Nutrition, a Career Change & Grad School

Hi friends!

I’ve gotten quite a few emails lately from some readers about nutrition, making a career change & applying to grad school. I guess it’s that time of year with many applications due in December & January.

I remember being just as confused when I first started looking into nutrition programs – so I decided to put together a FAQ post to share some of my background, experiences and advice!

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Did you study nutrition as an undergrad?

I did not. I majored in Communications with an emphasis on broadcasting, thinking I wanted to be a news journalist. An internship at Fox in Boston quickly changed my mind. I worked in marketing for about a year and then totally randomly moved to North Carolina and took a job in grant administration at UNC. I contemplated many career changes in my early 20s, everything from fashion design to physical therapy.

How & when did you decide to pursue a degree & career in nutrition?

I developed a personal interest in nutrition after college. After struggling with disordered eating and body image issues for years, I began eating whole foods, ditched extreme diets for good and began listening to my hunger cues. Ultimately, these changes allowed me to stop obsessing over ever little imperfection and every calorie I put in my mouth. I experienced how powerful whole foods and good nutrition are and decided to go back to school to pursue a career as a Registered Dietitian when I was 24 – so I could help others achieve the same healthy balance.

How did you decide on a Master’s?

In order to become a Registered Dietitian, you essentially have to have either a Bachelor’s or Master’s Degree in nutrition. There is a way to do it without but by the time you take all the classes and jump through all the hoops, it’s easiest and wisest to get the degree.

With almost no science background, I initially thought I’d have to get a 2nd Bachelor’s degree in nutrition. Not true. Most, if not all, Master’s programs allow non-nutrition majors to apply as long as the required prerequisites have been completed.

Would you recommend a coordinated or uncoordinated (didactic) program?

There are a couple of different ways to becoming a RD but if you are going to pursue a degree, either a Bachelors or Masters, I’d personally recommend the coordinated programs. These programs are designed and accredited so that you meet all of the criteria to take the national R.D. exam upon graduation, coursework and internships combined. Contrastingly, RD students in didactic programs must finish their coursework and then complete their internships, which involves entering a lottery and “match” into an internship spot, just like medical students matching into residency. Students may not get their first, second or third choice…. The last I heard there are more dietetic students than internship spots which means that some students in uncoordinated programs may not get an internship the first time around. I’ve found this makes coordinated programs more desirable and ultimately, more competitive.

How did you complete all of the prerequisites for your grad program?

At the time I decided to pursue a Master’s in nutrition, I was conveniently employed by a university. Part of the benefits of being a full-time employee at The University of North Carolina is a tuition credit. This allowed me to take up to 3 courses per academic year completely for free. This worked out perfectly because many of the prereqs were sequential: Anatomy & Physiology before General Chem, General Chem before Organic Chem… I kept my full-time job and took all 7 of my prereqs 1 class at a time. I highly recommend getting a job with similar perks but I realize I got lucky. A lot of my friends took their prereqs at a local community college while also working full-time. This is more affordable than taking classes at a university – just make sure you check with the programs you plan to apply to to make sure they accept community college credit.

What resources did you find useful when deciding which programs to apply to?

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics has a great page for aspiring RD students. It used to be really confusing but I think it’s gotten better over the years. The site lists all of the accredited programs, both undergraduate and graduate, all over the country. I recommend clicking through the ones that interest you and researching individual programs online. Emailing program coordinators with specific questions is incredibly helpful too.

Once you find a program that fits, what do you think is most critical for acceptance?

Experience. Nutrition-related experience is great but don’t discount life experience either. A lot of graduate programs take into consideration what you’ve done since undergrad and often prefer applicants with a few years of work, school & volunteer experience after college. Undergraduate GPAs & GRE scores are important but they’re not the end-all, be-all.

Focus on current volunteer & work opportunities, networking and doing well in your perquisite courses. Here are just a few ideas & tips:

  • Volunteer at a food bank or get involved with nutrition programs like Share Our Strength.
  • Shadow a Registered Dietitian to get a feel for the profession. Talk about the good, the bad and the ugly parts of the job.
  • Research your top 2 programs, inside and out. Visit the schools and make an appointment to chat with faculty you find interesting and/or admission committee members.
  • Highlight all of your pertinent experience in your application, no matter how small it seems.
  • Don’t be afraid to send an addendum with your latest activities or an additional reference letter once your application is in. I did both of these things. It lets the admissions committee know you’re dedicated and you care enough to follow up.

