In August 2008, I embarked on a three-year journey to become a registered dietitian.
Dietetics is not my first career. I received my first degree in physics from Amherst College in 2006. After working for a few years, I decided to go back to school for dietetics (read more about that decision in the FAQs). Making the transition from physics to dietetics was not straightforward, as you might imagine. I had to start (almost) at the beginning, taking organic chemistry, biochemistry, and basic nutrition classes my first year in school. I was thrilled to be accepted into University of Connecticut‘s Coordinated Program in Dietetics after my first year; this program allowed me to skip the stressful match process for internships during my second year.
As part of the Coordinated Program, I completed my internship hours while concurrently taking classes. My classmates and I experienced real-life dietetics while in school. The posts below describe different areas in dietetics from a student’s perspective.
In June 2011, I completed all the requirements for the Coordinated Program. In July 2011, I passed the RD registration exam and became an official registered dietitian.
Please feel free to contact me with any questions! I love talking about my experiences in dietetics.
So, what’s it like to be a registered dietitian?
Corporate Dietetics: The life of a corporate dietitian at Subway
Food Service, Long-Term Care: Food Service and the dietitian
Private Practice, Eating Disorders: Nutrition therapy for eating disorders
Private Practice, General: A day in the life of a private practice dietitian
Clinical Dietetics: A day in the life of a clinical dietitian
Nutrition Research: Nutrition research is awesome!
School Food Service: High schoolers like my food
Community Nutrition: Working with SNAP-Ed
More than a third (34%) of RDs work in hospitals, in inpatient and acute care. A significant percentage of RDs work in clinics (12%) and community and public health programs (11%). 11% work in extended care facilities. RDs can work as consultants to health-care facilities (6%) or other organizations (2%). RDs can work in private practice (4%). And, of course, RDs can work in school foodservice (3%), or in education (5%). RDs work in very diverse areas! (Data from recent AND survey.)
Check out this article from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: What a Registered Dietitian Can Do For You.
Some questions I’ve received:
I am interested in becoming a registered dietitian. I noticed in one of your posts you said that you completed your internship hours before taking your RD registration exam. Are internship hours mandatory before taking the RD registration exam?
Internship hours (1500 of them, to be exact) are definitely required before taking the RD registration exam. You can find out more information here. Internships are not easy to come by nowadays, with a ~50% match rate, so an alternative pathway was recently introduced where those who have completed all the requirements for becoming an RD except the internship hours can take sit for the DTR exam.
How difficult do you feel it is to find a well paying job in that field?
It’s possible to earn a comfortable living in dietetics, but no one goes into dietetics to get rich (as I’m sure you know). The vast majority of dietitians work in clinical (acute care, long-term care, outpatient), where salaries are pretty static and there’s not a lot of upward momentum. Salaries vary by facility. A website like salary.com will give you a better idea of how much dietitians are paid by location and dietitian-type (not just clinical). The money in dietetics is in management, corporate dietetics/consulting/private practice in larger metropolitan areas, and less traditional career paths for dietitians (think dietitians with a brand who appear on morning shows :) ). If other dietitians out there have something to add, I’d love to hear it!
I’m making a career change from computer science to becoming a registered dietitian. I’m really curious about male dietitians — are they very rare? Also I understand that internship programs are really competitive and how did you deal with that? What was in your opinion the toughest class?
Male dietitians are still very much a minority in the field, but the number of male dietitians is growing. I have quite a few male colleagues, and it was gratifying to meet so many male RDs at FNCE. AND is taking notice of the growing number of male RDs and providing services just for them, such as special sessions at FNCE.
Internship programs ARE very competitive, and they will stay competitive as long as there are more students entering the field without more internships to train them. However, if you work for good (not necessarily perfect) grades, get some practical experience while taking classes (particularly for the references these experiences give you), and cast a wide net during your internship applications, you will be in great shape. I don’t have any experience applying for the internship myself, as I was lucky enough to be accepted to a coordinated undergraduate program that incorporated the internship into the curriculum. If you have a chance to apply to a coordinated program, I would wholeheartedly recommend it. Not only are you gaining practical experience WHILE taking classes, you don’t have to apply for an internship.
My hardest classes were the classes that dealt with counseling and human behavior, although most of my fellow students felt the science classes were the most difficult. I have a strong science and math background, so I didn’t have a problem with those – but, the social sciences were conversely more difficult for me! The most difficult class for you will depend very much on your strengths and weaknesses – remember, however, that professors are always willing to help if you ask.
Which area did you prefer when you worked on your internships?
I enjoyed counseling and community work. Now that I work on menus, I like that, too!
A big concern for me too is while I love cooking at home, I don’t love hot professional kitchens. Do you have to start in the kitchen when you get a job working as a Dietician at a hospital? Am I pursuing the wrong profession if I can’t deal with hot kitchens?
