If there’s a topic that fascinates (and possibly scares) each and every person, it’s aging. After all, it’s impossible to avoid — but despite what you may fear, there are plenty of ways to embrace getting older.
Just consider the work being done by graduates of USC Leonard Davis School of Gerontology.
Gerontology is the study of aging across the lifespan, and USC Leonard Davis’ mission is to promote healthy aging for individuals, communities and societies through leadership and innovation in research, education and practice.
One of the school’s most in-demand degrees places a clear emphasis on achieving a healthier, happier lifestyle: the Master of Science in Nutrition, Healthspan and Longevity (MSNHL).
“The Dean [Dr. Pinchas Cohen] defines healthspan as living longer healthfully versus lifespan. You can have a chronic condition for 30 years and be miserable for 30 years — you still lived to be 90, but who wants to live to age 90 and have 30 years of pain? So, healthspan really looks at, ‘Let’s live to 90 and not have chronic pain and be healthy and happy,’” said Cary Kreutzer, EdD, MPH, RDN, FAND, associate clinical professor and MSNHL program director.
The program is small — there are only 24 on-campus and online students accepted each year — which means it’s highly competitive. The MSNHL also encourages its students to achieve major successes: 90 percent of graduates report employment in a dietetics-related field within 12 months of finishing the program.
Clearly, obtaining a MSNHL from USC Leonard Davis is a worthwhile goal for anyone interested in the fields of nutrition and aging. But what are the career options available after achieving such a sought-after degree — and how does one obtain admission to the selective program in the first place?
What to Expect from the Master of Science in Nutrition, Healthspan and Longevity Program
Prospective students can choose between a full-time, two-year program, which can be completed virtually or on-campus, or a part-time, three-year distance learning program.
To enroll in distance learning, however, you will need to reside more than 100 miles outside of Los Angeles and be prepared to do the required labs and supervised practice in your own community.
After being admitted, students go on to take classes like “Medical Nutrition Therapy,” “Nutrition, Genes, Longevity And Disease,” and “Communicating Nutrition and Health” in small, personalized cohorts.
“In our program, we really take the time to get to know our students and look at how to best match them based on their interests [and] skills … We have the ability to tailor internships and experiences,” Kreutzer explained.
Another highlight from the program is the international travel: Students can take one course in Genoa, Italy — a city that has one of the largest proportions of centenarians in relation to the population size, according to a 2019 report from The Guardian, making it of particular interest to those studying aging.
To gain admission to the MSNHL program, students need to have obtained a bachelor’s degree and taken several prerequisite courses, like general chemistry, biochemistry, physiology and general psychology or sociology. Prospective students are also asked to provide outstanding references, write meaningful personal statements and participate in interviews.
“Why are you interested in this program? What do you hope to do with this degree? Those answers are really important to us. We’re looking for a fit in the program, really. And this is why we hold interviews,” Kreutzer told USC Online.
Of course, applicants should have a strong undergraduate background and a high GPA in science-related courses. Many of the students, however, don’t necessarily come from a hard science background — one student, Kreutzer recalled, was first an archaeology major.
What’s truly important is being actively interested and engaged with the nutrition community, possessing a personal and professional alignment with the program and having a positive, hard-working attitude.
“We’re looking at future leaders — we’re looking for their leadership potential and their ability to grow,” said Jeannie Wakamatsu, MPH, RDN, the MSHNL internship coordinator.
Wakamatsu and Kreutzer also emphasized that they want to create a program featuring a diverse array of students.
“I think our program speaks to diversity, equity and inclusion because just looking at the demographic data of dietitians, 94 percent are female, 81 percent are white. Now, if you look at the demographic data of our students, at least 33 to 36 percent of our students are from a minority population, not to mention first-generation college or graduate students, or they come from an underserved community,” Wakamatsu said.
This diversity manifests itself in age, location, gender and more.
“We’re talking about even second career students age 20 to 60s coming back to school. We have students from all over because we have a distance component. We have students in rural areas and cities, and we also have international students. We have students from Taiwan, Greece, China and Canada. We are enrolling more male students … really, we have students from all different backgrounds,” she added.
What Career Options are Available in Nutrition?
So, what exactly can you do after graduating with your MS in Nutrition, Healthspan and Longevity? The possibilities are wide and varied. After all, the program’s “focus is going to be an emerging, growing field going forward,” Wakamatsu noted.
Upon completing the program, graduates are eligible to take the Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN) credential exam. A majority become clinical dietitians, Wakamatsu and Kreutzer explained. That may mean going on to work in a hospital, in an outpatient health facility or in a school. Many others do not, however, and there are a wealth of career options for them.
Some alumni open up private practices or go into teaching, and others focus on sports nutrition, specifically working with professional athletes on their diets. Graduates have also gone into corporate wellness or obtained PhDs to continue researching health and aging.
Wakamatsu and Kreutzer mentioned one student, for example, who set up a private practice focused on Alzheimer’s disease to work with researchers who are exploring whether lifestyle and diet changes might slow down the rate of progression of dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.
They also highlighted that becoming a media personality, an Instagram influencer or a blogger is another emerging option in the nutrition field, and they cited one alumna in particular who has found success in the world of communications.
“[The student’s] area of interest has been educating the public on following a vegan diet for babies and children, and she has at least two books published. When she was in our program, she recorded nutrition and wellness videos for a national fitness chain that were available while you’re on your exercise bike. She’s very active with blogs and writing when it comes to not just vegan diets and babies and kids, but really looking at all areas of nutrition,” Kreutzer explained.
Yet another program graduate, they added, now works in the prison system, helping create a healthy food plan in correctional facilities.
Part of the reason MSNHL career options are so diverse is because the students who pursue the degree have extremely varied backgrounds.
“Basically, they often combine their undergrad background, whether it’s psychology, public health, journalism, you name it, with their master’s degree to now go into a sector that’s not traditionally about nutrition. So, I’m looking forward to exciting careers for our graduates in the future,” Wakamatsu said.
The program continues to attract a lot of attention, thanks to its and USC’s stellar reputation, Kreutzer added.
“Most programs across the country, because of the COVID-19 pandemic among other reasons, are seeing numbers go down. I continue to be amazed that our numbers are going up, and this really speaks to USC,” she explained. “People know the strength of the USC network. It’s a community … It’s well-known all across the country [and] internationally,” she explained.
Applications may be closed for the fall 2021 semester, but it’s never too early to start prepping for a degree that can take you down an abundance of career paths.
Learn more about the online Master of Science in Nutrition, Healthspan and Longevity program today.