How difficult is it to be accepted at UNC?

Applicant pools vary and admissions committees change from year to year so it’s really tough to say. UNC has a very competitive public health program. You can look at all of the admission statistics from the previously admitted class and beat yourself up over that C in Organic Chemistry like I did but I don’t recommend it. It’s a complete waste of time. You’ll likely just end up stressed out and feeling inadequate.

My biggest bit of advice is to invest in building a strong, well-rounded application. Don’t discount experiences that may seem small or insignificant either. I met with one of the admissions committee members before applying and asked her what was 1 thing she recommend I do to build a stronger application. She said, “Spend a morning shadowing a clinical dietitian and add that experience to your application.” She then gave me the name & number of one of her colleagues. Simple enough!

What are your most meaningful experiences, internships, & classes since you’ve started your degree?

I’ve always seen myself working as a clinical dietitian and helping people 1-on-1 with nutrition so I naturally liked and did well in my clinical courses related to patient counseling, assessment and medical nutrition therapy. I’ve most enjoyed my and dietetic internship at UNC Hospitals. I completed 12 weeks working in adult, inpatient nutrition this summer and am now working on 10 weeks in pediatrics.

What do you see yourself doing with your degree?

I’ve been asking myself that question a lot lately! A year ago I would have said I see myself working in a hospital as a clinical dietitian. I enjoy helping patients in the hospital but as you can probably tell, I’m also a fairly creative person and there’s not much room for creativity in critically ill patients. This has me contemplating a combination of other options like building a private practice, doing freelance nutrition writing and also growing my blog.

How are you funding your education and what resources would you recommend?

Student loans, and lots of them. Leaving a full-time job and living on loans was hard, but worth it. UNC has one of the lowest in-state tuition rates among state schools in the country. My degree cost about half as it would if I weren’t a North Carolina resident but it’s still a lot of money when you consider all of the income you won’t be earning while in school full-time.

I recommend looking at state school programs & establishing residency before applying. If you’ve got an impressive application, talk with schools to see what potential funding is available. Keep in mind the starting salary of a Registered Dietitian and let that help guide you in choosing what schools to apply to. A more expensive degree isn’t usually any better.

How many other schools did you apply to? Would you even recommend applying to multiple schools if you know where you want to go?

I only applied to one other school, The University of Washington in Seattle. I did this so I’d still have a chance at starting grad school in the Fall of 2010 even if I weren’t accepted to UNC.

If I had to do it over again, I would only apply to UNC. Honestly, I had almost no intention of going to U. Washington solely because I’d be paying out-of-state tuition. If you absolutely know where you want to go, commit to it. Visit the school and meet with admission committee members to talk about the program and application process. Let them know you want in. Applying to other programs will be a waste of your precious time and money.

What are some things you wish someone had told you before you applied?

In general:

  • Don’t stress over that C in Organic Chemistry. It doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things.
  • Don’t obsess over the previous year’s admission statistics to predict your odds of getting in. It’s a waste of time.
  • Don’t freak out about having to make all new friends. Nutrition students usually have a lot of things in common. I met some incredible girls who are now some of my best friends purely because we all loved to run.

UNC-specific:

This program (UNC Master’s of Public Health in Nutrition) is relentless. The UNC admissions committee and faculty are now using this word to describe the MPH in Nutrition program to applicants because it’s an intensely busy 2 1/2 years. I consider myself to be pretty persevering but there were even a couple of brief moments throughout the past 2 1/2 years that I questioned my desire to complete the program.

Making a career change, especially one that involves leaving a job and going back to grad school is a huge decision! I hope I answered most of the big questions but feel free to ask additional ones in the comments below.

Have a fabulous day!

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  • I’m applying to Georgia State’s Coordinated Nutrition Masters Program and trying to figure out a strategy to do my writing sample. The application doesn’t give a page limit, so I’m questioning if less is more or if it’s supposed to be a full-blown research paper dealing with a topic I’m interested related to nutrition … maybe somewhere in the middle?

  • So I have all of the science pre-reqs like organic chem, anatomy, etc but I don’t have much nutrition courses under my belt. If I get my Masters in a coordinated program, would I have to take all the nutrition courses required in the DPD or will the courses in the Master’s program be enough? Thanks!

  • Thank you so much for this post. This is so helpful. I remember when I was younger and struggling to keep myself fit and always looking forward to learn anything new about nutrition and health. Now I know that making a career change is not easy.

