If you want to work in the field of nutrition, there are several avenues. Some that I am most familiar with – you can become a Certified Nutritionist (CN), a Dietetic Technician – Registered (DTR) or a Registered Dietitian (RD). I know people who are trained in education, nursing, physiology, etc. who work in a nutrition-related capacity. But if you want to be competitive in the job market, legally able to provide nutrition therapy specific to an individual and their needs, or oversee nutrition and/or food service operations in a hospital or other acute care setting, you need to have the RD credential.
To become a registered dietitian you need to complete the following:
- A Bachelor’s degree: This can be in ANYTHING, it does not have to be in nutrition. However, if you know you want to be a dietitian while you are still working on a bachelor’s degree, I highly recommend you seek out an ACEND-accredited bachelor’s degree because you also need…
- Completion of an ACEND-accredited Didactic Program in Dietetics (DPD): Head on over to this website and take a look at the program listings for DPD programs. While they are all across the country, some online, some in person, they are essentially all the same set of classes and requirements. Most of them are just built into the institution’s four-year course of study for nutrition or dietetics. Others are offered as two-year post-bach programs for people who already have a Bachelor’s degree in another discipline. Some are coupled with a master’s degree or an internship. While the classes will vary a little from program to program, in general they include some form of the following:
- Chemistry (Intro, General, Organic, Biochem)
- Anatomy and Physiology
- Basic math/statistics
- Intro to Nutrition
- Intro to Dietetics
- Principles of Food Production
- Experimental Foods
- Food Service (Principles and Management)
- Lifecycle Nutrition
- Nutrition Counseling
- Medical Nutrition Therapy
- Completion of an ACEND-accredited dietetic Internship (DI): While you’re perusing the above website about DPD programs, you might as well click over to their link about dietetic internships. Like DPD programs, these all look different on the surface but are essentially the same content in different wrappers. The program is usually 6-12 months and will give you experience working in a clinical position, a food service management position, a wellness position and a public health position. Each program specializes in something so you may spend a little more time in one position than another depending on the program but each one will have generally the same bones. In most, you work a full time schedule as an intern, have outside homework and projects and – the real kicker – you don’t get paid. It actually costs money!
For many, being admitted to a dietetic internship is the hardest part of this whole RD process. Average national acceptance rates hover around 50%, which makes the application process extra stressful. Speaking of the application process, it’s not a straight forward one like applying to a school or job. It’s done through an online application called DICAS that almost all internship programs use. So the upside is you only need one application. The downside is, well, it’s tedious and you can only be matched to one program. You rank the programs you want to apply to. The programs rank their applicants. A computer decides if you and a program are a happy match.
- Successfully pass the RD Exam: While I’ve heard it’s not a fun exam, unlike other professions, it’s not the worst final hurdle. It’s only a few hours long, and you CAN take it again (and again…and again).
Some Tips If You Are Already Enrolled in a DPD Program:
- Start Researching DIs Now: Like I said, they are all basically the same but knowing the little things that set your favorite ones apart will help you plan your preparation. Some have a strong focus on clinical dietetics and will give priority to applicants that have hospital experience. Knowing this will help guide your volunteer and work experiences. Some only accept students who have worked for WIC. Some require a GRE exam score. Even if your resume already meets what they want, it’s never too early to start building relationships with DI Directors. Email them and ask if you can meet if they are local. If not, ask a few questions over email.
- Grades Matter: You probably already know this, but if you need to to retake a science course or two, do it now. You don’t want to be faced with having to retake Micro in your last semester of your senior year because that was when your DPD Director called the low grade to your attention. Most internship programs will not even look at your application if your science GPA is below a 3.0 (your overall GPA needs to be above this mark, too, but the sciences are what get most people). I know of a few people who were very qualified for a dietetic internship who did not get matched because of this. Retaking a class sucks (!) but it really can be a make or break situation. I took all of my science courses at a community college and the most expensive one was $125 so money is not an excuse here either. On that note…
- (If You’re a Post-bach) Take Your Sciences at a Community College: Finding the money to go back to school was the hardest thing for me. It was so hard, it took my three years to figure out how I was going to swing it. It was hard to get all the classes I needed in the same semester so I ended up at four different community colleges across three counties of Southern California but it worked, I got the grades I needed and I actually really loved the experience! Contrary to what I had always believed, education at a community college is just as good as the fancy private schools. My Anatomy and Physiology professor is still the best teacher I have ever had, and the explanation of glycolysis from my Microbiology professor was just as good as the explanation by my graduate-level Metabolism professors.
- Experience: This is really how your secure your spot in a DI. You want to aim for about 1,000 hours of nutrition-related experience to make yourself a competitive candidate. Try to hit all three areas of the field (clinical, food service, community). And while volunteering is certainly good, a paid position is even more impressive. Aside from being good for the resume, all of this experience will also help you to know what you want to do (or not do) as a dietitian. I started thinking I wanted to teach and focus on community education. Two years and a couple thousand experience hours later, I know that my preference is for the clinical side of the field. And as much as I rolled my eyes when people told me I needed to work in a hospital to become familiar with that environment, it was absolutely true and I’m glad to have that experience in my past because it’s one less thing to be nervous about with the dietetic internship.
For those not in a DPD already, I encourage you to look through ACEND’s list of Coordinated Programs. These are programs that combine the DPD course with the DI, which means you don’t have to worry about doing all that work in your DPD and not getting accepted to a DI – they come as a package deal. Also worth considering, in 2024, the requirement will change from a Bachelor’s degree in any discipline to a Master’s degree in any discipline. If you already have the RD credential but don’t have the advanced degree, you will be grandfathered in but all incoming RDs will be required to have a Master’s or higher. I bring this up because it will make the job market more difficult for those who only have a Bachelor’s when all of a sudden you are competing mostly with people who have more education. There are several programs that combine a Master’s with a Coordinated Program or with a DI. Something to think about.