Many dietitians go into food service. I work on menus for a children’s residential setting, and I enjoy that very much! I like working with computers and computer programs, and putting together menus is kind of like a puzzle, especially when incorporating the required regulations from the USDA for reimbursable meals (they just got more stringent!). There are many aspects of food service, and for the most past you spend very little time (if any!) in a hot professional kitchen. The only time I spent in a kitchen was in my food service rotation during supervised practice. Dietitians can become chefs, but it’s certainly not common or required.
What do you feel were the most stressful aspects of the internships?
A Coordinated Program is pretty intense, particularly as you start moving away from classes and more toward supervised practice. I remember toward the end of the internship, I was putting in 40 hrs a week (required 1500 hrs) and working outside at the same time and that was a bit crazy. We spent 2-6 weeks at each rotation, which meant a drastic shift in “job duties” every 2-6 weeks. Working as a dietitian often requires you to wear many hats, but you won’t be changing job duties so frequently. One of the most stressful moments in the internship was finding that one rotation was lacking in something I knew I needed for a well-rounded education. I found another on short notice and convinced my program that I could and should do it. I don’t like to rock the boat, so emotionally that was very hard.
How did you like being in a Coordinated Program vs. a traditional degree + internship track?
I loved my Coordinated Program! I would definitely recommend going for one of those if you can. You can look for a program on the eatright.org website (search for Coordinated Programs). If you’re interested in a particular program, I would recommend contacting the program director. Having friends who have gone through the stressful match process for internships, I’m happy I didn’t have to go through it.
I am very interested in nutrition and becoming an RD, having done a lot of research of the specific education, internship, examination, registration required. I found a forum of people who claimed they were RDs, but mostly the responses were extremely negative, about how low their salary is, how miserable they are, how they would never recommend becoming a dietitian to anyone, etc. I know that it’s not a legit way to collect data about how RDs truly live, but I thought I would ask someone how has been there, done that, and is currently an RD.
You’re right not to base your decision about whether or not to become an RD on what you read online. Just like people who write reviews for products on Amazon, those who are taking the time to write their opinion about the profession on an online forum are typically either very positive or very negative about the field (in this case, the latter). I suspect that most of the replies are negative here because the issue of salary and compensation is always a hot one in any field. Many people (I would venture to say, most people) feel that they are under compensated for the work they do. It is true that you could undergo the same amount of training and make more money in a different field (such as in pharmacy, to echo a common comparison in the thread you linked to), but you could say that no matter what field you’re in. Someone could spend four years in college and make more money in engineering or computer science or finance than in dietetics OR pharmacy. Most dietitians I’ve met did not go into the field to make money, but rather because they enjoy science and nutrition and genuinely feel they can make a difference.
I read that you had you had a degree in physics before going back to school to become a RD. Did you go back to an undergrad program or a grad program? I can’t image going through undergrad all over again.
You got it right – I have a bachelor’s in physics and worked in the field for a bit before going back to school for dietetics. To become an RD, you need to complete all the undergraduate (not graduate) classes required to apply for a 1 year dietetic internship (including organic chemistry, biochemistry, microbiology, A&P, and all the nutrition classes) and often you get an undergrad nutrition degree in the process. I’m not sure how many of those types of classes you have taken already – as a physics major, I had pretty much only taken intro chemistry and biology, so the whole process took me 3 years from start to RD. I know some programs will have you start taking grad classes as an undergrad (I took two). There are some dietetic internships that will allow you to combine a nutrition Master’s with the internship in a two year program, or often you can take graduate classes at a nearby university while completing your dietetic internship.
Did you find when you were in school that what you were being taught matched up with the most current studies and science? The reason I ask is because there is so much research and opinion out there on diet and nutrition [...] If i go to school I truly want to become an expert and be up to date with the latest science.
When you’re in school, you’ll learn the most up-to-date nutrition information. You’re absolutely right that the nutrition field changes quickly, so that once you’re out of school for a few years, some of what you learned in school may be obsolete. That’s why the Commission on Dietetic Registration requires 75 hours of continuing education every five years – this requirement helps you stay current. In addition, I read as much as I can from journals, magazines, and online publications to stay informed of the most recent research findings and food trends. It takes work, but if you love the field, it won’t feel like work – most of the time!
Your blog is awesome and it is extremely helpful for other dietetics students like me. I am a junior now, I apply for my internship in October. I go to [school], and I am applying for the program that [school] offers. But I am
very curious on how did you get all of these awesome internships? What did you do to work in Subway, and the other places? How long did it take you to finish all the internships and take the RD exam?