  • Hello Elle,

    I really enjoy your blog and love checking out your healthy and delicious recipes. I am interested in becoming a Registered Dietitian, and I am very interested in Chapel Hill’s Masters in Public Health and RD program.

    I have a question regarding your prerequisite courses at Chapel Hill. Did you have to take Organic Chemistry I and II to take Biochemistry? Do you remember what Biochemistry course you took at Chapel Hill? I am having a tough time finding an approved Biochemistry course that does not require Organic Chemistry II. I understand that Chapel Hill’s requirements might have changed since you were a student, however I would appreciate any additional insight on this matter from a previous graduate of the UNC dietetic program.

    Thank you,
    Nicole

    • Hi Nicole! I took NUTR 400 Introduction to Nutritional Biochemistry (here’s the syllabus: https://sph.unc.edu/files/2017/01/NUTR-400-Spring-2017.pdf) which only required 1 semester of Organic Chemistry — thank goodness! I’m not sure where you’re doing your prereqs but maybe look into the requirements for nutritional biochem courses instead! Hope that helps.

      Oh and I forgot to mention — that nutritional biochem course was also one of the required courses for the program. Since I took it as a prereq, I didn’t have to take it again while in school! If you do find a nutritional biochem course that doesn’t require Organic Chem II, it’s worth seeing if the credits would also count towards the course required by the program. :)

  • Hello
    I read your article and I’m going through the same dilemma.
    I too did engineering in electronics and communication but just like you I had few issues with my health, which made me conscious about my health and my food intake.
    I used to research alot related to health and food and I realized that im actually enjoying it.
    I did my 4 yrs course in btech and it’s been a year I am working in an IT company.
    And now I feel that this was something I never wanted i should have taken biology instead if computer science in 12th.
    I feel I have wasted my 5years, but in the end I want to be happy with my job
    I wish to switch my career and become a dietitian/nutritionist but is that even possible.??

    I need your advice!

  • The information in this blog post was very beneficial. I do have a followup question. If I have a Master’s In Public Health/Nutrition Concentration, what steps would I take to becoming an RD. There is so much information on the web. Any advice you could give would be beneficial.
    Thanks

  • Wow, thank you for posting this. After reading your thoughts and all of the comments, it’s helpful to know that I’m not alone! I also completed a Bachelor’s Degree in a non-science field, have been working for 3 years in finance (while maintaining my health and fitness blog on the side), and have finally realized my true passion is in nutrition. I am only just beginning the researching phase and am so happy to know that a Master’s is still possible for me.

    The timeline is intimidating, but I’ve recently learned that the pride is in the process. I can’t wait to begin this journey.

  • I have a non-dietetics beachelor’s degree and plan on pursuing a masters degree in Nutrition. I am interested in several online programs since I like their holistic approach on nutrition. I am aware that the programs are not accredited to become an RD, however, through these online programs I should be able to sit in for the Certified Nutrition Specialist (CNS) exam. I am wondering if this is the right path for me. I seek to work with patients either in a clinical setting or private practice and am unsure if I can accomplish this as a CNS with a masters through an online program. Please help!

  • I have a biology degree with almost 30 hours in dietetics as a second major. I was unable to finish my second degree and they won’t work with me to do it online… I am interested in an online master dietetics and nutrition program.. does anyone know of any that will take a non dietetics undergrad.

    • Hi there!

      There are two all online, coordinated MS of Nutrition Programs that I know: Eastern Michigan University and Georgia State. I’m looking at EMU right now because I have a non-Dietetics undergrad also. They have a second BS Dietetics degree and an MS, both of which are ACEND accredited, fully online, and allow you to sit for the exam.

      There are several didactic programs also; they can be found here: http://www.eatrightpro.org/resources/acend/accredited-programs/didactic-programs-in-dietetics

      I’ll likely apply to one of these programs as a back up, but hopefully I’ll get into EMU!

      Good luck!

      Megan

  • Thank you for posting this. I graduated with my bachelor’s last year in psychology and a minor in Spanish, but I recently decided I wanted to become a sports nutritionist. With my background, is it possible to to get a certification in nutrition and go into that field or would I need to get a master’s? The only only science background I have is biology and basic chemistry.

  • Such a great post – thank you! I’m 29 and graduated with a BA in Speech Communication at age 25. Now I need to go back and get into prereqs before going the route of the master’s program (coordinated). Like you, I work for a university in healthcare, so the tuition reduction is going to be big! It’s great to hear someone who had a similar story, with the exception that you got a 5 year head start. Oh well, it’s never too late to make a change for the rest of your life.

