Want to know what it takes to become a dietitian? This step-by-step guide will walk you through all the paths you can take to become a registered dietitian nutritionist, from DPD and coordinated programs, dietetic internships, and beyond.
I began this blog to not only discuss nutrition, travel, and health, but to document my journey to become a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN). My path to become a RDN was very long-I’ve definitely taken the scenic route.
I did not go to university straight from high school, but rather started working (and traveling). I had always known that I wanted to go back to school to study nutrition, but I was afraid of the time commitment and, to be honest, the science courses.
I decided to return to school when I was 26, after I married and moved to California from the Midwest. At first I took only a few classes at a time at a local community college, to ease myself back into being a full time student, and then became more serious as I realized that putting time and effort in my classes could yield good grades (who knew?!?).
After receiving my Associate in Science, I transferred to university to finish my degree in dietetics and completed an 11 month supervised practice internship, and then sat for the RD exam. Writing that short sentence is summing up what has been the most intensely stressful–yet hugely gratifying–four years of my life thus far.
Before I begin talking about my experiences and tips for the hundreds of nutrition students still working on their degrees, first let’s take a look at what being a RDN is all about.
What is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN)?
Registered Dietitian Nutritionists (RDNs) are nutrition experts and are the only legally recognized nutrition professional in the United States. RDNs work in a variety of settings including (but not limited to) hospitals, clinics, public health, business, private practice, sports, universities, and research.
Having a career as a dietitian has consistently been named one of the best (and least stressful, though I’m sure many RDNs would disagree) jobs in the country. As society becomes increasingly aware of the importance of nutrition in health outcomes, the need for RDNs grows. In fact, the demand for dietitians is expected to grow faster than average, at 21% in the next ten years.
What is the difference between a RDN* and a nutritionist?
RDNs must have a minimum of a bachelor’s degree, complete specific nutrition courses, finish a minimum 1200 hour supervised practice program, and pass a rigorous registration examination before they are allowed to use the title “Registered Dietitian Nutritionist”.
RDNs are bound to professional and ethical standards and base their decisions on evidence based practice. Registered Dietitian Nutritionist are the gold standard in nutrition care in the United States and beyond.
All dietitians are nutritionists, but not all nutritionists are dietitians.
Anyone can call themselves a nutritionist, with or without nutrition education or certification. In fact, there are many “nutritionist certifications” online that can be done in less than one day.
*The titles “Registered Dietitian” and “Registered Dietitian Nutritionist” are interchangeable and each dietitian can choose to use whichever credential they prefer.
How to Become a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist
- Complete a minimum of a bachelor’s degree and all required nutrition courses through a program accredited by the Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics (ACEND®).
- Complete an accredited supervised practice program (commonly called the dietetics internship), usually lasting from 6-12 months.
- Pass a national registration exam.
- Complete continuing education requirements to maintain registration throughout your career.
Choosing Your Program
There are different routes to finishing the educational requirement before becoming a RDN.
- Complete a coordinated program, in which the bachelor’s/masters degree is combined with the supervised practice. Because of the highly competitive nature of acceptance to dietetics internships, this is the easiest route to becoming an RDN because you are guaranteed acceptance into the supervised practice. However, being accepted into the program may be more competitive than doing the internship separate from the degree and there are far fewer coordinate programs (find all coordinated programs here). As always, thoroughly research all programs before applying.
- Complete a bachelor’s or master’s degree in nutrition/dietetics that is separate from the internship, called a “Didactic Program in Dietetics” or DPD. Accredited DPD programs can be found here. If you already have your bachelor’s degree, you may either complete another bachelor’s degree or do an accredited master’s degree program. Then apply and complete a supervised practice program; a list of internship programs is found here.
What’s the Deal with the Internship?
If you are lucky enough to do a coordinated program, then you will not have to experience the dietetic internship application process. I, like the majority of dietetics students, went the DPD program route and had the pleasure (ahem) of applying for internships in my senior year.
The internship application process is intense–students apply through a centralized application portal and are matched to one program, or none. Each applicant finds out their match at the same time, available to view on the application portal, and words cannot explain the excitement and nervousness among dietetics students on that day. The match rate is currently at 47%, which means that over half of those who apply are not matched to a program and must wait until the next matching round to apply again, usually in six months to one year.
There are many rules, tips, and tricks to applying for and being matched to a dietetics internship, but the most important is to bring the best possible application to the table. A high GPA, excellent work/volunteer experiences, and leadership can be what makes or breaks an application.
See my post The Lowdown on Dietetic Internship Applications for my advice for making sure you match to your top program on Match Day!
My advice to those considering studying to become a RDN? Research, research, research!
I cannot count the hours I spent searching for information about becoming a dietitian over the last six years, they would measure in the thousands. I researched schools, internships, read blogs, reached out to current students and RDNs, and never hesitated to ask questions. I went after every experience I could get my hands on to make sure that becoming a RDN was really for me.
I suggest starting with the resources listed below and going from there. The profession is always growing and dietitians are more than helpful with information for students, because they know what it’s like to be in your shoes!
- All Access Internships: Hands-down the best resource for dietetics students. Check out director Jenny Westerkamp, RD on Youtube for more information about internships.
- RDN Fact Sheet from ACEND®
- FAQs about Computer Matching for supervised practice internships
- Nutrition Jobs: A site devoted to careers for nutrition professionals. There is also a great blog featuring different students and RDNs. See my Nutrition Jobs feature here!
- Dietitian Central: A website for RDNs posting jobs, articles, and career advice. The forums are the place to post and search information and get answers from nutrition professionals and fellow students.
- Reddit Dietetics: A gathering of students and RDNs on Reddit that post about issues pertaining to the profession. Posting here will give lots of great insight into what it takes to succeed as a dietetic student.
- Blogs: With more people searching online for information about nutrition and health, it’s no wonder that so many RDNs and students are now online! Try the Nutrition Blog Network for a list of RDNs that blog or a simple search to show blogs written by dietetics students.
I hope this answered any questions about what a RDN does and how to become a dietitian, keep an eye out for future posts on my resources for RDNs section. If you have any further questions, don’t hesitate to leave a comment or contact me anytime.