Thanks for your sweet words! I’m glad to hear the site is helpful. As for internships: I attended a Coordinated Undergrad Program, which integrated the internship into the two year dietetics program. My school (University of Connecticut) arranged all the internships, but in our final semester we did have some choice among the established relationships UConn had with hospitals and schools in the area. So if we had an interest in school nutrition, for example, the faculty at UConn tried its hardest to get us a placement at a school. We also had a final two week rotation that we could do just about anywhere, as long as we set it up ourselves, and that’s how I came to be interning at Subway.
I’m not sure how regular internships work, if they are as flexible, etc., but I do think they strive to give as many experiences as possible. There’s always the possibility of doing something on your own as well. For example, if you’d like to work with a particular private practice RD in your area, you could always contact him or her to arrange a shadowing experience.
A regular internship takes about a year. Once you’ve completed all the hours, it takes about 6 weeks or so for CDR to process all the paperwork. You can then schedule your computerized exam. I completed my hours toward the end of June and took the exam mid-July (CDR was very fast with the paperwork!).
I’m 18 years old and currently waiting to start university :) I am really interested in studying nutrition and dietetics [...] and I have a question. I am a Muslim and there are certain restrictions to what we can and cannot eat (E.g. We can only eat meat that is certified halal and we are not allowed to consume pork and alcohol). Do you think that this would be an obstacle if I do manage to pursue a career in dietetics in the future?
That is definitely not an obstacle — in fact, it would be an asset! Many people of all cultures could benefit from nutritional guidance, and your experience and expertise would be invaluable to those who are Muslim. So don’t let that stop you!
I wanted to ask if you had any tips on taking the exam. I currently am studying from Inman’s Guide but I heard that the questions she gives are not really like the actual exam. I’m wondering if you know of any resources that I can use to practice taking the exam??
Congrats on finishing your internship – you’re almost there! :)
The Inman guide is all I used to prepare for the test. There’s an audio component I listened to while exercising or driving, and I also made flashcards from the notes, which were really helpful. I believe there’s also a computerized version of a mini-test on a CD that you can use to practice the computer version (very helpful!).
However, I definitely agree that many of the questions on the actual took me by surprise, as they were very different than the practice ones and were surprisingly specific. I’m not sure if there’s any other studying aid out there that’s more accurate, but I will say everyone in my class used the Inman guide and everyone passed the RD exam on the first try. I didn’t even use my school notes – just the Inman guide. Truthfully, because the questions on the actual exam are sometimes very specific and seemingly random, I don’t know if there could be any guide that would help you prepare better than Inman. I did fine on the RD exam because I paid attention during classes and rotations and worked hard to prepare for school exams. I know that’s not a very specific answer, but I hope it helps!
Did you find a position after you passed the exam and became an RD?
I was offered a clinical position at one of my internship sites, and I also continued working with another registered dietitian at her practice. Other dietitians I know quickly found positions at hospitals or corporations.
What do you suggest for someone who’s thinking of going back to school for dietetics?
In general, I would recommend talking to as many dietitians (including me!) in as many different fields as you can, maybe even follow a few around before making a decision about whether or not to go into the field. I know that’s hard with busy schedules, but if you can swing it, that’s the best way to find out about how the field works in the inside. Then check out this link for information on what you need to become a registered dietitian.
I am on my way to becoming an RD. Match day was just this past Sunday and I got accepted to [intership]! Do you have any advice for me as I finish up my DPD undergrad and prepare for the internship?
Congrats on your match! You must have had an impressive application :) You’ll have a fun time and learn a lot in your internship. I would recommend reading as much as you can (AND’s journal is good, and my favorite publication is Nutrition Action). Also, it’s never to early to start getting involved in ADA’s practice groups. Joining a practice group is a great way to meet new people and find resources.
I’m in a situation somewhat similar to yours in that I am transferring to [name of school] to get a second bachelor’s degree but I already have the background because I got my BS in Nutrition and Food Science. I guess I wanted to email you to see if you have any advice for me before I embark on another two years of school. Anything I should prepare myself for or look forward to?
Congrats!! It’s common to be nervous — heck, I know I was super nervous in the beginning — but by the end of the program, you’ll be tackling new situations with ease. I definitely gained confidence in my abilities to be flexible and engaging during the program.
Since you already have a BS in nutrition, you’ll have a leg up over most of your classmates, so you’ll probably be an oft-requested study buddy :) I found the classes were not difficult (particularly compared to my previous degree), but they require plenty of work and face time, both in class and in front of the computer. Being a good organizer is key. Don’t be afraid to ask the 2nd year students for help — they love to show off (I know I did!) ;) .
In general, be bold. Sometimes other professions feel they can push RDs around (and you’ll find this in some of your rotations), but being well-informed and confident will carry you very far in all parts of your life.