Nutrition and Dietetics Degrees: What You'll Study

If you're interested in becoming a nutritionist or dietitian, here are your curriculum and degree paths.

What degree or certification levels are available?

student at computer

In order to become a nutritionist or a dietitian, you will need either a certificate or bachelor's degree in order to practice, depending on what you specialize in; some nutritionist careers only require a certificate, while all dietitian careers call for bachelor's degrees.

If you want to boost your earning potential and take on an advanced position, you can choose to pursue a master's degree in nutrition. Any degree level you pursue in your nutrition studies has certain benefits— a certificate is less expensive and takes less time to complete, while a master's degree makes you eligible for higher positions.

What certification will I need?

After you earn your degree, depending on what state you're in, there's a good chance you'll also need to obtain a license to practice nutrition or dietetics. In 46 states, there are laws governing dietetics licensure, and 35 of those states require a license. Twelve other states require certification, and one requires registration, a lower level of qualification.

The Commission on Dietetic Registration of the American Dietetic Association (ADA) awards the Registered Dietitian (RD) certification, which you can achieve by passing an exam after you've completed your nutrition program and supervised experience.

Other licensure requirements vary on a state-by-state basis.

What will I learn in my courses?

Studying to become a dietitian involves some different coursework than becoming a nutritionist, but there is a good deal of overlap between the two as well. Specifics will vary by program, but an example of a course listing might look like this:

  • Nutrition
  • Foods
  • Chemistry
  • Biochemistry
  • Biology
  • Nutritional sciences

How long will it take?

For nutritionists and dietitians, the standard degree level achieved is a bachelor's. Typically, a bachelor's degree takes four years to earn, though many online programs allow you to earn your degree in a shorter period of time.

In some states, you only need a certificate or associate's degree to be eligible for your nutritionist license, and these can be achieved in two years or less. On the other hand, some nutritionists and dietitians opt to advance to a master's degree, which can take between two and three years to complete.

Are online programs available?

There are online programs available for nutrition degrees, and they can be a great option for people seeking flexibility and autonomy in a school program.

One of the biggest advantages for students in online programs is that oftentimes, attending school online allows students to move at their own pace, whether that's faster or slower than average. Another benefit is that online programs typically cost less than on-campus programs, which for many students is a huge plus.

How much will my education cost?

The cost of your program will depend on what degree level you want to earn and what institution you attend; a four-year bachelor's degree will be the more expensive option, while a certificate from a two-year institution or program will cost less.

Bachelor's degree programs vary depending upon the institution you attend. According to College Board's Trends in College Pricing 2013-2014, the average annual cost* for a four-year, public institution runs around $8,893 for in-state tuition and $22,203 for out-of-state-tuition.

The average annual cost for a four-year private non-profit school is $30,094 and $15,130 for a private for-profit school.

Master's degree program tuition at in-state public institutions cost an average of $7,750 annually, and doctorate program tuition cost $9,804 annually at in-state public institutions.

*Cost of tuition only. Prices do not reflect other fees, books, room and board.

Are there prerequisites?

If you plan to earn an undergraduate degree, most programs will require the following:

  • High school diploma or GED
  • Satisfactory GPA
  • Satisfactory SAT or ACT scores

Master's degree programs typically expect students to have:

  • Bachelor of Science in nutrition or related field
  • Satisfactory GPA
  • Minimum score on the Graduate Record Examination (GRE)

What accreditation is there for my program?

Accreditation is an important factor when considering nutrition programs. Attending an accredited school makes you eligible for federal financial aid and allows you to attend another accredited college or university if you decide to further your education.

You'll want to look for schools accredited by regional accreditation boards and accrediting organizations focused on a specialization, such as the Commission on Accreditation for Diabetics Education.

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