Once I decided I wanted to begin a career as a nutritionist (which was in itself quite a process of self-discovery for another post), I began thinking about how to logistically make this dream come true. There are several components of this process that helped give me the confidence that I was making the best decision for me. Because in the beginning, I had no idea what I was doing. I woke up every morning so excited about my new future, but I was also really anxious because I was wading into unfamiliar waters. I kept wishing someone would just give me a template, but for better or worse, there are so many different routes to becoming a nutritionist that there is just not one template. While my route ended up being the best option for me, it may not be the best for everyone out there for so many reasons. What I can share, however, is what thought process helped me make a decision.
- Identifying my goals and requirements. First I had to figure out what I really wanted. What is your end goal? Do you want to go back to school or not? How much time can you dedicate to furthering your education (a few months, 2 years, 4 years, etc.)? What's your timeline? What is your budget and how will you pay for continuing education? Are you willing to relocate, do you need an on-campus local program, or will online education work for you? Are you interested in getting a Master's degree or would a shorter program or certificate work for your goals? Are there any licensure requirements where you live (see below)? Do you want to follow in the footsteps of a particular mentor, idol, or hero? For me, I have a clear vision of running my own nutrition counseling practice and a strong nutrition science foundation is incredibly important to me. Although I later found that there were no licensure requirements for nutritionists in the state of California, I knew an accredited Master's degree program would give me the education and legitimacy I craved. I also knew that I was not able to relocate at the time, didn't want to waste any time getting started on my new path, and did not desire to be in school for another 4+ years.
- Understanding the legal framework of the profession. DO NOT progress without first researching your state laws. Where can I practice? What are the laws? What education and credentials do I actually need? This was and continues to be one of the most confusing elements of a nutrition career, but it doesn't have to be. The Center for Nutrition Advocacy is an amazing resource for nutrition professionals. I looked up the laws for each state and learned that only registered dietitians (RDs) are licensed in the state of California, but there are no legal requirements for other nutritionists. The only caveat is that if I want to be eligible for insurance reimbursement when the client was referred by a physician, I would need a Master's degree from an accredited institution. Laws vary significantly by state and they can be confusing, so definitely take some time to understand the law in your state before deciding between an RD, CNS, or other route. Since there are many other routes to practice without being an RD, I decided not to pursue that path. If you are interested in graduate-level DPD ACEND-approved programs that result in an RD credential, you can find those programs on The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics website.
- Researching programs. In typical former-project manager fashion, I immediately put together a spreadsheet to keep track of all the programs I came across in my research. It also helped immensely with comparing between programs. I looked at as many programs as possible in my initial research, including everything from a month-long certificate program to a 3-year (70 credit) Master's degree. I excluded Bachelor's degrees and Master's degrees that required RD licensure or completion of a DPD (didactic program in dietetics) as prerequisites, but those programs could be really great for the right person with the right background (in fact, some programs looked so great that I truly regretted not taking more chemistry in undergrad). I found programs through various Google searches, using Linkedin to see where other nutritionists in my area received their training, and followed breadcrumbs I thought might be relevant. This process was actually very overwhelming since there's no template for people like me. When I thought I had found all the possible programs I might be interested in, I would follow another breadcrumb and discover another possible program. The research phase went on for weeks and not always in a linear direction. I was surprised by how many options are out there and simultaneously how little was written about the programs from former/current students.
- Narrowing down the list. After compiling the master list I had to narrow it down to programs that were best for me. I quickly crossed off the programs that did not have a clinical human nutrition focus, were out-of-state, or required 2+ years of prerequisites (I was only willing to commit to 6-12 months of prereqs at the time). I read about the program and their curriculums on their own websites as well as some blogs. I attended webinars and info sessions, when available. I reached out to former and current students of the programs, many via Linkedin. I asked tons of questions to the admissions counselors on the phone. Finally, I reflected on each program's strengths, their approach, and again what was most important to me. At that point I was considering several schools:
- Bauman College - Pros: highly popular in San Francisco where I live; on-campus classes; nutrition practice classes (the business side). Cons: not accredited; does not culminate in a Master's degree - culminates in a "Nutrition Consultant" certificate, not a clinical nutrition degree
- California Institute of Integral Studies - Pros: on-campus classes across the street from my apartment; well-respected; strong focus on psychology and counseling. Cons: no nutrition classes, just general health studies classes; really freakin expensive ($40-70k)
- Maryland University of Integrative Health - Pros: no prereqs (because they're included in the curriculum); all the current/past students speak very highly of the program; includes courses in clinical skills and a clinic/practicum experience. Cons: less advanced coursework than UWS (below); more expensive than some other programs ($40k)
- Saybrook - Pros: attractive programs like the M.S. Integrative and Functional Nutrition, M.S. Mind-Body Medicine. Cons: More expensive than other programs (~$40k) and I couldn't find a single graduate of the programs to interview
- University of Western States - Pros: most affordable program at $23k; affiliated with The Institute for Functional Medicine and taught from that perspective; many graduates of the who spoke openly about their experience with the program; many graduates doing work that I want to be doing one day & running their own private practices; more advanced curriculum than any other program I found (for example, UWS's MS has significant overlap with MUIH's doctoral level curriculum). Cons: lacks a clinical experience/practicum component and courses in assessment & clinical skills
- Finally, talking it all over with my significant other. This is the part that gave me the most anxiety. It's one thing to think up an idea and plan in your head and an entirely different thing to talk about it realistically with your partner, who probably has questions you haven't thought of. Talking it all over with Philihp helped me think through some things I hadn't considered and ultimately gave me the support and confidence to move forward with my plan.
I decided to apply to the Master's of Science program in Human Nutrition & Functional Medicine at University of Western States in April 2017 for admission in the Fall of 2017. I was fairly confident that I would be admitted after speaking to my admissions counselor, so I didn't apply anywhere else.
After an interview with the Associate Director of the program I was granted conditional acceptance into the program. I just had to complete General Chemistry w/ lab (that I'd already begun), Biochemistry, Intro to Nutrition, Anatomy & Physiology, and Medical Terminology in the next 6 months, which was entirely achievable. I started the program in October 2017 with much excitement!
Let me know if you have any questions. I'm happy to share my experience with anyone who is considering a career as a nutritionist :)