  • Hi, Thanks for the great post.
    I have completed a Bachelor of science in Biosciences. I want to apply for Master’s in Dietetics. I have completed most, but not all of the pre-requisite subjects. Can I study the remaining pre-requisite subjects along the course or should I study them separately first and apply later on?
    Would be grateful for your reply.
    Thank you

  • Also, what made you choose the Master’s degree? There are very few Master’s degree options in my area, and the 2 are very far away. There are several schools closer to me with the Bachelor in Nutritional Science option. Have you found that the Master’s makes you more marketable? Thanks!

  • GREAT post! Thanks so much for this! I am a bit older and have been working for 11 years and am ready for a change. This post is inspiring, yet again!

  • I’m currently graduated with a BA in psych, and was really interested in getting my masters in social work. Right now I’m a behavioral health tech in the Army, but I’ve recently considered a masters in nutrition instead, and this has been very helpful! Thank you for writing it =)

  • Hi Elle,

    Thank you for this blog! It was really helpful. I do have a follow-up q about your comment regarding getting a whole new Bachelors va going straight into Masters program. Everyone I seem to talk to says I have to get a whole new bachelors (I have BA in Psych) before the internship. I’d love to know more details about how you went straight into the MA program. Thanks!

    • Too funny, I’m in the same boat! I have a BA in psych and really considering going for my masters in nutrition. I have emailed some faculty members of schools that I’m interested in, and all have said that a BA/BS is NOT required to get your masters in nutrition, only the prereqs.

  • Hi.
    I am currently take Bachelor of Secondary Education major in Biological Science (Teacher someday) I am now third year student. Can I also take master in nutrition? can you give me an advice for this? Thank you in advance

  • Hi,
    I am in the process of finishing up Biochem and applying to Drexel University MS/DPD in Nutrition program. I too am making a huge career change, well will be in a few years–I teach 4th gr. right now! I wanted to ask how you handled not having financial support during your internship— that’s where I’m wondering how people do it financially. Thanks for any advice in advance!

  • I’m at your same position with a bachelor in psychology planning to take a master in nutrition do you suggest any universities that accept taking a master in different field ?

  • The whole “don’t stress over a C in Organic Chem” thing seriously saved me right now. I was over here plotting alternate career paths because I felt like if I couldn’t get an A in orgo, what chance do I have at getting into my CP? Thank you, this has calmed my nerves a bit!

  • Elle, this was such a wonderful entry; so clear, and informative. Thank you for answering the questions many of us have as we enter a career in nutrition! I have just discovered your blog, and I couldn’t be any more happy that I did. You are doing wonderful things!

  • I am so thankful for coming across your post! Just like yourself I realized i want to change my career path. I have my BS in sociology. Initially i wanted to become a Social Worker but I have realized that Nutrition is the perfect mesh for me. Any advice?

  • I just had to post – just came home from my organic chem final, the last one I had to write before my admission to Dietetics gets processed for this year. “Don’t stress over that C in organic chem” – could not have come at a better time! =)

  • I’m so glad I just found this post! (and your blog) I’m taking my prereqs now so I can apply to a masters program and reading this was so helpful and informative!

  • Thank you, Elle, for this post!! I am and RD student at Appalachian State University and I’m really struggling with Chemistry right now. This post was really helpful! I just found your blog and happy to hear you went to UNCCH! North Carolina is my home and I love it!

  • This blog post was SO helpful and I can’t thank you enough! My question is what kind of jobs you think look good on a resume when applying to a coordinated program. I’m a college senior changing my path and want some good experience/exposure while getting paid (if that’s possible!)

  • Therefore, it is important to hire an experienced photographer who knows his craft well. Hindu wedding photography is one of its kind and is particularly excruciating than other forms of wedding photography.. I recommend you get a database and see how it will transform your business. With regards to the interior decorating, photographic installable goods have a great value.

