Your Guide to Nutrition Degrees

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Learn more about earning your associate, bachelor's, master's, or doctorate in nutrition, and the various careers you can pursue with each one.

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Education can be a powerful asset when you’re interested in a nutrition career. Some careers, such as nutritionist or dietician, often require a bachelor’s degree. Each state sets different licensing standards, so you should review the requirements for your area. 

The field continues to be in demand. Openings for nutritionists and dieticians are expected to grow by 11 percent (faster than average) by 2030, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) [1]. 

Given the scientific nature of nutrition, you can strengthen your subject knowledge, develop valuable skills, and further build your network by earning your nutrition degree. Whether you’re embarking on the subject for the first time or looking to advance your credentials, it’s possible to earn a degree in nutrition at every available level: associate, bachelor’s, master’s, and doctorate. This article will review each type of nutrition degree, the coursework you can expect, and the careers you can pursue after graduation.  

Associate of Science in Nutrition 

Many schools use different names to talk about similar programs, such as the Associate of Science in Nutrition, Associate of Science in Applied Nutrition, and Associate of Science in Dietetics and Nutritional Services. No matter what it’s called, in an associate degree program, you should learn the foundations of nutritional science, including how it applies to biology, behavior, and various cultures.

Though requirements vary, you'll typically need to complete 60 credits to earn your associate degree. Most of those credits will go toward required liberal arts courses, with the remainder in your nutrition concentration. 

Coursework 

For your associate nutrition degree, you can expect to take courses in the natural sciences, such as organic chemistry and anatomy and physiology, along with courses that introduce you to nutrition science, such as: 

  • Elements of nutrition

  • Intro to food preparation

  • Food sanitation and safety

  • Nutritional counseling

Careers

Many associate nutrition degrees are structured to transfer into a four-year program since a bachelor’s degree is the more common degree to earn in this field. However, if you’d prefer to gain professional experience before continuing with your education, you can pursue the following careers: 

  • Dietetic technician, registered (DTR): Works under dieticians by providing clients with nutritional guidance and food plans. To become an DTR, you will need to complete an accredited technician program that requires finishing a number of clinical practice hours.

  • Nutrition and dietetics technician, registered (NDTR): Works under registered dietician nutritionists (RDNs) and provides clients with food and nutrition services. To become an NDTR, you will also need to complete an accredited technician program that requires finishing a number of clinical practice hours.

  • Community health worker: Many communities offer programs or services related to health and nutrition. Community health workers typically work with residents, conducting outreach, registering people for services, and staying informed about larger community needs.  

  • Dietary aide: These specialists work in health care settings and supply patients with nutrition information. They may also review any dietary issues and prepare meals. 

Bachelor of Science in Nutrition

Completing your four-year bachelor’s degree will involve declaring a major, such as nutrition and dietetics, food science, chemistry, or biology. When you opt to major in nutritional science (as opposed to a natural science major), some programs may expect you to specialize in one area, such as maternal nutrition, adolescent nutrition, or sports nutrition. 

Not every school offers every major or specialization. It’s important to reflect on your interests and career goals as you research relevant programs and apply to those that best align with the outcomes you hope to achieve.  

Learn more: What Should I Major In? 5 Things to Evaluate 

Coursework 

In a bachelor’s nutrition program, you may be expected to take science, public health, and mathematics courses. Your nutrition-specific courses may also include an array of research or theoretical approaches, including: 

  • Nutrition and health

  • Food and identity

  • Global nutrition

  • Human metabolism

  • Nutritional biochemistry

  • Food sanitation

Careers

With a bachelor’s degree in nutrition or a related field, you can pursue many careers such as: 

  • Nutritionist: Works with clients to determine what they eat, how much they exercise, and other relevant data to develop a nutritional plan that addresses a health issue or improves a health outcome. This role does not require state licensure.

  • Clinical nutritionist: Similar to a nutritionist, this role requires state licensure to perform similar duties in a clinical setting.

  • Registered dietician: Works with clients to address health and medical issues that stem from a person’s diet and nutrition. They often draw on their understanding of biology, physiology, and chemistry to help patients and clients by developing scientifically informed plans. They also have to complete a set number of clinical hours through an accredited program, such as a postbaccalaureate Dietetic Internship Program.  

  • Food scientist: Works to create or improve food products available to global consumers. Given their chemistry and food science knowledge, they can experiment and develop new products that will serve a market’s changing needs. 

  • Health educator: Works with a community to identify health needs and develop programming to address those larger issues.  

Master’s in Nutrition

You can earn your Master of Science or Master of Public Health (MPH) in nutrition. Each degree involves completing different coursework (though there may be overlapping material) and promotes different career outcomes. 

