score from the first time taking the test. I took the test twice and greatly improved my quant score the second time around. Studying for the GRE is about understanding the exam, learning how to pace yourself, and knowing when to guess and skip a question. Speed on the GRE is crucial, so the more timed practice exams you take and review, the better your score will be.
Get Experience in the Field
Many programs prefer applicants with experience in the field.
- Contact an RD: I would advise you to reach out to registered dietitians in your area and ask to shadow them, or simply converse with people working in areas you think you may be interested in. This will give you a better understanding of what type of work you want to do and what type of degree you will want to pursue. Use LinkedIn to search for RDs or other nutrition professionals you are interested in speaking with, and don’t be afraid to shoot off an email or cold call. Most nutrition professionals love what they do and love to speak with students interested in the field.
- Volunteer: Take advantage of opportunities even if they don’t pay. It can be challenging to get a position in a hospital or in research without a medical degree or experience. I got my current position in clinical research at UCSF by volunteering for nine months before getting hired on. Please note that even obtaining volunteer positions can be competitive. I was interviewed by a panel of three clinicians in both English and Spanish.
- Get involved with local food: If you’re less interested in clinical nutrition or research, get involved locally with the food movement. Try working part time for a local farm or farmers market. Any experience with food or health can help direct your interest.
Graduate programs want to know why you are interested in going to graduate school and what you hope to accomplish with a graduate degree. These are not easy questions, but getting experience can help you gain direction.
Narrow your List of Graduate Programs
Applications are time-consuming and expensive, so it’s probably a good idea to narrow your list to only those programs which you would consider attending. I know a number of people that only applied to one program, but I wasn’t bound by location, and so I applied to five programs.
- Start your essay early: Almost all applications require a personal statement or statement of purpose or both. Traditionally a statement of purpose is a more formal essay outlining your academic history, experience, and future goals. A personal statement can typically be more creative, involving why you are passionate about the subject you plan to study. Be careful though as prompts may differ depending on the school. Make sure to answer the questions asked, and write an engaging and well-written piece. Most applications are due in December and January, so I would advise those applying to begin their statements by the summer.
- Do multiple drafts: Even if your statement is of the personal nature, I would advise you to send your statement to friends, family, mentors, and colleagues who are willing to review and help edit. I probably did almost thirty drafts of my statement, and everyone I sent mine too had a new perspective. Know that what you write may not make sense to someone who doesn’t know you and your story, so it’s a good idea to get multiple opinions. The statement is a critical aspect to the application, so make sure you are submitting a masterpiece.
- Choose your recommenders carefully: The most difficult part of the application process for me was getting recommendations. Most schools prefer 2 out of your 3 recommenders to be academic, and the final to be professional. DO NOT obtain all recommendations from employers. Academic recommendations can be challenging to obtain, so begin reaching out to professors early. It is a good idea to contact professors with whom you worked or from whom you took multiple classes. Few professors will be willing to write a recommendation if they do not remember you, furthermore, professors who know you better will write better recommendations. I reached out to professors I had in undergrad over email and explained my career goals and provided them with my personal statement. If you are currently in school or in a post-bacc program, than make an effort to meet with and get to know your professor, and ask for a recommendation in person prior to completion of the class. Again, recommendations matter, so find people who will write good things about you. NEVER get a recommendation from a friend, family member or family friend. ALWAYS request recommendations at least 1 month prior to the deadline.
- Order your transcripts early: Make sure you order your transcripts with plenty of time to spare. I have a friend who applied to medical school and did not receive any secondaries, because the registrar messed up her transcripts. Order your transcripts at least a month before the deadline, and double check that they arrive.
- The Grad School CV: Most nutrition graduate programs ask for a CV rather than a resume. Grad school CVs differ from a typical job resume. Don’t be afraid to go over one page, because many graduate programs want to know what you have done since graduating from undergraduate. Make sure to include academic achievements, research experience, any certifications, and any publications.
- Submit before the deadline: Make sure you know the deadlines for the schools you are applying to, and make sure you don’t miss the deadline. Many schools also require earlier submission to be considered for merit awards or fellowships, so be in touch with your perspective programs, because these deadlines are not always listed. I kept all of my information in a giant excel spreadsheet, so find a good way to organize.
Acceptance and Decisions
Acceptances usually begin to roll in around late February or early March, and decisions are typically required by April 15th, although other programs require earlier decisions (University of Washington).
When deciding on a program, it’s a good idea to attend the accepted students days. You can really get a good sense of the program by speaking with professors, current students, and other accepted students. My accepted students day at UNC Chapel Hill completely changed my program choice (from Tufts to UNC Chapel Hill!). Every school has something different to offer, so do your research and ask questions. Remember, they’ve already chosen you, so it’s their job to get you to choose them, after all, grad school is NOT cheap. You want to determine the program that is the right fit for you, so ask questions.
You may want to consider the type of degree offered, time to complete the degree, location, research, students, cost, ranking, and alumni careers.
My Choice: UNC Chapel Hill!
I am excited to announce that I will begin my graduate school journey at UNC Chapel Hill in August!
After an exhausting application process, I was accepted into every program I applied to (UC Berkeley, University of Washington, Tufts, UNC Chapel Hill, and San Diego State). UNC Chapel Hill emerged as the obvious choice after careful consideration of each program. UNC Chapel Hill felt like the right fit for me because of the research on diabetes, coordinated clinical and public health program, and department that is located both in the medical school and in the school of public health. I was also extremely impressed with the faculty, inspiring current students, and intelligent and diverse class of accepted students.
Go Tar Heels!