5 Steps to Becoming an RD
Dearest future RD’s,
About a week ago, I was one of you. Now, as weird as it may seem, I crossed the finish line of my #RD2be path and stepped (okay, leaped joyously because *let’s be real* I couldn’t contain my excitement) into the beginning of my career as a Registered Dietitian.
Side note: To anyone reading who may not be on the Registered Dietitian path, know that you may not find the following assortment of words to be most applicable to your life—however, they do tell a story. You know what they say about stories, right? There’s always something to be learned from them (or in my case—there’s always lots of potential for cringe-worthy jokes that you may find amusing).
Anywho, back to my point (I promise I have lots of them). To all my up and coming nutrition professionals out there, this one’s for you. There are lots of things I wish someone would have told me when I first started, so I’m here to be that person for you. “A glimpse into your future,” as told by Yours Chewly—if you will.
As I often like to joke, (but not really because it’s a valid point)—if you want it badly enough, all roads lead to the RD (or RDN, if you prefer). As with any career, there are many paths that all lead to the same end point.
The path I’m about to describe is that of my own—a rather conventional one, if you ask me. To say that this particular route is the only way to become a Registered Dietitian is a misrepresentation of the truth, as there are many. However, it’s one of the routes—and I’d like to think I learned a thing or two while traveling it. So I figure, why not share? Spoiler alert: kindergarten was right—sharing is caring.
My story begins the day I was born—lol totally kidding (although sometimes it does feel as though I was born holding a spear of broccoli whilst screaming in my lil’ baby voice “eat your fruits and veggies!!!”). I was, however, one of those kids who knew what they wanted to do from an oddly young age.
I came to nutrition by route of cooking. By the time I was tall enough to peer over the counter, I took an interest in any and all things kitchen related. My dad always took the time to teach me basic principles of cookery, while my mom attempted to teach me the importance of following recipes in baking. If it weren’t obvious, the cooking stuck. Baking? Not so much—I still have recipe rule following issues.
Before I knew it, a simple hobby turned into a deep-seated interest in the principles of metabolism and concept of utilizing food as one of the first lines of defense in the protection against chronic disease. I had fallen in love with the preventative, healing power of nutrient-dense foods, so it was an easy decision to dedicate my career to helping others find and use that same power to the best of their abilities.
Now, let’s talk about how I actually did the thing…
Steps to Becoming an Registered Dietitian Nutritionist:
1. Attend a DPD accredited program.
Flash forward about 10 years to 17 year-old-me taking Step 1 (well, other than being a human and graduating from high school). DPD stands for Didactic Program in Dietetics and is simply a fancy way of saying that the program has been verified to offer all of the prerequisite coursework deemed necessary by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (aka the governing body over all dietitians). I received my B.S. in Nutrition & Dietetics from James Madison University (Go Dukes!) and loved every minute of it.
Well, every minute that wasn’t spent stressin’ out over chemistry. One small bit of information no one ever told me—there’s a lot of science classes involved in becoming more certified to tell people to eat their fruits and vegetables. My biggest piece of advice? Don’t let them intimidate you.
I’ll be the first to admit that chemistry was my weak spot, and the fact that I wasn’t great at it drove me nuts (Hasn’t anyone ever told you that every RD has his/her fair share of Type A? Well, this is where mine shines brighter than freshly waxed apples in the produce isle).
In fact, organic chemistry was the hardest I’ve ever worked for a C. Now, I’m not encouraging mediocre grades—I’m simply here to say: try your absolute best, ask for help when you need it, and don’t believe a word of that internal speak when she (or he) says you’re not good enough.
Like I said before, if you want it badly enough, all roads (even those paved with C’s in orgo) lead to the RD. Just whatever you do—don’t forget to enjoy your time along the way. I made some of my absolute best friends (& future colleagues) during my undergraduate career, and that never would have happened if my entire time was spent stressing over grades.
If you’d like to explore a full list of DPD accredited programs in the U.S., click here.
