Best Doctorate in Nutrition Programs

Oct 20, 2021

Nutrition Doctorate Overview

Students interested in studying food and how it interacts with the human body may decide to pursue a doctoral degree in the field of nutrition. These advanced degrees are designed to prepare students for leadership roles in working with clients, researching the field, and more. Some students may be comparing a dietetics degree vs. a nutrition degree and find that dietetics degrees include more clinical work that helps prepare students for professional credentials in the field. Either way, students can easily find a nutrition degree that fits both their interests and career goals. Many of these degree programs are also available in online or hybrid formats for flexibility. Here, we will discuss some of the different degrees in nutrition that are available and dive into details like coursework, admissions, dissertations, scholarships and potential careers.

What Doctoral Degrees in Nutrition Are Available?

There are two primary doctoral degree programs available in nutrition. Students can most commonly choose between a Doctor of Clinical Nutrition (D.C.N.) or a Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) in Nutrition or Nutrition and Dietetics. There are also Doctorate of Nutrition and Dietetics (DND) degree programs available, as well as closely related programs, such as doctorates in public health with a concentration in public health nutrition.

The main differences between these degree programs are the amount of clinical work and the emphasis on research. D.C.N. programs, in general, require more clinical experiences than a Ph.D. program and are typically available in an online or hybrid format with some residencies. D.C.N. programs are designed more for practitioners and may conclude with a research project of some kind, but do not usually require a dissertation. Ph.D. programs are more research-focused, require a dissertation, and can prepare students for careers in research or academia.

Admissions Requirements for Nutrition Doctoral Programs

Usually, interested students need to complete the appropriate application for the program and include any required supplemental materials. For instance, most programs require students to include their transcripts from prior college coursework, letters of recommendation, a statement of purpose, and/or a resume or CV. Some programs, in place of a statement of purpose, require essay responses to several different questions concerning students' goals. GRE test score requirements vary by school, with some programs requiring the exam and others not. Depending on the program, students could be required to complete an interview process after passing the first round of admissions based on their application.

Educational & Professional Prerequisites for Nutrition Doctorate Students

Although requirements can vary, most doctoral programs in nutrition require students to hold at least a bachelor's or master's degree. Some programs prefer this degree to be in nutrition, biology, or other related areas. Depending on the program, students may need to have some professional certifications in the field of nutrition, such as the Certified Nutrition Specialist (CNS) designation from the Board of Certification of Nutrition Specialists (BCNS) or the Certified Clinical Nutritionist (CCN) credential from the Clinical Nutrition Certification Board (CNCB). Some programs require applicants to have a manager-level food safety certification. It is also common for doctoral programs in nutrition to require applicants to have prior coursework in areas such as:

  • Anatomy
  • Physiology
  • Chemistry
  • Nutrition
  • Biochemistry
  • Microbiology

Accreditation for Nutrition Doctorate Programs

It is always important for students to search for programs at accredited institutions and/or accredited programs. Many schools hold regional accreditation from organizations such as the Higher Learning Commission, which means that degree programs at the institution have met generic academic standards for quality. Program-level accreditation is usually preferred if it is available because it is offered by organizations related to the subject area and therefore, indicates that programs have met more industry-specific standards for academic quality. In the case of nutrition and dietetics, the primary accrediting body is the Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics (ACEND). Some doctoral programs hold ACEND accreditation.

How Long Does It Take to Earn a Doctorate in Nutrition?

The time that it takes to earn a doctoral degree in nutrition varies based on several factors. In general, these degree programs are designed to take 5 years or less. Students are typically required to complete their comprehensive exams by the 3rd year and then conclude the program working on their dissertation, research project, and/or clinical experiences. Full-time students typically finish their degrees faster, but many doctoral programs in nutrition also offer part-time enrollment. Some doctoral programs allow students with professional certifications to finish their degrees faster. For instance, some programs allow students with Registered Dietitian (RD)/Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN) licensure to finish their degree in a little over 2.5 years even if they do not hold a master's degree.

