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Graduate Degrees — Are They Necessary for RDs?
By Christine Karpinski, PhD, RD, CSSD, LDN, and Mary Beth R. Gilboy, PhD, MPH, RD, LDN

At some point in your professional career, you may have considered pursuing a graduate degree. Level of education often is a factor that garners respect as a valued member of a healthcare team. About 45% of all RDs have graduate degrees at the master’s level, and 4% have doctoral degrees, according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics’ (the Academy) 2005 Compensation and Benefits Survey.

A graduate degree allows RDs to study a specific area of interest more in-depth. Depending on the type of graduate degree you have, there may be more opportunities for you to obtain managerial or other high-level positions, which could lead to increased earnings and the possibility of advanced-level practice.

According to a study on the Academy’s 2011 Compensation and Benefits Survey, a graduate degree is associated with higher hourly earnings. In 2011, the difference between the median wage of RDs with a master’s degree and those with a bachelor’s degree was $2.41 per hour—approximately $5,000 per year.1

Too often, dietitians at any level are seen as assistants rather than leaders of the nutrition care process, a perception that may be affecting career advancement.2 The  Academy’s Visioning Report, released in 2012, recommends raising the requirements for future entry-level RDs to a graduate degree, master’s degree, or practice doctorate, a degree that involves obtaining clinical experience in preparation to practice. Although this wouldn’t be required of current RDs, the recommendation would set the tone for the future of the dietetics profession.

The Academy’s focus on specialist and advanced practice credentialing is an effort to position nutrition professionals to remain leaders in healthcare, as future expectations inevitably continue to increase. According to the Academy’s Visioning Report, an advanced practitioner holds at least a master’s degree, has more than eight years of experience as an RD or a DTR, may be a board-certified specialist, or possesses an advanced practice credential if it’s available in the area of practice.

Currently, RDs can choose from a variety of graduate programs that can open new doors of opportunity in dietetics. The following discusses the benefits of a master’s degree in public health (MPH) and the program available at West Chester University (WCU) of Pennsylvania.

Public health nutrition is a population-based discipline with an emphasis on primary prevention, which has become a major focus of the national healthcare agenda. The Academy’s visioning report on the future of advanced practice projected an increased demand for advanced-level RDs in many areas within the public health sector, including aging, hunger, diabetes, and obesity.

An MPH equips RDs with a strong background in public health and prepares them for careers in nutrition and public health programs as directors and administrators, and in government agencies, public and private community-health centers, ambulatory care, schools, industry, private practice, and management as nutrition care providers, advocates, educators, counselors, and researchers.

With an MPH degree, RDs are eligible for certification. Presently, there’s no board certification in public health from the Commission on Dietetic Registration, but the certified in public health (CPH) and the master’s certified health education specialist (MCHES) certifications enable RDs to earn multidisciplinary credentials.

WCU offers an MPH program with a nutrition track that’s accredited by the Council on Education for Public Health. The program includes public health core courses in epidemiology, biostatistics, healthcare management, environmental health, and social and behavioral aspects of health. The curriculum offers an applied learning experience based on a student’s interests. To cater to practicing RDs, many online master’s degrees are available, and all nutrition track courses are offered in an online format. In the future, the entire MPH program will be available online.

For more information about this program, call 610-738-0559 or e-mail mgilboy@wcupa.edu. 

— Christine Karpinski, PhD, RD, CSSD, LDN, is an instructor in the department of nutrition at West Chester University of Pennsylvania and a board-certified sports dietitian.

— Mary Beth R. Gilboy, PhD, MPH, RD, LDN, is an associate professor in the department of nutrition at West Chester University and the MPH nutrition track coordinator.


1. Ward B. Compensation and benefits survey 2011: moderate growth in registered dietitian and dietetic technician, registered, compensation in the past 2 years. J Acad Nutr Diet. 2012;112(1):29-40.

2. O’Sullivan Maillet J, Brody RA, Skipper A, Pavlinac JM. Framework for analyzing supply and demand for specialist and advanced practice registered dietitians. J Acad Nutr Diet. 2012;112(Suppl 3):S47-S55.