Can anyone recommend a good graduate school for Nutrition Major?
December 29, 2008 12:32 AM   Subscribe

Hi, I only have 1 1/2 years till I'm completely done my undergraduate nutrition degree in Canada. I've already established that I want to pursue a masters, however, the only school I have been checking online is Columbia's Department of Nutrition because it is the only school I can think of which offers a decent program. Is it true? If not, does anyone have any good suggestions (NA, Europe, Asia)?

Right now, I'm mostly interested in the subject of metabolic disorders. Before telling me your answer, I think it is important to know the pros & cons about me.


1] I've been taking a lot of 500-level courses relating to physiology and experimental medicine (e.g. advanced applied cardiovascular physiology and endocrinology)

2] I have been volunteering for a non-governmental organization for quite a long time now

3] GPA is +3.6


1] Haven't written my GRE yet (this summer, but I don't know where to begin!)

2] This is my 2nd degree, I did a degree in chemistry before but my GPA was very low (3.12), got some F's that I'm not very proud of :(

3] No research experience because I feel that my degree doesn't really offer any good biological lab techniques compares to someone in physiology or biochemistry let's say. This is definitely my downside. I hope to email some professors this summer who work in the hospital, but why would they hire me instead of a physio major?

4] Haven't taken Genetics
posted by pixxie to Education (11 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Why do you want a masters instead of a Ph.D.? What's your endgame here? What is it that you want to do? Research? Nutritional consulting? Starting your own line of diet products? For most people, a graduate degree isn't something you get just because it's a cool thing to have. You can do undergrad that way, but graduate programs generally expect a little more direction unless you're going to law school.

And if the "Columbia" you're referring to is the one on New York City... you certainly dream big. There are literally hundreds of programs offering graduate degrees in nutrition in the US alone. Columbia is one of the best schools in the world. Why should they be interested in you? The University of Wisconsin, NYU, UCLA, BYU, and Boston all have programs which would probably be easier to get into than Columbia's. Pitt, Georgia State, Ohio State, and Delaware should be even easier.

And take genetics. Many if not most metabolic conditions have a genetic component, so if that's really what you're interested in doing, not having that class will look distinctly odd on a graduate application. It would suggest that you either 1) don't know what you're doing, or 2) aren't serious. Neither of those are messages you want to communicate on a successful graduate school application.

Oh, and you can take the GRE at any time. It's taken electronically at a testing center and you can make an appointment as soon as they have an open spot, generally six days a week. I just took it this month having registered for it about a month in advance. They report your verbal and quant scores right away with writing scores showing up within a few weeks. I'd recommend taking it a few months before you want to start sending off your applications.
posted by valkyryn at 4:36 AM on December 29, 2008 [1 favorite]

Yeah, I think there are lots of graduate programs in nutrition in North America. One that comes to mind is Cornell, which I believe has a fairly prestigious nutrition program. To get you started, here's a directory of schools with nutrition programs. Good luck.
posted by Salvor Hardin at 6:49 AM on December 29, 2008

Response by poster: I do not want to own a line of diet products nor be a dietician, I want to do medical research. Like I said, metabolic disorders/atherosclerosis/cholesterol. I haven't taken genetics because it is not required in my program and my schedule has been jammed packed with other courses. I also don't want to get a graduate degree because it's the cool thing to have. Why would anyone assume that? Isn't it a waste of money? But thank you for your input anyway.
posted by pixxie at 7:20 AM on December 29, 2008

From what I've heard (while living in Boston), Tufts has one of the best programs around:
posted by reddot at 8:29 AM on December 29, 2008

If you want to do medical research, you need to figure out whether you want to do research on people (in which case you might want/need an M.D.) or lab research (in which case you want to aim for a PhD). The standard in bio/biochem/med research is generally a PhD or MD, often both. (Note that in the US, at least, PhD programs pay your tuition and give you a stipend, while plain MD programs put you in debt.) A Master's will not get you far in direct research into human diseases (though it may be OK if you're more interested in the public health aspects.)