Nutrition Doctoral Coursework

Students in doctoral degree programs in nutrition generally require between 48 and 90 credits of coursework. Depending on the set-up of the program, students may have degree pathways set with what courses to take in what semester, while others may choose from lists of required and/or elective courses. Required courses vary greatly by program, but students usually take some core courses and some research-based courses and then conclude the program with electives or concentration courses. Core courses may cover topics in areas such as nutrition science, nutrition leadership, micro/macronutrient metabolism, bioethics, nutrition education, and more. Research courses could include topics in statistics, research literacy, designing research projects, and qualitative research methods. Elective courses may allow students to explore different topics in nutrition research or cover focused topics, such as nutritional genomics, public health, nutrition and global health, or health informatics. Students finish their final credits with dissertation credits or their research projects and courses on clinical experiences.

Preparing Your Nutrition Dissertation

Ph.D. in Nutrition programs typically require students to complete a dissertation. Programs help students complete this project in steps. Usually one of the first steps is to complete coursework and pass a candidacy exam that includes a written and oral examination. Once students have made candidacy status, they begin working on their dissertation. Many programs have students complete a dissertation proposal, which they may have to defend with their dissertation committee. Students then usually work on data collection, research, and other preparations for their dissertation before they begin writing it. Once the dissertation is completed, students have to defend the dissertation again before their committee.

D.C.N. and other doctoral degree programs in nutrition may only require a research project and clinical experiences. Sometimes this comes in the form of a supervised practice capstone course or may be divided into a clinical residency and research project course and a clinical strategy course. Other programs may require a pre-doctoral project, doctoral project, and doctoral seminar to complete the program.

Nutrition Doctorate Concentrations

Some Ph.D. programs in nutrition offer additional areas of concentration. D.C.N. and other doctoral programs in the field do not usually offer concentrations. These Ph.D. concentrations are designed to give students the chance to explore additional areas of interest and/or prepare for a career in a specific area of interest. Often, these concentrations will align with a student's research. Typically, students take additional courses in their chosen concentration area. Explore a few examples of available concentrations below.

Human Nutrition

A concentration in human nutrition focuses on how nutrition affects the human body. Within the field, students can explore additional focus areas, such as child nutrition, cognitive effects of exposure to environmental toxins, and maternal nutrition. Students may also discuss topics in absorption, metabolism, nutritional alterations, and bioavailability of different vitamins. The topic of obesity may be examined through animal models, as well as how nutrition can affect cognitive function and behavior. Depending on the program, students could take courses covering topics such as nutrition and exercise, epidemiology, health benefits of functional foods, and dietary interventions.

Molecular Nutrition

Molecular nutrition focuses on the biological processes that are involved in nutrition. Students in this concentration explore how nutrition affects health and disease in humans at the molecular level. This is an interdisciplinary concentration that includes topics from a wide range of subject areas, including chemistry, genetics, and various areas of biology. Students can usually customize this concentration to meet their specific research interests. Some programs may offer additional areas of focus within this concentration, such as nutrition genomics, nutritional biochemistry, maternal nutrition and fetal development, and nutritional metabolomics. Coursework within this concentration may include topics in genome expression and regulation, proteins, biochemistry, and genome structure.

Community Nutrition

A community nutrition concentration tends to have a public health perspective and examines nutritional issues at the community level. Students look at the causes of nutritional issues, as well as the implications of these issues and possible solutions. Some of these issues include topics like obesity and food insecurity. Students discuss how communities suffer economically, biologically, socially, and more from lack of proper nutrition. Research in these concentrations is typically conducted in real communities and involves a lot of education. Students in this concentration may be interested in working as nutrition educators and mentors to lead community outreaches involving nutrition and changing a community's nutritional behavior. Courses could include topics in nutrition counseling, epidemiology, metabolism, and public health nutrition.

