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5 crucial questions to consider before pursuing a master’s degree

A recent master's student and dietitian shares her experience pursuing graduate education and provides guidance in choosing a program. 

SMHS.jpgSusan Macfarlane completed her undergraduate degree in nutrition and dietetics from the University of Saskatchewan. Soon after, she decided to further her education by obtaining a master’s degree in human nutrition from McGill University. Today, with her master’s degree in hand, Susan is happy with her decision to pursue graduate work. She finds the knowledge and skills she obtained beneficial to her private practice and work as a family health team dietitian. You can connect with Susan through email at susan.macfarlane@live.ca and twitter @susan_vegrd.


  

After six years of university, and finally becoming an RD, I assumed I wouldn’t want to set foot in an academic institution for a long time. However, only two years into my career, I began to feel the familiar pull to further my education. Within a few short months, I was enrolled in the McGill Applied Master of Human Nutrition graduate program.

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Many of you may have experienced a similar desire to further your education, but you may be stuck wondering what type of program you should choose.

Here are five important question to ask yourself before pursuing a master’s degree:

  • Would you prefer to obtain your degree online or through in-person attendance? Keep in mind some academic institutions offer a combination.
  • Can you commit to a full-time program or would a part-time program better meet your needs?
  • Are you interested in doing research and writing a thesis or would you prefer a non-thesis/course-based program? (Some programs provide you with the opportunity to do both.)
  • What area of study are you most interested in pursuing: nutrition, a related field, education, or maybe even business?
  • Are you interested in working with and learning from other RDs during your graduate work or would you prefer a program that isn’t specifically tailored to dietetics?

These are all questions I asked myself before enrolling in my program and, in hindsight, I wish I had spoken with more dietitians with graduate experience to help guide my decision. Nonetheless, I decided that working and attending school was not an option given my perfectionist personality (a common trait among RDs!).

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I didn’t want to complete an online program as I thought I might miss out on hands-on learning experiences and interactions with other students. I also knew that I didn’t want to complete a thesis.  I highly value nutrition research, but I felt that it would limit me to only one area of nutrition and wouldn’t necessarily enhance the practical aspects of dietetics that I was looking to develop. However, if you're interested in pursuing a PhD or teaching at the university level, a research based master's degree is often a pre-requisite.

I settled on the course-based Applied Master of Human Nutrition program at McGill University after learning that it offered practicing dietitians the opportunity to further their knowledge and skills in a chosen area of dietetics through a 16-week advanced practicum.

In my course-based program, I found that there were few advanced nutrition courses available that taught me something new about the field, and even fewer opportunities that enabled me to specialize in my chosen area (mental health and disordered eating). Much of my learning and growth came from self-directed study, my work as a teacher’s assistant, and through the completion of various research projects.

If you are considering a course-based master’s program, look at the courses offered to ensure that the academic program meets your learning needs. If not, you may want to consider self-directed study with the supervision of a professor.  

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Similar to my undergraduate program, I found the practicum component of my master’s degree to be the most useful. It allowed me the opportunity to learn the practice of nutrition management of eating disorders from very skilled and experienced dietitians.

Take some time to reflect

My advice to those wanting to further their education is to go for it! But take the time to reflect on your current practice, and what direction you would like your career to take, before deciding on a program. If you are well established in a specific area of nutrition, it may make sense to choose a program that enables you to enhance your specialty.

However, if you haven’t put down roots and are still open to working in different areas of the field, look into a program that will help you develop all areas of your practice, including researching, writing, counselling, educating, etc. You may also find it beneficial to look beyond the field of dietetics to related fields like kinesiology, psychology, business administration, or education when searching for graduate programs. It is incredibly valuable to speak with dietitians who have already obtained a graduate degree to find out what their experience was like. Learn from them!

