Clinical Nutrition Career Options and Education Requirements

A career in clinical nutrition typically requires a bachelor's degree, as well as licensure and certification; although actual requirements vary between states and employers. For more advanced career opportunities in clinical nutrition, master's degrees in this field are available, which can lead to administrative positions or career in research.

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Career Options in Clinical Nutrition

Students with a degree in clinical nutrition generally find careers in institutions working as dietitians or nutritionists. A variety of institutions employ clinical nutritionists, such as hospitals, extended care facilities, prisons and nursing homes. Clinical nutritionists often work in collaboration with health care providers creating dietary menus that work with patients' overall care plans. Through proper nutrition, they can aid patients who are overweight or suffer from a variety of diseases, such as hypertension, diabetes or kidney failure.

Besides working in an institutional setting, those with a degree in clinical nutrition or dietetics can work as researchers or pharmaceutical sales representatives. With an advanced degree, dietitians may be qualified for administrative positions, such as an assistant director or manager of a nutrition department.

Most states require nutritionists and dietitians to be licensed. Licensing requirements vary by state, but typically include a bachelor's degree and an examination. Many states restrict the activities performed by nutritionists and dietitians based on their licensing, registration and certification.

Although it may not be required by employers or some states, many clinical nutritionists and dietitians choose to become professionally registered and certified. There are many options for people working in this field; the most common being registered by the American Dietetic Association (ADA) as a registered dietitian (RD). The International & American Associations of Clinical Nutritionists (IAACN) offers certification specifically for those working in clinical nutrition. Registration and certification require graduation from an educational program approved by the ADA, professional experience and passage of a skills assessment exam.

Employment opportunities in nutrition-related positions were expected to increase between 2012 and 2022 at the faster-than-average rate of 21%, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (www.bls.gov). This increase was due in part to the overall aging of the population and the increased awareness of the nutritional requirements needed for good health and disease prevention. Per the BLS, the annual median salary for nutritionists and dietitians in 2013 was $55,920.

Education Requirements for a Career Clinical Nutrition

To begin a career as a clinical nutritionist or dietitian, students typically need a bachelor's degree in clinical nutrition or dietetics from a program approved by the ADA. A bachelor's degree involves a four-year program where students take classes in nutrition areas such as food science, food safety, human metabolisms, and food service systems. Advanced coursework in organic chemistry, physiology and biology are typically required in these programs. Many bachelor's programs include an internship under the supervision of a registered dietitian where students gain practical first-hand knowledge in the operations of a food system service.

For those interested in advancing their careers, there are master's and doctorate degree programs in areas such as human nutrition, nutrition and dietetics and food science. Some of these programs feature a concentration in clinical nutrition. The majority of these programs require an educational background in nutrition and some require students to be registered dietitians before they can be admitted into the program.

During a master's degree program, students can expect to study topics in food process engineering and medical nutrition therapy. Some programs offer internships and coursework usually includes children and nutrition, sports nutrition, nutrition and aging populations and public health.

Ph.D. programs generally take five to seven years to complete and are typically designed for those interested in becoming teachers, high-level administrators or researchers in nutrition and dietetics. Doctoral students typically concentrate on a specific area in this field on which they'll write and defend a dissertation.

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