Why careers in nutrition are so rewarding: A real-life story.
Nutritionists are in demand in a wide variety of healthcare settings, from major medical centers to research institutes, public health organizations, private practice and far beyond. Specialties in nutrition, like reproductive health, sports nutrition and human performance, can be very rewarding, both professionally and financially. And, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the demand for “nutritionists is projected to grow…faster than the average for all occupations.”1
Still, the facts about an occupation don’t fully capture the satisfaction one can get working in a field that’s making a real difference in people’s lives. To get a more personal picture what a career in nutrition can be like, we asked one of the adjunct professors at Northeast College of Health Sciences, Dr. Leanne Skehan, DCN, MPH, to describe her personal and professional journey in nutrition. You can read an edited version below or listen to the full conversation in this audio clip.
What originally attracted you to a career in nutrition?
Dr. Skehan: It was actually very personal. In my late teens, early twenties, I went through some very challenging health issues. Understanding the function of nutrition and how to repair your body was critical to my survival. As I was personally getting better I thought, “Wow, this is just amazing.” I saw my body, which was very sick, slowly but surely become healthy and strong again.
I worked with many different medical professionals, but one who was the most impactful was a dietitian. I learned a lot from her in our meetings. And it wasn't just the information she shared — it was the compassion she had for me and the passion she had for the subject matter.
Sounds like you definitely developed a passion for nutrition, too. How did that passion lead you to pursuing a master’s at Northeast?
Dr. Skehan: Let’s start with my education. I love learning, I love researching, I love writing papers. So, when I was going through my health issues, I attended the local community college and I got a two year degree in dietary technology. That’s really all I had the capacity for at the moment, but I needed to get back in school.
After that I was able to secure a job with the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program Women Infants and Children (WIC) program where I became a site manager and nutritionist. I worked there for about eleven and a half years but I knew that having a two-year degree was not going to be enough. So, I went back to school and got my bachelor's in health science. Then I went on for my master's in public health.
With every degree that I earned I was very methodical and I thought, “Well, I better get a degree in business,” because you need to have a business sense in whatever field you're working in. So I went on and got my MBA. Then I found the Master of Science in applied clinical nutrition program at Northeast College. I was overlapping between that program and my doctorate in clinical nutrition for a semester. And then that was the end of my formal education.
What kind of jobs did you have during that long educational journey?
Dr. Skehan: I had a few different jobs that wove in health and wellness and nutrition. After I worked at the WIC program, I worked in an organization in Maine, which was part of the Healthy Maine partnerships. I did a lot of policy work in that regard and learned a lot about grant writing as well.
From there I moved to the state of Massachusetts, getting a job as the manager of population health and wellness for a health insurance company. I had no idea that public health or nutrition could even be a part of a health insurance company. I thought these organizations paid your claims and that was it. There was a lot of work that my team was able to do around program development for our members identified as having diabetes and heart disease.
I was there for almost nine years, but my long-term goal was always to get into higher education. A job opened up at Southern New Hampshire University in their public health department and I got that, full-time. Before I started there I applied and became an adjunct professor for Northeast College of Health Science. So now I work at both places.
What have you, and do you, enjoy most about your career in nutrition?
Dr. Skehan: If I could be a professional student, that would be my ideal career. However, being a professor still affords me that opportunity to learn, because not only am I a professor and I get to teach, I also get to mentor — and mentoring is my favorite role. My students teach me so much as well. It’s really a two-way learning style and approach that I thoroughly enjoy.
There’s reportedly a certain amount of flexibility working in nutrition. Have you experienced that in terms of how and where you're able to work?
Dr. Skehan: Absolutely. Being able to work online affords me off the opportunity to live in two different areas. In the summer months, my husband and I reside in the state of Maine where we grew up. Then, in the winter months, we have a home in Texas. Both states are what they consider “green states” in the field of nutrition, meaning you can work as a nutritionist without having to hold state license.
So, I don't necessarily have to be a registered dietitian to work in those states. They do have pathways for licensure outside of registered dietitian, but I don't really need it cause I'm not a practicing nutritionist. I still work with family and friends and my community on the side.
What fuels your drive to keep working in nutrition?
Dr. Skehan: Number one, it's keeping myself and my family healthy. I'm the go-to resource for anything physical activity or nutrition related. As a competitive athlete I stay on top of nutrition.
And we live in a very small town, with groups of people that they get together for exercise and fitness. I offer up my nutrition background for people who have questions. I firmly believe in giving back to my community.
You got your Master of Science in applied clinical nutrition at Northeast College. What was your experience like in that program?
Dr. Skehan: It was phenomenal, from admissions to graduation. What I particularly liked about the admissions process was that it super easy. And I was moved by the fact that Dr. Nickless interviewed and met with every potential new enrollee. He obviously has a passion for this program.
The second thing I really liked was the fact that they had you in a cohort, so you were always with the same students throughout the program. Being an online program, seeing the same faces and names in your courses term after term, you feel like you get to know these people a little bit better.
When it came to working on projects or bouncing ideas off each other, you were comfortable asking questions. Other programs that I've been in, where from term to term you're with different people, you don't take the time to get to know people because it's going to change the next term.
What do you see as some of the most exciting job opportunities and professional roles for people coming out of the M.S. in applied clinical nutrition program?
Dr. Skehan: Those opportunities are growing by the year. I hope that our healthcare system is going to morph from the “sick care” system we're in now to more of a preventive healthcare system.
You’re starting to see more of what they call like wellness clinics that are inclusive of a nutritionist, a chiropractor, an acupuncturist — that kind of complimentary type medicine.
Our healthcare system has a shortage of physicians and nurses to take care of sick people. The opportunity is there for us to switch that system to preventative care, keeping people healthy to begin with. And that starts with nutrition.