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I wouldn’t recommend rushing into a master’s program directly after completing your undergraduate degree. Give yourself time to try different areas of dietetics before deciding on the specialty that is right for you. In my case, having two years of work experience in several different positions helped me to determine the program content that would be most useful for my future practice. It also allowed me to identify gaps in my knowledge that I was able to fill through self-directed study and advanced graduate courses.

Finally, consider whether a master’s degree will truly meet your educational needs. Perhaps your practice would benefit more from a workshop, or an online course in anthropometrics, sports nutrition, nutrition support, cognitive behavioral therapy, etc.

Above all, even if you have no desire to formally advance your education, look for opportunities to continue growing and developing your practice. As one of my favourite quotes states, “Never stop learning because life never stops teaching” – author unknown.
 
 
Editor’s note: As a recent master's student myself, I wish I had read a post similar to this before jumping into a program. I am very happy with my graduate school experience, but I plunged into it without much reflection on the direction I wanted my career to take. The key for me, as Susan mentioned, was talking to a colleague who had already completed a master’s degree – it was incredibly helpful.

If you’re interested in furthering your education, I would encourage you to look into programs across the country. There is a huge variety of options available and some programs offer great scholarships. Moving from Vancouver to Toronto for my master’s degree was an incredible opportunity for me to meet new people, form new networks, and experience living in a different city.

Have you completed a graduate degree? What was your experience like? Please share your recommendations, thoughts and questions below.

  1. As a 3rd year nutrition student at Acadia University, these are very helpful comments. I love learning about where dietetics has taken people, and this definitely helps me decide whether a combined internship/masters program is right for me after graduation. I will be taking into consideration these 5 question when making my decision as to where I want to apply for my internship next year. I've always been interested in public health but would also eventually like to teach in a university setting. Thanks Susan, this was very helpful and I'll be sharing it with some of my classmates!
  2. Thank you for the insightful comments Susan. I'm sure your post will be helpful for many RDs! I couldn't agree more with your suggestions.

    I completed my MEd in health education several years ago. I worked as an RD while I completed the program because the classes were held at night. It made for long days and little free time but it worked for me.

    I don't regret it but in hindsight, I wish I'd looked into a few more options. I agree there are lots of programs out there and unless you have very specific career goals, I think the most important thing is to take a program that fits for you and you're interested in. One program I wish I'd thought of/known about when I was searching was a masters in Nutrition Communications. It seems really interesting and such a useful program for any area of work.

    Thanks again for sharing!
    Nicole
  3. I'm starting a master's program this Fall, and am really excited. I didn't think I'd want to go back to school after completing 2 undergraduate degrees and internship, but here I am, doing "back to school" shopping once again. I looked at numerous programs, and found the program at Ryerson best suited what I wanted from a Masters degree, we will see how it all works out, but so far they have been great in helping along with my long-term education and career goals so I'm excited.
    I spoke alumni from different programs, and that was very much helpful. I feel having worked as an RD for the past 5 years, I finally have some stuff that I want build on and am ready to give back.
  4. I disagree with the advice to work for a few years after completing your undergraduate degree before pursuing graduate studies. There are many combined master's-internship programs available these days, and those are wonderful opportunities! Some of us want to have the RD credential, but don't want to have to spend ~40 weeks in a hospital internship. Also, if your interests lie outside of clinical dietetics, then a combined master's program can be the best choice! Personally, I always knew I wanted to end up in community nutrition or public health, so completing a combined master's program (MPH at the University of Toronto) made the most sense for me. I haven't regretted my choice. I am succeeding academically and greatly enjoyed my practicum placement. The traditional path of undergraduate - internship - work - graduate school may not be right for everyone.
  5. A great summary of things to reflect upon before taking the plunge into graduate work, Susan!

    Taking time to find a fit with a professor and lab group before choosing a school was a key piece of the puzzle for me (for thesis-base MSc).

    I was fortunate to work with a passionate supervisor for my thesis (Dr. Hope Weiler at McGill) who pushed me to work hard and afforded me many opportunities. She met with me before I chose McGill to talk about expectations and meet the other people in her lab.

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