2. Apply for a Dietetic Internship.
Lol at this whole process because, if I’m being totally honest with you, I still can’t fully describe it—even
after living through it. Put simply, during your last year of undergrad, you’ll start applying for programs (aka “internships”) that offer the required 1,200 hours of post-grad supervised practice experience.
This system is frustratingly complicated (to say the least), but if you learned anything from our chemistry talk—you’ll remember: don’t let it intimidate you. Maintain open communication with your program director, as he/she (along with other professors) will help you through the process tremendously.
I think my remaining pieces of advice for this process are best detailed in bullet form:
- Set yourself up for application success by trying your absolute best in all classes—not just classes in your junior and senior year. Grades aren’t everything, but they do count for something (especially in the eyes of certain internships).
- When you’re deciding which programs to apply to, don’t get too hung up on the “program emphasis.” No matter where you go, you’ll have to complete rotations in each of the core areas of dietetics. If you want experience in a certain area, talk to your internship directors about it.
- Some programs offer a combined internship and Master’s program. By 2024, all RD/RDN’s will be required to have some sort of Master’s degree (doesn’t necessarily have to be in nutrition). If you receive your credential before this deadline, you’ll be grandfathered in (yay us!). If not, you’ll have to complete a Master’s degree.
- My humble opinion: If you’re reading this before the deadline and still know you want a Master’s degree–go for it. Do I think you necessarily need one to be a competent, entry-level practitioner? Absolutely not. The learning is in the doing. Get out, get some experience, and decide if you want to spend thousands of dollars on an additional degree when you have a better idea of what exactly it is that you want to do.
- Build a strong application by participating in nutrition-related volunteer activities throughout college. Anything extracurricular helps an application stand out–plus, you’ll grow a network of connections along the way.
- Participate in your school’s dietetics or nutrition club.
- Lend some time at a local food bank.
- Look for opportunities with your local health department, WIC program(s), or farmer’s markets.
- Stay on top of things. The application is due in the middle of February, but my program director had us start preparing pieces of the application as early as the November before. At the time, I thought this was aggressively early preparation–but by the time applications were due, I was glad I had started preparing long before.
- If you pour time into one thing, make it your personal statement. Since not all internships offer interviews, your personal statement is your one chance to humanize yourself into a “nutrition nerd who exists in real life” instead of just being a “nutrition nerd who exists on paper.” Highlight the things that make you a rad human, not just a good student.
- Remember that applications cost money (as do internships). Apply to a good variety of programs, but don’t go overboard and waste all of your dollars (pronounced: “dollhairs”). Only apply to programs that you feel will provide a good fit. If possible, visit your top options to see what they’re like. Ask questions. If visiting isn’t possible, try to connect with some internship grads who can provide you with retrospective advice and opinions.
3. Get matched with a Dietetic Internship.
This one’s the real nail-biter. About two months after you submit your application, you’ll find out if you’ve been “matched” to an internship. You’ll rank programs that you apply to in order of preference. Always rank your #1 as #1 and proceed down the list from there.
Internships will rank you in return. You’re matched with your highest ranked program that offers you a position in return. This is where my understanding gets a little fuzzy. Like I said–lived through it but still fail to understand it fully. If you like to read more in detail about the match process, click here.
When it comes to the long-awaited, fateful match day, it would be useless for me to tell you to keep calm. I mean, you can sure try (I know I did), but you’ll inevitably be nervous–no matter how well you prepared.
If things go your way (which I sure hope they do!), you’ll get matched and be on your way to an internship after graduation. If things don’t go your way, you can apply for second match (and maybe secure the spot of someone who ended up turning an internship down) or you can apply again during the next round of matching. Yes, this may push back your timeline, but you can always find something meaningful to do in the meantime (perhaps look for job opportunities that may continue to make you stand out in the next round of apps).
Long story long–the advice I’ve been offering all along returns (do you notice a theme yet??) If you want it badly enough, you’ll get there.
