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Getting Your Master’s Degree Online
By Toby Smithson, RD, CDE

Has a busy work schedule and personal life prevented you from pursuing a postgraduate degree? If a master’s degree in nutrition or dietetics is on your bucket list, you can prepare to cross that one off because online postgraduate programs now make it possible to earn a master’s degree while juggling other personal commitments. With no set class schedule, commuting, or geographical boundaries, all it takes is desire and an Internet connection.

Increased Demand
The demand for distance learning in nutrition has been growing for some time. A 2011 Babson Research Group survey reported that more than 6 million students were taking at least one online course during the fall 2010 term, an increase of 560,000 students over the number reported the previous year. Evidence also shows 31% of all students pursuing higher education now take at least one course online.

Both Catherine Arnold, MS, EdD, RD, a professor and department chair of nutrition at Benedictine University, and Deb Canter, PhD, RD, a professor and director of the didactic program in dietetics department of hospitality management and dietetics at Kansas State University, agree. Their online programs are meeting students where they are as busy professionals. “In today’s economy and world, people are just not willing to quit their jobs and go back to graduate school in the traditional way. Online education, if well done, can be an absolutely superb way to meet their needs for advanced education,” Canter says.

Programs Available
Some programs available include master’s degrees in nutrition and wellness (Benedictine University), food science and nutrition (Colorado State University), dietetics (Kansas State University, South Dakota State University, University of North Florida), nutrition and health sciences (University Nebraska-Lincoln), and human nutrition (Eastern Michigan University). Kansas State shares resources with seven other universities in its master’s degree in dietetics program as part of the Great Plains Interactive Distance Education Alliance (GPIDEA).

Most of the online master’s programs require 36 to 43 credit hours. (Benedictine requires 64 quarter hours.) Anticipated time to complete an online graduate program is 2 1/2 to five years. Criteria for admissions at the various universities are similar: a GPA in undergraduate work of 3.0 to 4.0 or a Graduate Record Examination (GRE) score of 900 or better, and an RD or bachelor’s degree in a life science major. In most of the programs, the RD credential satisfies the requirement for the GRE.

So how do you decide which program to choose? There are two factors to consider: whether you prefer writing a thesis or completing an internship, and which university provides the track that interests you most within the field of dietetics. To get started, check out the websites of the universities offering online nutrition programs and complete the online application. The online programs require a completed application, official transcripts, a letter of intent, a notarized copy of your RD credential, two to three letters of recommendation, and a copy of your résumé. Benedictine University’s Masters in Nutrition and Wellness program launched last January and offers two tracks: entrepreneurship and health education. The coursework includes MBA and MPH courses in addition to nutrition research and science courses.

David Grotto, RD, a nutritionist and author of Best Things You Can Eat who’s currently a student in Benedictine University’s online program, says he wanted to pursue his master’s degree since graduating from his dietetics program in 1986. However, life and his career simply got in the way, and travel for work and family obligations prevented him from attending school in a classroom setting.

So what can you expect as a typical class format? Jennifer Egeland, MS, RD, a recent graduate from the GPIDEA through Kansas State University’s program, says online classes can vary by instructor, but most have a discussion board where questions are posted to initiate discussion. Some classes have recorded lectures so students can listen at their convenience, and others may have a Web chat lecture at the same time each week.

In addition to lectures and chat times, all classes have reading assignments, projects, papers, and tests/quizzes just like on-campus classes. “Students have the ability to communicate with other classmates as well as the teacher or seek help from online assistants if they run into technical difficulties,” Grotto says.

One unique aspect of an online program is the opportunity to broaden your network of fellow RDs, both across the United States and around the globe. Similarly, professors can be brought to your classroom no matter where they live, expanding access to attract the best instructors available.

An online program in nutrition is geared for the person who works and is interested in pursuing higher education as a path to career advancement and increased income. Grotto says he initially had concerns that online learning would involve just sitting in front of his computer and wouldn’t be interactive. But he’s happy to report there are great opportunities to work with fellow students as a team and communicate outside of the virtual classroom. It’s also a great forum for sharing work experiences and learning from others. Egeland agrees, stating that online graduate classes are a way for even the busiest people to expand their education and she’d recommend it to anyone.

If you’ve postponed advancing your education, maybe now is the time to look at the online option. No backpack required.

— Toby Smithson, RD, CDE, is a national spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and founder of DiabetesEveryDay.com.