To figure this out, you need to make time for research. Find a lab doing research in the sort of metabolic disorders you're interested in, and say you're interested in studying diseases like that - if you're specifically interested in the professor's research, you will definitely be chosen over a random science student who just wants to rack up time in a lab, any lab. If you think you might want to do more doctor-like research on medicines, treatments, surgeries, etc. (as seems possible from your list of advanced classes), you need to shadow a doctor (again, preferably one doing the sort of research you might like to do) and see how you like it.

You also need to take (more) classes. I know, I know. Yes, take genetics; you also need to think about your background in biochemistry, cell bio, etc. Your previous chemistry major will help you here, since the key to doing good biochemistry is having a background in chemistry and biology. If you're interested in studying these diseases, though, you'll want to understand them both at a molecular level and on a gross physiological level.

The GREs. Buy one of those test books and see how you're scoring; you can sign up for the general GREs at any time, with a little advanced warning. The ETS is pretty clear on how to do this. You need to be more careful about the Subject GREs. Depending on what you want to do, you may need to take them (probably the Biology GRE). They're only offered 3 times a year, at a paper-based test location. You have to take them in April, October, or November, and Noveber is pushing it - you won't get your results until mid-December, way into the grad school app cycle.

Grad school: you need to figure out what you want out of grad school. A Master's will give you more classes, but not much in the way of research experience. An MD or PhD (or MD/PhD) will help you on your way to a research career, but they're both big decisions. If you want to do research into a specific sort of diseases, you need to make sure that your potential grad schools have at least several researchers studying those sorts of diseases. Furthermore, you need to figure out which department these researchers are in - is the research you're interested in being done in the med school? the nutrition dept.? the bio dept.? the biochem dept. or interdepartmental program? somewhere else? Different departments will have different requirements (as will different graduate programs, and all grad programs will have different requirements from MD programs.)

The very best resources you have to make these decisions are the professors at your own university. Look up the ones (in any dept.) who are doing research you are interested in and ask them how they got there - what degrees did they need, what classes and research did they need, etc. Ask them to take a look at your background and give you advice about what you're lacking. And heck, ask them if they've got room in their lab this summer. These are the people who can help you figure out whether you're trying to do the right thing, where the good graduate programs are located, who the best researchers in the field are, etc. You need this advice more than anything.
posted by ubersturm at 8:41 AM on December 29, 2008

From your interests, it really sounds like you shouldn't limit yourself to grad work within a nutrition department. Any "life sciences" or "health sciences" type department of a decent size should have at least one PI working on metabolic disorders. If, as you imply, you want to do wet lab work as part of your grad work, then you will have more luck in a bio- or med-sciences lab.
valkyryn is absolutely correct about genetics. You really need to take genetics. If you program is jam packed, take it by distance ed. There are thousands of people trying to get into grad school, especially in the human health field. You have to prove that you really want it.
Any reason you aren't considering grad school in Canada, since this is where you've done your undergrad?
posted by nprigoda at 8:47 AM on December 29, 2008

The reason I questioned your goals is because you say you've decided on a masters but you describe things which really look a lot more like doctoral work. If you want to do serious biochemical research--and that's what you're describing--you need to pursue a Ph.D. in biology or biochemistry. You simply cannot embark upon a career in medical research with a masters degree as your highest degree.

Also, nutrition really isn't what you want to study. Nutrition, as a discipline, has to do with putting together dietary plans for individuals and groups. It doesn't tend to involve a lot of lab bench work. It involves meal planning and public health policy. A lot of programs are actually associated with schools of public health and focus on community initiatives, i.e. getting people to eat right and reformulating the FDA Food Pyramid. What you want is a Ph.D. in molecular biology or biochemistry. And you're not going to be a good applicant for any of those programs unless you take genetics.