  • An MS in nutrition science focuses on conducting and evaluating clinical research. Graduates are more likely to become registered dieticians (RDs) or registered dietician nutritionists (RDNs). 

  • An MPH with a concentration in nutrition explores nutrition and its impact on various communities and cultures. Graduates often work with governments, nonprofits, or communities.  

You'll typically need to complete anywhere between 30 and 60 credits to earn a master’s degree. If you have not earned your bachelor’s degree in a related subject, your program may expect you to have successfully passed undergraduate courses in biology, physiology, organic chemistry, and other important natural science subjects before applying. You will also likely have to complete a clinical placement (MS students) or internship (MPH students).  

Coursework 

In a master’s nutrition program, you will build on your understanding of nutritional science and advance your methods of working with the public on matters of health. The specialized coursework you take will depend on the type of degree you pursue. 

Sample MS courses: 

  • Macronutrients

  • Maternal and child nutrition

  • Weight management

  • Clinical nutrition

  • Research methods

Sample MPH courses:

  • Global environmental health 

  • Healthcare policy 

  • Nutrition epidemiology 

  • Nutrition and the life cycle

  • Sustainable food system design

Careers

A bachelor’s degree in nutrition, plus licensure in certain instances, is often what’s required to work in nutrition. But a master’s degree can help you advance into more senior roles or those requiring additional clinical research. 

Depending on your area of specialization, you may find that you qualify for roles that work specifically on some aspect of nutrition, such as an oncology nutritionist—or someone who works with patients dealing with cancer who wish to adjust their nutrition in an effort to promote better health. 

Learn more: Is a Master’s Degree Worth It?

PhD in Nutrition 

After completing a master’s degree, preferably in the field of nutrition science or food science, you can earn your PhD in nutrition and refine your research abilities. As a PhD student, you’ll be expected to concentrate in a specific area of nutrition, such as micronutrients, newborn health, or epidemiology. PhD graduates often go on to work in academia or positions of leadership.

There are also PhD/RD programs available for those who wish to elevate their “translational research” capabilities. Applicants typically need to have earned their master’s and completed a Didactic Program in Dietetics. In such programs, students will complete their Dietetic Internship Program during their first year before going on to focus on their doctoral studies. Schools that offer such programs may expect you to have experience conducting research before you apply. 

Dissertation

Beyond the core coursework you’ll take as a PhD student, which will depend on your emphasis, you’ll also be expected to research and write an original dissertation.

Which nutrition degree is right for you? 

The best nutrition degree is the one that helps you achieve your goals, whether those are based on specific education or career outcomes. Think about why you’d like to study nutrition in the first place, and whether there’s a particular aspect of the work that seems more interesting. For example, do you want to help shape public policy? Or are you more interested in working with clients to improve immediate health outcomes? The career you ultimately want to pursue can help determine your path forward.

Time 

Time is an important resource when determining which nutrition degree is best for you. For example, if you’re interested in earning your bachelor’s degree, but do not have at least four or five years to dedicate to that education, then you may want to consider starting with an associate degree and transferring your credits to a four-year program when you’re ready. 

Licensure 

For some careers, you may have to pursue licensure after finishing your nutrition degree. For prospective students, many schools explain how their nutrition degrees align with licensing requirements, and some offer postbaccalaureate programs, such as Dietetic Internship Programs, allowing you to complete the necessary hours before sitting for your registered dietician exam. 

Advancement

Many people who work in nutrition go on to earn a graduate degree, like a master’s, to advance their career. With a master’s degree, you typically learn how to conduct more in-depth research, develop more specialized knowledge, and prepare to take on more senior or leadership-oriented roles.

Get started 

No matter which degree you earn, a career in nutrition can be a rewarding endeavor as you help people lead more informed and healthier lives. Explore more about the field with Stanford University’s Introduction to Food and Health on Coursera. 

Or consider elevating your nutrition career with a Master of Public Health (MPH) from the University of Michigan. You can enroll in a class for free, like Breastfeeding: Public Health Perspectives, before you apply. 

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Article sources

1. US Bureau of Labor Statistics. “Dieticians and Nutritionists, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/dietitians-and-nutritionists.htm.” Accessed July 19, 2022. 

2. College Board. “Trends in College Pricing and Student Aid 2021, https://research.collegeboard.org/media/pdf/trends-college-pricing-student-aid-2021.pdf.” Accessed July 19, 2022. 

3. Education Data Initiative. “Average Cost of a Master’s Degree, https://educationdata.org/average-cost-of-a-masters-degree.” Accessed July 19, 2022.  

Written by Coursera • Updated on

This content has been made available for informational purposes only. Learners are advised to conduct additional research to ensure that courses and other credentials pursued meet their personal, professional, and financial goals.

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