Want to become a registered dietitian (RD)? The first step is to decide if dietetics is the right career for you. Registered dietitians can work just about anywhere food is involved such as hospitals, supermarkets, NFL, and WIC just to name a few. There are typically 4 categories of areas in dietetics: clinical, food service, community, and sports nutrition. This is a great book that I used when determining what I wanted to focus on during my career start.
My own personal journey to become a registered dietitian started during my junior year of college to complete my bachelor’s degree in human nutrition and dietetics at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale. I became an active member of the Student Nutrition Academic Council (SNAC) where I bonded with many of my classmates and participated in volunteer opportunities such as working with the dietitian at the Marion VA Medical Center. When starting out during your bachelor’s degree, I highly recommend volunteering or working in relation to dietetics as much as possible, as soon as possible. All of this experience helps you stand out when applying for internships. I also worked as a dietetic assistant (dietary aide) where I took patients orders at Memorial Hospital in Carbondale which helped me become familiar with specialized diets and how to prepare them. At this point in my career, I did not know what area I wanted to focus on and truth is, I still didn’t know during my internship. It wasn’t until after my dietetic internship at Indiana University-Purdue University in Indianapolis (IUPUI) and obtaining my first career start that I finally figured out which path was right for me.
So now that you know my backstory on how I became a registered dietitian, let’s get you on your way to doing the same!
You will be required to receive your bachelor’s degree through a didactic program accredited by the Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics (ACEND). Your degree may be titled differently depending on your university such as ‘food and nutrition’, ‘dietetics’, and ‘human nutrition’. Here is a list of programs that are accredited. As you may notice on this website, there are two ways of going about your bachelor’s degree. You can declare your major in dietetics at one of the universities available (didactic program) in this list or you can complete a coordinated program. A coordinated program in dietetics is a combination of a bachelor’s degree and the supervised practice component (dietetic internship).
If you choose a didactic program, you will need to apply for a dietetic internship. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND) has a list of approved programs here. Dietetic internships are very competitive. In 2010 when I applied for my first time, only 40-50% of applicants received a match nationwide. The matching process is through a program called Dietetic Internship Computer Application Service (DICAS). Since each internship application process can be different, I won’t go into full details but instead research each university’s website to make sure you complete each step. Some internships require an in-person or video interview. Some provide stipends while others require tuition equal to a year of graduate school. Some require Graduate Record Exam (GRE) scores. Keep in mind, the application fees and extras required for those specific programs do add up so only pick about 5 programs you would be really interested in. I also recommend not waiting until the very last minute to get those applications in. Since you have to submit materials via postal service, you want to make sure they get to them on time and this will allow you to resubmit materials if needed.
So when I said I applied the first time I was not matched. There is a process called “the second round” which takes internships that did not completely fill spots and matched with individuals who reapplied (very quickly) to those programs. In between the two years of matching for an internship, I retook classes that i did poorly in at a community college and continued to work and volunteer to gain additional experience and help me stand out from other applicants.I reapplied a second year and was matched during the first round. It is also important to note that if you are matched to an internship, DO NOT REJECT IT! This makes is almost impossible for you to obtain one from there on out. They do not take this lightly.
Now that you have been accepted to a dietetic internship, you will complete at least 1200 hours of supervised practice and may even have some graduate courses depending on the program. The internship can take anywhere from 8-24 months to complete. Some internships have a combined Master’s degree which may take even longer to complete.
Once you have completed your internship, you are now eligible to sit for the Registered Dietitian Exam. This exam is very difficult as the questions are adjusted to the ones you have more difficulty with. There are up to 145 questions and you may complete each one or you may only get half way through them. Once the exam decides you have scored well or not, it will stop providing questions. You receive your score immediately after. A score of 25 or better is considered passing.
Now that you have passed your exam, you must register with the Commission on Dietetic Registration to get into the system. Your never done with your education while being a RD. You will be required to complete 75 continuing education hours every 5 years to maintain your credentials.
It is a very lengthy and (sometimes stressful) process, but it is well worth it in the end when you help individuals live a healthy lifestyle.
Now that you have your RD credential, maybe you want to take it further. This is a good time to really focus in on what you want to either specialize in or how you can set yourself apart from other dietitians. If you are interested in pursuing a Master’s degree, you can do anything from a Masters of Public Health in Nutrition to Masters of Science in Clinical Nutrition or Masters of Business Administration in Healthcare Administration. In addition to a Master’s degree, you can also receive various specializations in oncology, diabetes, weight management, and sports as well as a few others. Here are a list of some resources you can use to determine your next steps to becoming a well respected dietitian.