The number one question I get asked all the time is how I became a dietitian. What my journey looked like, where I completed my internship and degree, and what are the different routes you can take. Below, I’m going to outline the general requirements to becoming a dietitian, and what my personal path looked like.
FAQ: Is a dietitian the same as a nutritionist?
Simply put, a dietitian can be called a nutritionist, but the term nutritionist is not interchangeable with dietitian. Let’s break it down-
Requirements needed to become a registered dietitian (RD): complete the required coursework to be eligible to apply for an internship (4-6 years of school), complete a 1200-hour hands on internship in the field, pass the RD exam.
I can’t tell you how many times people thought that my job as an RD consisted of handing out meal plans and being the food police. The coursework for a dietitian gets really deep into the science aspect of nutrition. You dive into metabolic pathways, disease management, and extensive up-to-date research.
Requirements needed to become a nutritionist: none.
I am in no way trying to discredit nutritionists. I personally know many nutritionists who majored in nutrition, and just chose a different path instead of completing an internship. However, the term is not regulated and there are currently no guidelines in place for who can call themselves a nutritionist, so anyone can take on the title without any proper education.
What was your major and where did you complete your degree + internship?
I completed my undergraduate degree in Health & Nutritional Sciences, my Master’s in Nutrition, and my dietetic internship all through Brooklyn College.
You currently don’t need a master’s degree to become an RD, but it will be required in 2024. Since I applied to my own schools internship, they required the completion of 4 master’s classes to be eligible to apply to their internship. I ended up completing the degree while interning, since the internship gave me an additional 6 credits, and a master’s of science never hurt anyone. There are many programs that don’t require master’s credits, but this was just the path I took. I actually really enjoyed my coursework because it was very research focused. *nerd alert*
What was your journey like?
The path to become an RD, which is the one I took, is as follows:
- complete an undergraduate degree
- completion of an accredited DPD (Didactic Program in Dietetics) course
- complete a 1200-hour unpaid dietetic internship (DI) in various fields (clinical, community and food service typically)
- pass the RD exam
The DPD courses are the prerequisite courses required to be eligible to apply for an internship. If you major in nutrition (what I did), your coursework will likely cover all of the DPD courses, so steps one and two are combined.
If you don’t major in nutrition, don’t stress! You can complete the DPD courses as a non-degree student, and then be eligible to apply for an internship.
Was it competitive?
I’m not going to lie to you- hell yeah. The field is extremely competitive. At the end of your degree, you’re essentially competing with your friends for a spot in the internship. But if its something you truly believe in, you fight and you fight hard.
I will also add that since becoming a dietitian, I’ve received nothing but support from fellow RD’s. The process to become one can be a little competitive, but the community afterwards is amazing.
When I first started my nutrition degree, the thought of applying to an internship scared the hell out of me. The idea of me working among doctors and nurses just didn’t seem right, like I wasn’t worthy. I almost gave up midway and switched to a degree in health. To be honest, I’m not really sure what I would have been able to do with that considering my interests.
Each program accepts a small amount of applicants. Mine only accepted 12. If you don’t get matched the first time, you have to wait a whole year to reapply (6 months to some programs). While I did get matched my first time, I know many amazing dietitians, who are making such a huge difference today, who didn’t. It may seem like the end of the world in that moment, but I promise you it doesn’t matter in the long run.
My hopes in being honest is not to scare you away from the process, rather understand how it works. You want to stick out when you apply for an internship. Show them why you’d be a good candidate. I can speak from personal experience when I say that grades are not everything. There is not doubt in my mind that there were people whose grades were likely better than mine. However, throughout my entire 6 years of school, I always made an effort to volunteer and work in the field. Putting your name our there and gaining experience is will help you stick out.
When I applied to my internship I also included my Instagram account on my resume. Then, it was much smaller (around 20-30k followers), but it definitely stood out to my preceptors. Not to say you must have a huge social media presence right away, but they want to see someone who is passionate and trying to make a difference. After all, that is why I became a dietitian.
What was your internship like?
My internship had 4 parts:
- clinical rotation
- food service rotation
- community rotation
- independent rotation
I knew I didn’t want to become a clinical dietitian, but really enjoyed all that I learned during that rotation. I completed a 4 month rotation in a hospital in Brooklyn, providing patient assessments to both the inpatient and outpatient units. This involved anything from checking diet orders, calculating tube feedings, and providing nutrition education.
I did my food service rotation at a long-term care facility in Brooklyn. I checked meal trays for each patient to ensure the proper diet was given, updated the database with changes in diet orders, took food temperatures to confirm proper cooking procedures, and checked in with the residents to see if they were pleased with their meals.
Both my community and independent rotations were done at a private practice, since that’s the field I knew I wanted to work in. I started off by shadowing the dietitians on staff during their one-on-one counseling sessions, and then became one of the dietitians at the practice after I completed my internship.
Overall, I really enjoyed my internship and all of the different rotations I was in. All internships are different, and I know there are some who focus mostly on clinical vs other fields, so I chose this one because I know I wanted to go into private practice.
What was it like studying for the RD exam?
I primarily used the Jean Inman study guide to study for the exam. I set up a study group with 2 other friends who were planning on taking it around the same time, and we studied for 6ish weeks before our test date. One of my weekly master’s classes was dedicated to taking old practice exams, so we had some extra prep.
Anyone I spoke to always told me the exam is not an good indication of how much you know or how smart you are. I kept getting mixed reviews no matter who I asked. Some said it was easy, some said it was hard. Personally, I found it somewhat challenging.
I went into the exam feeling ready. That feeling where you can’t look at another test question anymore. You get your results right away after taking it. My heart was RACING when I clicked submit to the last question. Suddenly a page pops up saying FAIL.
It felt like my world just shattered. Like I fought so hard for this one moment and it all went to waste. After all, it was the last step.
I will add that I was planning a bridal shower and destination wedding all in the same month of this exam. I may have bit off more than I could chew.
Anyway, what felt like the end of the world literally meant nothing after I passed it the second time. I reapplied for the test two months later, leaving me a month after our wedding to really focus. I was so happy the second time around, and didn’t even care about the little bump in the road it took to get there.
Are you happy with the path you chose?
1000%. I love getting to work one-on-one with clients and seeing them shift their mindset around food and create better habits. I also love that I get to share my love for cooking and baking with so many people, and inspire others to eat healthy and feel nourished.
Any advice for aspiring dietitians?
Try to gain as much experience as you can while still in school. This will help you get a better feel of all of the different fields, but also stick out when applying to internships.
Reach out to other aspiring dietitians or dietitians and network as much as you can. Getting your name out there is one of the best things you can do. You never know what opportunities may come out of it.
And lastly, push through the challenging times. There will be school classes that you hate, internship days that leave your second guessing your career path, preceptors that may make you cry, and bumps in the road that may seem like the end of the world. Push past all of those things and always remind yourself why you started in the first place.
I hope that was helpful! This field is full of amazing people who are so supportive and looking to help wherever they can, so don’t be afraid to ask for advice. Feel free to reach out with any other questions or concerns!