The Path to Becoming a Registered Dietitian
If you wonder what to feed an astronaut who will be weightless in space for six months, or go to a Super Bowl party and speculate about what type of diet allows a quarterback to be on the field for three hours without collapsing, you may be the perfect candidate to pursue a career as a dietitian.
For you, it’s not just about the food. It’s about the science behind the food—and how the application of science and diet can impact health and well being. You’ve been thinking about becoming a dietitian, but aren’t sure where to start. We’re here to help you understand what dietitians do, what the outlook for jobs is, what the requirements are, what education you need, and how to navigate the process.
With job growth for dietitians expected to be 11% over the next eight years, and earnings increasing at a rate higher than inflation—and higher than average compared to other jobs—the future for dietitians is bright. Opportunities for dietitians have rapidly expanded in the past few years as dietitians have moved into new roles and workplace settings.
“Growing public awareness of the importance of diet in relation to health has dramatically increased the demand for dietitians,” according to Seattle-based Ginger Hultin, MS, RDN, CSO a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND). “Primary care physicians average 2,300 patients per year,” Hultin says. During your annual check-up, there is a good chance your doctor tells you to change your diet to improve your health, but has no time to explain in detail how to go about doing that. That scenario makes private consulting one of the fastest growing jobs for dietitians. “That’s what I do,” Hultin says. “Having your own registered dietitian nutritionist makes sense as part of your care team whether you’re perfectly ‘healthy’ or you’ve got some things to work on.”
Decide Where You Want to Work
Dietitians work in a wide variety of settings and serve in a number of diverse roles. An associate’s degree can prepare you for an entry-level jobs such as a dietetic technician, dietetic service supervisor or nutrition assistant
Registered Dietitians (RDs) and Registered Dietitian Nutritionists (RDNs) (the titles are interchangeable), who hold at least a bachelor’s degree, are trained to provide scientific-based food and nutrition services, counseling, and education to individuals and groups. Once primarily found in large clinical institutions like hospitals, medical centers, doctor’s offices, and long-term care facilities, dietitians are now working in more public-facing settings:
On the job, you’ll find dietitians working in a variety of jobs:
Duties might include:
Some dietitians will choose to specialize in certain areas of practice and become board certified in focus areas like Oncology Nutrition, Sports Dietetics, Pediatric Critical Care Nutrition, or Renal Nutrition. You’ll love the diversity and options available to you in this career.
How are Dietitians and Nutritionists Different?
As you read this, you might be wondering if a dietitian and a nutritionist are the same. They are not. While both deal with nutrition and some tasks seem similar, the education and training required for the two jobs is significantly different. RDs and RDNs are required to study both dietetics (the science of food) and nutrition, take several years of science (like chemistry, physiology, biology, and biochemistry), earn a college degree, complete a supervised practice program and sit for a national registration exam—all of which will take four to five years. A Certified Nutritionist is generally required to have a high school diploma or GED and to study nutrition in a certificate program, which usually takes six months or so, though one can get a bachelor’s or higher degree in nutrition.
Get Your Degree
Earn at Least a Bachelor’s Degree
Currently, to become an RD or RDN, the minimum educational requirement is typically a bachelor’s degree (in any subject) granted by a U.S. regionally accredited college or university and with course work accredited by the Academy’s Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics (ACEND®).
However, beginning January 1, 2024, the minimum educational requirement for new RDs and RDNs will be a graduate degree, such as a master’s or PhD. Many students already opt for a master’s degree because their earnings potential is higher with a graduate degree. (This new requirement will not affect current RDs and RDNs.)
It will generally take you four or five years to complete your bachelor’s degree. A master’s degree will take an additional two to three years, depending on what your undergraduate major was. If you did not take all the basic science requirements as an undergrad, you’ll need to take them as a post-grad student.
Not to worry if you’ve already graduated, have been working for a few years and your bachelor’s is not in dietetics, nutrition, or a related field. There is an education pathway for you. You’ll complete the prerequisites for science and math post-graduation. Then you enroll in a graduate program.
Hultin was an English major as an undergrad and worked as a fitness trainer when she made the decision to become a dietitian. She went back to school for more than two years to prepare for her enrollment as a graduate student at Bastyr University. Was it worth it? “Yes, 100%,” Hultin says. “Becoming an RDN was the best thing that ever happened to me.”
For those who attend a community college and earn an associate’s degree in dietetics, nutrition, or a related field, you will be able to work in an entry level job. You won’t, however, be eligible to take the Academy’s Commission on Dietetic Registration (CDR) National Registration Exam and may not use the RD or RDN designation until you complete your bachelor’s degree and fulfill the other requirements for test eligibility.
