I Opted For an Online Nutrition Degree (Even When All Nutrition Programs Are Not Equal)

online degree

It took me 2 years to commit to a career change. I flirted with law or public policy. But when the moment of truth arrived at the end of 2019, I chose to become a dietitian. 

There are many ways to become a registered dietitian. And all these paths start with a degree. Not the kind you get in 100 hours (or less). I’m talking about a real university degree. 

Of all the paths I could have chosen, I opted for an online nutrition degree and this post explains why. 

Online Degrees Are No Longer “Inferior

online degree

Now, when you say, “I got an online nutrition degree”, people assume it’s a certificate. Like one of those 30-100 hour certificate programs that turn you into “an expert”. I dare say those certificates are the most common form of an online nutrition credential. In the past, distance learning from universities was not popular. So, if you needed to study online, you braved an 

online course and hoped for the best.  

Now, you can get almost any degree online from a legitmate university and distance learning has come a long way in reputation. People used to scoff at the idea of an online degree. I think back to my original days in university and remember how many people skipped classes, zoned out or slept during lectures. Or even better, had that “Cs get the degrees” mentality. How much learning really happened? We shall never know. But I suspect there’s a reason people can’t remember most of what they learned. 

There was still some apprehension toward an online degree. People think online students do less work, which is so far from the truth. I’d argue online students do more because they essentially teach themselves. And for any lingering concerns, we can thank Covid for proving online students do work. 

2020 = Online Degrees

online classes student or teacher centered

Every degree was online for 2020. And in some places, they will still be in 2021. The learning was stressful, but this proved (to everyone) you can learn online. 

There is a lot of value in taking a course face-to-face. I’m not disputing this. You get the human interaction, the ability to ask questions immediately and do hands-on activities. For some people, they need those things to learn effectively. Which means a face-to-face degree is a better choice. And the social aspect of an in-person univeristy experience is also valuable. Hard work is not the only factor in success. You need the right connections and the right opportunities. Your network plays a huge role in that.  

But a well-designed distance learning program can offer as much value. Especially for a  busy-career-changing dietetic student. One of the main selling points is….

Flexibility

I didn’t even look at on-campus programs. When you study in person, there is a set schedule. Classes happen at specific times and you need to be there. Many of those classes are during the day too. For most career-changers, daytime = prime working hours. 

And, as an added complication, I live abroad in China. Imagine that commute to class…what a nightmare. So an online nutrition degree was the answer to my flexibility needs. A lot of online degrees offer asyncrhonous classes meaning you can sign in and learn whenever you want. 

This class format requires you (the student) to have an incredible amount of self-discipline though. It’s easy to push studying off until “tomorrow”. Suddenly it’s the day before your assignment or exam is due and you’re cramming. I’ve done that more than I care to admit.

But, I like a good challenge. And training myself to have better time management is good for me…no matter how much I deny it. 

As much as I would love to commit to being a student-full time, I love not being broke even more! I’m sure most career-changers feel the same. 

Life is Expensive (and Being Broke Sucks)

coins falling down

When I decided to go back to school, I asked myself what I wanted: To juggle school and work or focus on school full-time? More time for school would come at a price…my job. 

I did the “broke student” life once–I’m not about that life at 29 years old. Call me crazy, but I enjoy being able to afford:

  • Rent
  • Health insurance
  • Food
  • Transportation costs
  • School supplies (graphing calculators are too expensive)

All without pinching pennies. Most career changers have families and financial responsibilies that make it hard to quit working. Giving up in-person networking and interactions is a small sacrifice compared to losing your income.  

Although financial aid exists, that really means a loan for most career changers. Scholarships are available, but it takes time to apply to them. Time we need to squeeze out of our schedules. I promise myself to find a scholarship every term. Then, I look at all the requirements (the personal statements, letters of rec and application forms). After that, I close the page and never get back to it. 

Student debt is no joke and we (in the US) have one of the most expensive higher education systems. But there are really only so many hours in a day. Plus, you can’t support your family off of scholarships. 

In the early stages of my career-swap-plans, I actually considered studying in Germany or some European country where tuitiion is affordable. But, I wanted the US registered dietitian license and minimal hoops to jump through. So, here I am. Racking up debt….

As an undergrad. Why undergrad you ask?

You Have To Study in An Accredited Program 

online study

You need to enroll in an ACEND-accredited program to become a dietitan in the US. That’s right. A degree in nutrition or dietetics isn’t enough. You have to graduate from an ACEND-accredited program to be eligible for the RD exam. 

Great for quality control. Less great for online options when you need a didatic program. The two most popular types of accredited programs are didactic and coordinated programs in dietetics

  • Didactic programs offer your coursework only. You need to find an internship afterward to become eligible for the RD exam. 
  • Coordinated programs integrate the coursework and supervised practice. 

The coordinated program seemed harder to do online. It’s possible,but  you have to find preceptors and schedule approved supervised practice hours on your own. Most of those hours would happen during the day! Prime working time. Hence, why I didn’t choose a coordinated program.

And there are currently 6 ACEND-accredited online didatic programs. All at the undergraduate level. 

The choice to become an undergraduate student (again) was made for me. I don’t mind though. 

Undergrad Degrees are Cheaper than Masters

coins falling down

Undergraduate classes are cheap compared to the graduate level. Graduate school can be borderline highway robbery. And I like being able to afford my life. So, saving money is the responsible thing to do. 

I also don’t have a science background. That means I would need to take a lot of science pre-requisites to get admitted into a graduate program. And most of those pre-requisites are at the undergraduate level, which I would have to pay for on top of my graduate level classes. 

There are two ways to study nutrition and dietetics at the undergraduate level. You can get the nutritional science degree. Or you can complete only the dietietic coursework and get the DPD verification statement. The second option works when you already have a bachelor’s degree. 

I was planning to only do the dietetic coursework, because I already have a BA and an MA. But, my university gave me transfer credit that satisifed most of the general education requirements. Now, I have one arts class to take to qualify for a BS. So, I figured I might as well just get the degree. Why not right? I love art. 

I would feel differently about getting a master’s degree if I didn’t have one already though. The Commission on Dietetic Registration (CDR) will require students to have a graduate degree starting in 2024. This means you need at least a master’s degree to be eligible for the RD exam. But, your graduate degree can be in any subject according to the CDR

There is no Right Way To Become a Dietitian

My path to become a dietitian is not uncommon. A lot of second career changers like the online nutrition degree option for the same reasons I chose it: flexibility and the ability to keep your job. 

I’ve also been able to study from Mozambique, the US and now China (2020 was a wild year). An online degree fits my situation, my priorities and my goals. 

But, it’s not for everyone. I see posts all the time on Instagram saying “there’s no right way to become a dietitian”. And those posts are right. All that matters is that you get the RD credential and there are several ways to get that. 

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