Nutritionist Degrees and Educational Programs

nutritionist student reading text about food near laptop

The level of education you need to practice in the field of nutrition isn’t quite as cut and dry as it can be for other subjects. Unlike dietetics, which typically requires a bachelor’s degree, supervised experience, and licensing to legally practice, there are far less standardized criteria for less medical-based nutrition.

Unfortunately, this can make choosing an educational path a bit confusing. Factors such as your career goals, financial resources, and any licensing or certification you seek will all influence the level of education that’s right for you. In some cases, you might be able to start work quickly by taking a few months of classes online.

But as with many fields, the more you educate yourself, the more career opportunities will open for you. Most nutritionists earn at least a bachelor’s degree in order to get a good job in the field. Those who wish to take on high-level roles or go into research or teaching will find that a master’s or doctoral degree will be the most beneficial.

What Nutritionist Degrees or Certificates Are Available?

Time to Complete: Around 6–12 months

If you live in a state that doesn’t require a license in order to practice, a certificate program could be enough to get you working a nutritionist in just a few months. In these courses, which are often online and are offered by a variety of educational institutions as well as independent companies that focus solely on these types of certificates, you’ll study the basics of how nutrition affects our overall health and learn how to counsel clients to improve their eating and exercise habits.

Once you have a certificate, you might choose to open your own practice, or you could find roles in settings such as spas, fitness centers, and holistic healthcare clinics. Keep in mind, however, that most employers, particularly more clinical settings, require at least a bachelor’s degree. With these, certificates can still be beneficial by helping you expand upon the general knowledge you gained through your previous education. You could increase your career opportunities by completing tailored training in specializations such as eating disorders, child nutrition, or sports and fitness.

Time to Complete: About 2 years

An associate’s degree could also set you on the path towards starting an entry-level career. However, these are typically designed for those who plan to pursue a bachelor’s degree but want to complete some coursework at a more affordable community college. You’ll study the basics of nutrition and might get more hands-on experience with menu planning and cooking.

Time to Complete: 4 years

If you want to be competitive in the job field, a bachelor’s degree is the best place to start. With a bachelor’s degree, you’ll gain greater experience in science-centric subjects such as biology, anatomy, and biochemistry, along with focusing on the nutritional needs of specific populations like children, the elderly, or athletes. About a third of U.S. states require a bachelor’s degree in order to legally practice with the title of nutritionist.

Time to Complete: 2–3 years, after earning a bachelor’s degree

By pursuing a master’s degree in nutrition, you’ll go beyond the basics and likely improve your earning potential. You’ll conduct research-focused studies, learn more about using food as a way to prevent and treat disease, and take management classes that can help you take on higher-level roles or run your own private practice. Master’s degrees also give you the chance to specialize your education and career with common concentrations including topics such as clinical health psychology, human development, women’s health, sports nutrition, and herbal medicine, just to name a few. As of 2019, eight U.S. states require a master’s degree to be legally licensed as a nutritionist.

Time to Complete: 4–8 years, after earning a bachelor’s or master’s degree

A doctoral degree in nutrition is designed for those who wish to take on leadership roles in academia and research, industry, or the government. These programs dive deeper into the relationship between nutrition and health in a wide range of populations, and set students up to apply their knowledge to the implementation of public health programs and policies.

What are the prerequisites?

nutritionist-certification

If you’re entering a certificate or associate’s degree program, you may not need to meet any prerequisites whatsoever. However, most bachelor’s degree programs require a high school diploma or GED, a good score on an entrance exam like the SAT, and a satisfactory GPA—often at least a 3.0, or a 3.5 for more competitive programs.

Master’s degree programs typically require students to have already earned a Bachelor of Science in nutrition or a closely related field and have acceptable scores on the GRE or a similar school-administered exam. What GRE scores are considered “good” vary widely across schools, though average scores for top graduate programs are around 150 out of 170 on the Verbal and Quantitative sections and a 3.5 out of 6 on Analytical Writing.

For entrance into a doctoral program, you might be required to have a master’s degree, though some schools accept those with bachelor’s degrees in nutrition or another science-based subject. These typically allow you to work on a master’s and doctoral degree simultaneously in less time than it would take to earn them on their own.

Is fieldwork or an internship required?