4. Complete a Dietetic Internship.
Thought the journey wasn’t interesting enough already? Well, surprise! This is where things get interesting. Throughout my 10 months as an intern, I found many challenges, opportunities for growth, and connected with so many incredible RD’s, chefs, and other medical professionals. And, as I always like to joke–made a whopping total of $0 in the process (don’t even get me started on the whole “unpaid internship” rant…).
Internships require a minimum of 1,200 hours of supervised practice, broken up into different “rotations” that cover all core practice areas of dietetics. My rotations included experiences in public health nutrition, outpatient clinical counseling, foodservice management, inpatient medical nutrition therapy, student wellness, long term care, and a dash of culinary fun + trials with a brand new, state of the art Mobile Education Kitchen to top it all off.
I learned many invaluable things from each and every rotation–even the ones I was dreading the most. Lesson here? You can always learn something from any and everyone you come into contact with. Give each and every experience 110%–even when you find yourself tasked with something that might not necessarily be the most “fun.” Build a bridge, get over it, and you’ll be a better practitioner because of it. Don’t you remember?? If you want it badly enough, you’ll get there (but positivity makes the “getting there” a whole lot more rewarding).
If you’d like to read more of my thoughts on conducting yourself as a strong, young professional (and intern), check out this post.
5. Sit for (& pass!) the RD exam.
The nervousness you felt on match day will most definitely be matched (maybe even surpassed) by the feeling you get when you wake up on the morning of “The Day.” Yes, it’s a big deal. It’s probably the biggest test that you’ve taken in your life thus far (take THAT orgo!). However, *cue advice from everything I’ve said above*…don’t let it intimidate you.
The best advice I can give you here is to prepare well, take a deep breath, and trust in your abilities. You’ve worked SO hard to get to this point–and guess what? You wanted it badly enough….and you’re almost there (At least that’s what I had to keep telling myself in the week leading up to my test date).
Once you receive the necessary paperwork from your internship saying you’ve completed all required
hours (’bout time, amirite??), you’ll get a message from CDR (Commission on Dietetic Registration) containing all of the information needed to sign up for your test.
The test costs $200, ranges from 125-145 questions, and is computer adaptive (meaning the computer will identify your strengths and give you less questions in those areas, while giving you more questions in areas you may not be as good at–fun, right?). The highest score you can receive is a 50, and you have to get at least a 25 to pass.
Honestly, it’s not that bad. They make it big and scary–but if you review well and utilize practice questions to the best of your abilities, you’ll be fine. In the event you don’t pass, you can always take the exam again (at least 45 days and $200 later, though).
There are many different preparation materials out there and everyone has their own way of studying that works best for them. For me? I used Jean Inman’s Review Guide + Audio Files and the Visual Veggies App that has lots of practice exam questions. Luckily for me, the fee for Inman’s guides were included in my internship program fee and I was able to borrow an iPad with the Visual Veggies app on it. Both of these tools purchased on their own are expensive (unnecessarily so, in my opinion), so that’s just something to consider when budgeting. If you have to choose just one because of cost, I would definitely choose Inman’s reviews over the other app.
6. YOU DID IT YOU RD (or RDN) YOU!
Lettuce celerybrate because OMG! you did it. See? Told you if you wanted it badly enough you’d get here (Okay, well you have to put in more work than just reading this post…but you get what I’m saying).
The level of excitement you’ll reach after seeing the screen that says “Congratulations! You have passed.” is unreal–definitely unsurpassed by pretty much everything else I’ve done in life so far.
Now sit back, relax….and figure out how to finally start introducing (and conducting) yourself as “The Dietitian” instead of “The Intern” or “The Student.”
This is where my advice from personal experience drops off–because I’m currently sitting here, as a new RD, trying to figure out my next moves. I couldn’t be more excited for the future, and I hope you can say the same for yourself.
P.S. I tried to make this post as detailed and comprehensive as possible without writing a novel. That being said, if you have ANY questions about my path or how you can apply this advice to your own path–I’d love to hear from you. Feel free to reach out here.