You might consider medical school as well, though most MDs wind up doing clinical work; it's Ph.Ds that do most of the basic research. An MD/Ph.D. is a long road to hoe, and if you don't ever want to treat patients, a Ph.D. will do just fine. But a masters degree will not, unless it's merely a stepping stone towards a doctorate of some kind.
posted by valkyryn at 9:20 AM on December 29, 2008

Ph.D in the humanities here (I know, a million miles away but I do know a lot of scientists!): I agree with valkyryn, it does sound like you should be aiming for a Ph.D. Of course this is not a decision to be taken lightly but it as you said that you want to do research then a Ph.D is the way to go. Not that you won't get excellent advice here, but to research your options more thoroughly you should go to the Chronicle of Higher Education Website and post this and any subsequent questions that you have on the relevant forum there.
posted by ob at 9:32 AM on December 29, 2008

Maybe I'm reading you wrong, but you seem a bit unclear on what most nutritional sciences departments are like. I know the one at UW-Madison pretty well (not as a student, but as a lab assistant) and the research going on there covered a wide variety of topics all related to nutrition from biochem to community outreach. Just because they offer RD training or dietetics degrees doesn't mean they don't also have the other sorts of research going on.

Dietitians put together dietary plans and that is a specific training (RD). A degree in nutritional sciences will not explicitly mean that, though many people will confuse such things.
posted by mandymanwasregistered at 11:51 AM on December 29, 2008

Response by poster: Thank you everyone for giving me such useful advices. Better than the ones given by my advisor! First and foremost, I am very well aware of the importance of genetics, hence the reason I listed as one of my "cons". I have spent many hours strategically trying to fit the course into my schedule but the only semester I can fit it in is my last semester. I have to volunteer and also hold a job on campus (I am still working for a chemistry professor in the main campus), that's why I think more than 4 courses per semester will be a but too much.

At my university, the School of Dietetics and Human Nutrition is a relatively small department, 45 minutes away from the main campus where all the health research centers are. At the same time, the department is split into 2 divisions: those who want to become a professional registered dietitian (dietetics) or those who wants to do research in the future (human nutrition). My division consists of maybe 5 people out of 120 and the classes are very very general, no labs, thus cannot really prepare anyone to embark on a "research journey". In fact, so much emphasis is being put on "public health" and the priority is always towards the dietetic students, that the word "research" is almost always reserved for graduate students in my program. I noticed this loophole long time ago, so I am trying very hard to step up to the plate and take as many health science courses as possible on top of my compulsory courses. Commuting is total "bitch" (excuse my language), everyday I waste 2.5 hours just taking the school shuttle between 2 campuses. Sometimes I feel very much on my own, I cannot relate to people in my program because nobody is taking this "medical research path", at the same time, I feel that I am not good enough because I am lacking the lab experience. Those advanced lab courses in biochemistry/biology/physio require departmental approval and normally very packed, so I am always put on a LONG waiting list. Like valkyryn pointed out earlier, graduate program in nutrition typically is associated with schools of public health and focus on community initiatives by trying to get people to eat right, this IS NOT something I want to be. Uberstrum is pretty in sync with what I have in mind, "To figure this out, you need to make time for research. Find a lab doing research in the sort of metabolic disorders you're interested in, and say you're interested in studying diseases like that - if you're specifically interested in the professor's research, you will definitely be chosen over a random science student who just wants to rack up time in a lab, any lab. If you think you might want to do more doctor-like research on medicines, treatments, surgeries, etc. (as seems possible from your list of advanced classes), you need to shadow a doctor (again, preferably one doing the sort of research you might like to do) and see how you like it. I have already done so last month. I spent some time scoping out which MD or Ph.D (in the endocrinology, cardiology, nutrition fields) are conducting clinical research that hopefully is within my understanding. Once summer starts, I'll do whatever I can to "minimize" as much of my cons as possible, including gaining lab skills. I promise myself that I will read one publication a day starting May 1st. Is that a good idea?