What Other Types of Nutrition Degrees Are There?

Nutrition degree programs are available at the undergraduate and graduate levels. While undergraduate programs help prepare students for entry-level careers in the field, graduate-level programs help prepare students for advanced positions involving leadership and/or research. Some of these programs also help prepare students for professional certifications in the field. Many of these degree programs in nutrition are available in flexible formats, such as online or hybrid. These programs may include hands-on learning experiences to give students real-world experience. Find out more about nutrition degree options below.

Nutrition Associate Degrees

Students can pursue Associate of Arts (AA), Associate of Science (AS), or Associate of Applied Science (AAS) degree programs in areas such as nutrition, applied nutrition, or nutritional science. There are also associate degree programs in nutrition and dietetics that are specifically designed as transfer degrees into a 4-year nutrition and dietetics program that prepares students to become an RD. Students may take core nutrition courses, as well as some nutrition electives, in addition to general education courses. These programs usually take 2 years to complete.

Nutrition Bachelor's Degrees

Both on-campus bachelor's degrees in nutrition and online bachelor's degrees in nutrition are readily available. These programs usually result in a Bachelor of Science (BS) degree and may be available in areas such as nutrition, nutritional sciences, or nutrition and dietetics. Nutrition and dietetics programs are specifically designed to prepare students for RD or RDN certification. Normally, bachelor's degree programs take 4 years to complete, but those with an associate degree may be able to finish in 2 years with transfer credit.

Nutrition Master's Degrees

At the master's level, there are also many on-campus master's programs in nutrition and online programs in the field available. Typically, these programs award a Master of Science (MS) degree and are available in different areas, including nutrition, nutrition and human performance, and nutrition and dietetics. Nutrition and dietetics programs offer a dietetic internship for those who have a verification statement from an ACEND-accredited undergrad program to help them become RDs/RDNs. Generally, these programs begin including more research in the field and prepare students for advanced positions.

Nutrition Graduate Certificates

There are a wide range of nutrition-related graduate certificate programs available, including related public health graduate certificate programs. Students can choose from a range of on-campus or online certificates in areas such as clinical nutrition, holistic nutrition, nutrition education, or nutrition for community health. These programs commonly require between 12 and 18 credits of coursework and can be completed in 1 year or less. While these programs can often count towards a master's degree, they do not always qualify students for board certification in a given area of nutrition, so students should carefully research the outcomes of different certificate programs.

Career Options & Salary Outlook for Nutrition Doctoral Graduates

There are many different career options for nutrition majors available. While there are some differences between a nutritionist and a dietitian, many students with a doctorate in nutrition go on to work in either position. Some may choose to specialize in a particular area of the field or with a specific population, such as becoming a sports nutritionist or a child nutritionist. Those who are more interested in public health and education may pursue careers that work to inform communities or examine nutrition-related issues on larger scales. Still, others may be interested in conducting research or working to educate college students in the field.

Become a Dietitian or Nutritionist

Dietitians and nutritionists have to have at least a bachelor's degree, but it is very common for these professionals to hold an advanced degree. Typically, these professionals have to complete multiple hours of supervised clinical experience through internships or other hands-on learning. Many states require students to pass an exam for certification after meeting education and experience requirements. For example, most states require RDNs to have a bachelor's degree, complete a Dietetic Internship (DI) (which consists of 1,200 supervised hours), pass an exam, and maintain licensure with continuing education.

Dietitians and nutritionists work to promote health and limit disease through proper nutrition. They can assess clients' nutritional needs, recommend changes, educate clients on nutrition and health, and evaluate the effectiveness of meal plans. They may also participate in or stay updated on current research in the field and work to create nutrition-related materials for educational purposes.

2020 data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) show that dietitians and nutritionists have a median salary of $63,090 per year and a job outlook of 8% between 2019 and 2029.