Gaining hands-on experience can be crucial for helping prepare you to work directly with clients. While most certificate and undergrad programs won’t require an internship themselves, you’ll most likely need between 900 and 1,200 hours of supervised experience to sit for any necessary licensing exams in your state. The work of a graduate program should already include an internship or other fieldwork that meets these requirements.

Are online programs available?

There are online options available for nutritional programs of all levels, and these can be excellent for students who are self-directed, focused, and need flexibility to work their education around other responsibilities such as work or family. In many cases, online programs give students the chance to complete coursework at their own pace, whether that’s faster or slower than average. Keep in mind, however, that any internship or fieldwork that’s required will need to be completed in person at an approved location.  

How Much Will It Cost?

The cost of your education varies widely depending on the school, its location, and the level of degree. According to recent data from the National Center for Education Statistics, the average total costs for tuition, fees, and room and board are just over $10,000 a year for an associate’s degree, roughly $20,000 for a bachelor’s at a public university, and over $41,000 a year for a bachelor’s at a private institution. The average total cost of a master’s degree came in at $25,000 a year, while a research-focused doctoral degree cost $32,000. Students of all levels can find grants and scholarships to help them pay for school, as well as potentially get tuition remission for work-study, teaching, or research.

What Should I Look for in a School?

child-nutrition

If your state requires licensing to practice as a nutritionist, one of the most important things when choosing a school is to verify that it’s an accredited institution and program. Having this credential means the school has been vetted for its quality of education, and it’s also necessary if you wish to receive federal financial aid. What’s more, credits from an accredited school are more likely to be accepted if you decide to transfer or use them to meet admission requirements for a higher-level degree.

You can verify a school’s current accreditation status by searching the database provided by the U.S. Department of Education or the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA). Depending on where you live, your school should be accredited by one of the following regional agencies:

Regional Accrediting Body

Locations

Delaware, the District of Columbia, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Puerto Rico, and the US Virgin Islands


Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont


Arkansas, Arizona, Colorado, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, North Dakota, Nebraska, New Mexico, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Wisconsin, West Virginia, and Wyoming


Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, and Washington


Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia


California, Hawaii, Guam, American Samoa, Micronesia, Palau, and Northern Marianas Islands


You’ll also want to look for programs that are specifically accredited for dietetics and nutrition, as these ensure that you’ll get the education that’s necessary to qualify for licensing or certification. The Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics approves both programs and internships designed for students who are preparing for careers in these fields.

Beyond verifying accreditation, you’ll also want to ask yourself a number of other questions when comparing your options:

  • Does the program offer an area of specialization that I want?
  • What are the qualifications of the faculty? (Where were they trained? How long have they been teaching? Do they contribute to the advancement of the field through activities like conducting research or publishing academic papers?)
  • Does the curriculum and experience involved meet any licensing requirements in the state where you plan to work? How do graduates perform on any certification exams you plan to take? (Ask the program’s admissions advisors for benchmarks.) Does the school offer scholarships or other financial aid? Does the program offer an area of specialization that I want?
  • How do graduates perform on any certification exams you plan to take? (Ask the program’s admissions advisors for benchmarks.)
  • Does the school offer scholarships or other financial aid?

What Can I Do Once I Graduate?

individual-nutrition-planning

Once you complete your program, there are many options for what you can do depending on your goals, your level of education, and any specializations that you have. You could go on to work in hospitals, nursing homes, outpatient clinics, food service facilities, community organizations, or open your own private practice. Those with graduate degrees could take on leadership roles within the government, helping to set new programs and policies in place, or find research or teaching positions at the university level.

Landing a job could be even easier if you earn a certification that proves to clients and employers that you’re dedicated to the field. A number of certifications are available, such as those from the National Association of Nutritional Professionals, the Clinical Nutrition Certification Board, and the Board for Certification of Nutrition Specialists. Those who are members of the Commission on Dietetic Registration also have the option to become certified in specialty areas of gerontology, oncology, pediatrics, pediatric critical care, renal nutrition, sports dietetics, and weight management. Not only can having certification lend credibility to your resume, but offer you the chance to pursue continuing education, gain access to leading research in the field, and network with other nutritional professionals.

Ready to Find the Perfect Program?

If you’re ready to join the field of nutrition, get started by finding a school that can set you on the path to success.