So why a Masters degree? Well, it is like what valkyryn said, "merely a stepping stone towards a doctorate of some kind" I don't want to "bite more than I can chew". Is that reasonable enough?

nprigoda mentioned that "There are thousands of people trying to get into grad school, especially in the human health field. You have to prove that you really want it." Yes, you're absolutely right. I think it is very important to be realistic when it comes to grad school. It is a huge decision that will require absolute dedication/devotion for let's say 8 years of my life. That's why I am posting this "life-changing question" here. Any feedback, rather is good or bad, is truly appreciated by me. Is it something I truly want? I have to say yes because ... well it is personal nonetheless. I am inflicted with a "minor" metabolic disorder myself (similar to Jesse Gelsinger's) that has very much changed my life. Because of this, I am a true believer that "food" should be the focal point or answer to many of the health issues that are afflicting us today (it is an answer to mine, for sure). But I can't put something like that on my grad school application, it is personal that should not be involved with my academics. What do you think?

As for schools, I am not only gearing towards US schools. I have also looked into U of Toronto and some schools in Europe. I simply want to keep my options open.
posted by pixxie at 11:54 PM on December 29, 2008

Best answer: Hey - if you're still reading, a few observations:

-Master's vs. PhD. Most bio-related PhD programs will let you go with a Master's after you finish your coursework; if you decide that a PhD isn't for you, you still get the Master's. On the other hand, if you get a Master's, you will probably still have to do all/most of the coursework for your PhD. Since a Master's isn't required to get into PhD programs, it won't help with requirements (though you will, of course, know more and probably be more mature than most of your just-out-of-college peers.) It won't hurt you, of course, but it won't be nearly as useful as it would be in other fields, and it'll cost you time and (if you're not lucky) money.

-Reading the literature. Yes! Definitely read the literature. Don't worry if you don't manage a paper a day, though. Scientific papers can be really, really dense; sometimes it's best to read them, let them percolate a little in the back of your mind for a while, and then reread them again the next day. If it's a paper related to your research, you'll end up rereading it multiple times anyway...

However! Be aware that reading papers isn't a substitute for doing labwork. On a purely utilitarian note, it won't show up on your resume. On a more scientific note, there's a big difference between learning about how someone elss attacked a problem and attacking a problem yourself. It's like the difference between more or less understanding the individual reactions that go into a complex organic synthesis problem, and actually designing and troubleshooting those synthetic steps yourself.

-Labwork. You mention you're still working for a chem prof on main campus. This isn't bad (believe it or not, chem lab skills may be relevant to stuff you do, particularly if you end up interested in lab rather than clinical research.) However, it's taking time you could be spending on stuff directly related to your current research goals. Unless you're getting something more than money out of it (a publication, perhaps?), you might want to consider trying to get a for-pay lab job in a field more closely related to your interests. If you manage to find a PI who is a good mentor, the advice they can give you will be more than worth the pain of switching jobs. Plus, if you can find a professor who's working near the health campus, you might be able to cut down on that nasty commute time.

There's good news about that chem job, though: a lot of people switch fields between their bachelor's and grad school. Most professors don't expect incoming graduate students to have published multiple papers in Science. Honestly, the fact that you have research experience (even if it isn't in your current field) is going to be good for you. If you've had a chance to learn how research is conducted - to learn how to learn, basically - you're on the right track. More relevant experience would be better, but chem research experience will totally help.

-Finally, regarding your personal interest in metabolic disorders: actually, it's totally legit in most personal statements to mention that personal experience with a metabolic disorder was the starting point for your scientific interest in metabolism. Don't make it the point of your essay, of course, but it's worth mentioning, particularly as an introductory statement; it'll also make it clear that you are specifically interested in your field, and are not a student who is going to grad school because they don't know what else to do.
posted by ubersturm at 10:02 PM on December 30, 2008

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