One of the most common questions I get is “how did you switch career paths to become a registered dietitian (RD)?” I’m detailing every step you’ll need to take if you want to become a dietitian and have a non-nutrition bachelor’s degree.
I’m finally sitting down to write this highly requested post! The most common question I get asked through email and Instagram is probably, how did you switch career paths to become a registered dietitian (RD)?
Well, my friends, the day has come for me to finally spill all the information I have so that you can evaluate whether or not this is a career you want to pursue.
I’m going to break up this lengthy, informational post into a few sections so that it is easy to navigate. Also, please note that I am not an RD yet; I do not yet have in-depth experience with a nutrition program, internship or practicing as an RD. This is just an overview of my experience and what I have learned throughout the process. Please do your own additional research!
Evaluate Why You Want to Become a Registered Dietitian (RD)
Before we get into programs and pre-requisites and all that, we need to talk about why you want to go down this career path. I really had to dig deep to figure out why I wanted to do this, as I had just recovered from a long stint of disordered eating and exercise. Did I want to become an RD because I was still obsessed with food and wanted to control my own and others’ food?
I see so many women who are on the path to becoming RDs, health coaches, NTPs, etc., who very obviously do not have a healthy relationship with food. Get really honest with yourself about why you want to pursue this career.
RD vs. Other Nutrition Certifications
Let’s clear this up first: a Registered Dietitian (RD) is the same thing as a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN). Dietitians can use either abbreviation!
What is absolutely NOT the same thing as an RD/RDN is a nutritionist. Your grandma who watches Dr. Oz every day could call herself a nutritionist. It’s an unregulated term that anyone can claim for themselves. Which means there are no educational standards or ethical guidelines you need to follow to call yourself a nutritionist.
There are many other “nutrition certifications” popping up nowadays: health coaches, nutritional therapy practitioners, holistic nutritionist, sports nutritionist… the list goes on. I know it’s tempting to just get one of these certifications instead of going through the rigorous and expensive process of becoming an RD. But, at least know what you’re getting into if you choose one of those paths: you are NOT legally able to give out personalized nutrition advice or medical nutrition therapy.
Some may think more is better when it comes to people trying to make others healthy, but I do not see it as a benefit to the field of nutrition. It becomes crowded with people who think they are educated enough to diagnose people and give out advice based on bad science. I absolutely think we should make nutrition education more accessible and affordable for those who want to become RDs so that they don’t fall into a well-intentioned but not-helpful nutrition certification.
If you want to be taken seriously as a nutrition professional, become a registered dietitian.
The Basics of Becoming an RD
Here is what you need to do to become an RD:
- Get a bachelor’s degree (if you already have one in a non-nutrition field, no worries—we’ll chat about that in a minute).
- Take the courses required by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (ACEND) through an ACEND-accredited program. This can be either an undergraduate program or graduate program, but starting January 1, 2024, all students must have a graduate degree to take the RD exam.
- Complete a dietetic internship through an ACEND-accredited program.
- Pass the RD exam.
- Get licensed in the state in which you will be practicing.
I know those are a lot of works that might not make a ton of sense! Let’s break it down. In this post I’m focusing on how to become an RD if you already have a non-nutrition bachelor’s degree, so keep that in mind.
Get a Bachelor’s Degree
If you already have a bachelor degree’s, even if it’s not in nutrition, congrats! You completed step 1.
Take the courses required by ACEND
If you already have a bachelor’s degree, I highly recommend taking courses required by ACEND at the graduate level. Starting in 2024, all RDs-to-be will need a graduate degree to sit for the exam, so the job market will be saturated with graduate degrees. Make sure you’re competitive by getting a graduate degree.
There are two routes in which you can go:
- Didactic program + DICAS. Some graduate programs only cover the required coursework. You will then need to apply to DICAS, which is a matching system for dietetic internships. This option requires two applications: one for the graduate program and one for the internship.
- Coordinated program. Other graduate programs combine the coursework and the internship. Typically you complete the internship after you’ve finished the required courses. Since this option only requires one application, these programs are highly competitive.
Start by researching graduate programs. Click here to search for didactic programs in different states (option 1); make sure to click the box “only programs that result in a graduate degree.” Click here to search for coordinated programs (option 2); make sure to click the box “only programs that result in a graduate degree.”
Different programs will have different pre-requisite requirements. Once you’ve chosen a few programs that you’re interested in applying to, plan out the required prerequisites you may have already taken or need to take.
My program (Colorado State University) required general chemistry with lab, organic chemistry with lab, biology with lab, biochemistry, physiology with lab OR anatomy and physiology, psychology and microbiology with lab. My bachelor’s degree is in mass communication, so I did not take most of these courses for my major. Thankfully I had decided early enough in my undergraduate degree to go to graduate school for nutrition, so I was able to complete the required prerequisites while I was completing my unrelated degree.
If you’ve been out of school for awhile, I highly recommend looking into taking these classes at your local community college or state school. It may take you up to a year to complete the prerequisites you need.
Something else you should be thinking about is taking the GRE! GRE scores last 5 years, so you can take it before you start your prerequisites since you’ll want to focus not those. I highly recommend purchasing this Manhattan Prep book of practice problems!
So you’ve taken the GRE, you’re taking prerequisites… now it’s time to apply for the programs you’re interested in! Most application deadlines are in early spring (January—March). I highly recommend keeping a spreadsheet of the programs you’re applying to with their required prerequisites, application deadlines, and other requirements (personal statements, letters of recommendations, GRE scores, GPA, etc.).
A few months later, you’ll get your acceptance letter! Time to PARTY! 🥦🍎🥑🍇🥕🥔
Complete a dietetic internship
Fast forward a couple years—now you’ve finished all of the required courses in your graduate program. Time for the internship!
Note: At the time of writing this, I am just one semester in to my master’s program, so I have no experience with the dietetic internship process or experience!
Dietetic internships range in length. I’m not sure the exacts, but I’ve heard the shortest can be around 8 months and the longest can be around 18 months. Internships are generally unpaid and are full-time jobs. They have multiple weeks-long rotations; again, I’m not sure exactly what the rotations are, but I know the common ones are clinical, community and food service.
If you’re enrolled in a coordinated program (option 2), your dietetic internship will be set up through your graduate program.
If you’re not enrolled in a coordinated program (option 1), you will need to apply to a dietetic internship through the DICAS matching system. Click here to search for dietetic internships. There is a fall deadline and a spring deadline for applying to DICAS, depending on when you want to start the internship. Click here to read more about the process and details.
Pass the RD exam and get licensed
It’s go time, baby! I don’t have any experience with studying for or taking the RD exam, but I’ll leave some tips from dietitians in the resources section at the end of the post. When I actually take the exam, pass it (!!!) and become licensed in about 2.5 years, I’ll update this section with details.
- 5 Steps to Become a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist by ACEND
- How to Become a Registered Dietitian by Fannetastic Food
- How to Become a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist by Food Heaven Made Easy
- Grad School Q&A by Constancely Eating
- My Path to Grad School by Constancely Eating
- Diversity Dietetics (a great resource for people of color who want to enter the field of nutrition)
I hope this post was helpful for those of you considering continuing your education to become a registered dietitian. Please leave questions below, and I will be happy to answer them best I can!