Budget for School
Costs range widely depending on the school, its location, whether you are a resident or non-resident and the degree you seek. In general, average total costs for tuition, fees, room and board are around $20,000 per year to earn a bachelor’s at a public university and $41,000 a year at a private university. For graduate degrees, average total cost to pursue a master’s is $25,000, while a research-focused doctoral degree costs $32,000. There are grants and scholarships, as well as financial aid, available at all levels for students in dietetic programs at accredited schools.
If you’ve already graduated, have been working for a few years and your bachelor’s is not in dietetics, nutrition, or a related field, there is an education pathway for you.
Is Online Education an Option?
If your crazy, busy personal schedule has you wondering if online education is a possibility, you are in luck. ACEND-accredited online classes are available and many people take them, especially for continuing education. In addition, ACEND has also reviewed and accredited several bachelor’s and master’s online degree programs. With few exceptions, it is possible to complete substantially all of the course work for a degree at both the bachelor’s level and master’s level, with two possible exceptions. Science courses that require lab work may need to be taken at on onsite location (arrangements can be made for distance learning students to do that locally) and the supervised hands-on practice requirement is usually done onsite as well. As mentioned previously, accreditation of both the school and the course work are essential.
Complete an ACEND-Accredited Practice Program
You will also need to complete an accredited supervised practice program for hands-on experience at a health care facility, community agency, or a food service corporation. These programs generally run six to 12 months and may be combined with an undergraduate program or graduate studies. To be eligible to take the national registration exam, the CDR requires completion of a minimum of 1,200 hours of supervised practice.
During your supervised practice rotations, you’ll be assigned to work in different areas (like clinical care, pediatrics, surgery, health promotion, and food services) and will perform duties that RDs and RDNs normally handle. It’s hard work, but very rewarding—and it gives you the chance to explore different practice areas to determine which best fit your interests and talents.
There are three options for supervised practice:
Pass the CDR’s National Registration Examination
Once you have completed your accredited supervised practice program, you’ll be eligible to take the national registration examination. When you successfully pass that exam, you become a registered dietitian and may use either the RD or RDN credential, whichever your prefer. In recent years, RDN has become the credential of choice for professionals in this field.
Get Licensed or Certified in Your State
Because of the medical nature of the work, earning dietitian credentials is a far more stringent complicated process than many people may think, especially if you’re also exploring studying and working as a nutritionist.
In fact, to legally practice as an RD or a RDN—titles most employers demand dietitians have—most states require the following to become licensed or certified (note that different states use both terms somewhat interchangeably):
In addition, to maintain and renew your license, you’ll need to complete about 75 hours of continuing education every five years.
Beyond licensing through your state, you can choose to pursue voluntary board certification through the NCBTMB. Certification symbolizes a certain level of expertise and commitment by demonstrating that you’ve gone above and beyond the entry-level requirements. Maintaining your certification involves a good amount of continuing education, so employers and clients will know that you’re dedicated to staying on top of the latest advancements in the field.
Earn Specialty Certifications
Once you’ve been practicing, the CRD also offers certifications in specialized areas of dietetics such as oncology nutrition, pediatric nutrition, sports dietetics, and others. To earn any of these certifications, you must have held RD or RDN status for two years, have 2,000 hours of practice experience in the specialty area within the last five years, and pass the appropriate exam. To maintain certification, you’ll need to provide documentation for another 2,000 hours of specialty experience and retake the exam every five years.
Learn About Your Earning Potential
Though the preparation to become an RD or RDN is more rigorous than it is to become a nutritionist, the BLS lumps both professions’ earning potential together at a median annual salary of about $63,090 in 2020, with the top 10% making $90,000 and beyond. But the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, which surveys professionals in the field, says the median full-time salary for registered dietitians was $68,600 in 2019, and those in certain roles brought in earnings of $100,000 or more.
Median Registered Dietitian Salary
You’re probably wondering how you can get to the higher end of the earning spectrum, right? What you make depends on factors such as where you live, your level of education, and how long you’ve been in the field, and your area of practice.
In addition, according to the Academy’s survey, the work environment in which you practice is another factor. For example, the 2019 survey shows that RDNs who do not see patients or clients—those who work for a food corporation or manufacturer, for example—earn more than those who do see patients. Earning specialty certifications also not only allows you to focus your practice on specific conditions or patient demographic groups, but can also help you qualify for higher-paying positions and can also justify pricing your services above the norm if you’re self-employed.
Keep Up with the Industry Trends
Whether you’re just getting started in school or looking for courses to add to your skill set, staying on top of the latest dietitian practices, philosophies, and changes in the industry is key to staying current and competitive in order to offer clients a full spectrum of services. These blogs, podcasts, newsfeeds, association journals, and social media feeds will help keep you in the know.