  • Thanks for your post. I am really interested in RD. and i want to pursue this career for the rest of my life.currently,I am confused in my case.i got Nutritional therapy MSc at university of Worcester,Uk. To become RD in US, what should I do now? My bachelor is biology, master is nutritional therapy. Hopefully help me clear. Thank you So much

  • Thanks for your post. I am really interested in RD. and i want to pursue this career for the rest of my life.currently,I am confused in my case.i got Nutritional therapy MSc at university of Worcester,Uk. To become RD in , what should I do ? My bachelor is biology, master is nutritional therapy. Hopefully help me clear. Thank you So much

  • Great information! Did you pursue a master’s degree before completing the internship, or was it a combined program? Thanks

  • Thank you for your post! I am making a career change from education to nutrition. I just need to start studying for the GRE and work on my pre requistes

  • i’m so glad i’ve found your blog! i am currently a junior at seattle pacific university studying nutrition/dietetics! i actually started out going to UW for a year, planning to get a science degree and then doing the masters in nutrition, but i decided against that and decided to do the bachelors/internship route instead. i am realllllllly nervous about applying to internships, especially since i don’t have perfect grades or lots of volunteer work. thank you for your tips.

  • Thank you for posting this. I have a BS degree in Biology and decided a year after graduation that I would enjoy a career in nutrition. Every professor that I speak to tells me something different and it has become VERY confusing. I had one professor tell me I could take a few extra courses non-degree and be good-to-go, while another professor told me I needed to complete an entire 4 year undergrad program! I am looking into masters programs. Do you happen to know any way to become an RD without enrolling in a degree program? Thanks!

    • you cannot. you have to do the program. i mean you can become a “nutritionist” very easily, but that’s not really going to get your anywhere. since you have a biology degree you can probably finish the dietetic program really quickly, in less than 2 years (since you will have finished all the science courses)

  • Thank you for this information! One of our fellow elves is beginning her pursuit of a degree in nutrition, so I will be sure she reads this!

  • Thank you so much…. in the midst of hearing so much negativity with this career, you were a breath of fresh air.

  • Thanks so much for your information. I am in a very similar position that you were in. I am 24, have a B.S. in Biology but want to attend UNC for a Master’s in Nutrition. I basically have all the courses I need to get in except for Anatomy and Nutrition, so I was wondering if you knew of any online colleges I could take these courses from. I looked for them on UNC’s website, but I don’t believe they offer them in the Spring or Summer, and I need to fulfill these prerequisites before Fall 2014 to get into the program. Do you know which online Universities UNC allows you to get these credits from? Thanks for your time! Your page was super helpful!

    • Hi Sally, I’d reach out to the program coordinator. She could definitely guide you in the right direction! I had a few friends do some of their prerequisites online and during the summer so it’s definitely doable.

  • As i was reading this and eating my peach, I could not rid the exceptionally look of fascination off of my face. I couldn’t help myself from thinking “She gets me!.” YOU HAVE JUST EXPLAINED MY CURRENT SITUATION AND STATUS RIGHT DOWN TO THE VERY LAST COMMA. I am a recent Communications Major graduate who has also tackled “off the wall” eating habits and I have a vivd passion for Health and Nutrition but I have no idea what to do with! Or rather, where to go in the right direction; But, I am so determined to move forward. I am very adamant about going to Grad school. I am searching for all advice available. I found this article by chance..or actually, maybe it was fate. It would be an honor to discuss your experiences with you in further detail. I understand you are a very busy and successful woman, but a few minutes of your time may be exactly what I’ve been needing. Please email me at emcortri@gmail.com upon your earliest convenience. I will also do what I can and try to reach via your other social media and internet links. Thank you! Stay Positive, Stay Productive!

  • Thank you, thank you, thank you so much! I am applying to a masters program in dietetics right now and this helps a ton!!!

  • Thank you so much for posting this; it was great to learn more about your journey. I have a follow-up question, if you don’t mind. Are you hoping to have children in the nearish future? I know this is rather personal, so I completely understand if you don’t want to answer it. The reason I ask, however, is that I am around the age you were when you began your program, and I myself am looking to soon start a masters program to begin a new career track. This will of course see me investing lots of time and money, and I’d ultimately finish the program right around the time I also think I’d want to try for a baby. I know this might seem to be a strange question to ask, but I am just curious if you have had this on your mind too. I find myself worrying about doing a program and then trying to build a career from that program AND a family at the same time. Would love to hear your thoughts on this!

    • Kristen- I am in the same boat myself right now. I am supposed to be starting my masters in a few weeks and am having second thoughts about building a new career in a few years at the same time as I will want to start a family. I’m 28 now and including the pre-reqs my ms will wind up taking 3 years. Fast forward to 31 and I better already be pregnant, right? I’m curious what you wound up deciding…?

  • Thank you so much for this post, it was so insightful! I’m in my last year of a non-nutrition undergrad degree and I am considering going to grad school to become an RD. For some reason I could never find the answers to my questions anywhere but you seemed to cover them all!