Become a Health Educator

Those interested in public or community health may pursue a career as a health educator. Health educators generally need at least a bachelor's degree, but some may need a master's or doctoral degree. They can hold a degree from several different areas, such as public health education or community health education, and may complete an internship to gain real-world experience. Depending on the employer, some health education specialists will need to earn the Certified Health Education Specialist (CHES) credential from the National Commission for Health Education Credentialing, Inc.

Health educators work to address the various health needs of their community. They will evaluate health issues in specific populations or areas of a community and figure out ways to educate the public concerning these issues. This may require developing educational material, training staff for outreach programs, and evaluating the effectiveness of these initiatives. Health educators will also collect health-related data on a community and advocate for different resources that a community needs.

The BLS reports that health educators make a median salary of $48,140 per year and have a projected job outlook of 13% between 2019 and 2029.

Become a Postsecondary Teacher

Graduates interested in teaching future nutritionists at the college level may become postsecondary teachers in the field. Normally, these educators have to have a doctoral degree in their given field, but some positions may only require a master's. It is also helpful or required for these professionals to have some prior work experience in their field and/or hold any common industry-related licenses and certifications. In the case of nutrition, some positions may require that students hold RD or RDN licensure.

Postsecondary teachers commonly research their area of expertise and teach multiple courses in their field. They must create their lessons and assignments, advise students about courses, and serve on various committees for the school. Some postsecondary teachers also oversee the work of graduate students.

The BLS reports a median salary of $99,090 for postsecondary health specialties teachers and a job outlook of 21% between 2019 and 2029.

Nutrition Professional Organizations

Every professional should consider joining a professional organization in their given field of expertise to learn about current events in the field. These organizations also help professionals connect with other professionals in their field and potentially collaborate on various projects, events, and issues. Professionals can also take advantage of a wide range of resources that these groups typically offer, including career information and/or journal access to research in the field. In the case of nutrition, there is no shortage of available groups. A couple of nutrition-related groups on the national level include:

  • American Society for Nutrition- The ASN offers membership and a range of professional development events. The group is also involved in advocacy activities, provides a policy fellowship program, and keeps professionals updated with current news through newsletters and access to journals.
  • School Nutrition Association- The SNA is designed for those involved or interested specifically in school and child nutrition. The group also offers membership, meetings, conferences, newsletters, and journals. The organization also has a learning center with a range of resources, including information on school meals and food allergies.

How Much Does a Doctorate in Nutrition Cost?

The primary cost of these doctoral programs is tuition. Depending on the school, tuition may be a flat rate per credit hour or vary based on different factors, such as whether a student is an in-state resident or out-of-state resident. Still, students commonly pay between $500 and $1,000 per credit hour. The next big cost to these programs is any additional fees. Some schools may have fees like an education fee, university fee, and graduation fee. With study in the field of nutrition, students may have additional fees associated with labs, such as a cooking lab fee or herb kit fee. Some programs may also charge students for membership fees to groups such as the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics Student.

Scholarships & Funding Opportunities for a Nutrition Doctorate

Since doctoral programs in nutrition can get expensive, students can pursue various forms of financial aid to help cover out-of-pocket costs. Doctoral students are still eligible to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and accept government loans. However, many colleges and universities offer other forms of financial aid that can help pay for students' education, such as fellowships and graduate teaching assistantships. Usually, students need to fill out the appropriate applications and meet the qualifications for these opportunities. Assistantships are typically paid through grant money that a faculty member earned for research.

Scholarships are another popular way for students to pay for their degree and these awards are widely available. Students can find scholarships about their particular field of study, such as nutrition, as well as an array of other reasons, including demographics, talents, financial need, and more. Some schools that offer doctoral programs in nutrition may also have their own scholarships for their students. For instance, students in Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis' (IUPUI) doctorate program can apply for several scholarships, including the Sheila Ward Fellowship or Louise Irwin Fellowship.

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