How to Become an RD

You might be interested in this post if:

  • You are a nutrition student looking for more clarification on the path to becoming an RD 
  • You are someone who is interested in food and nutrition and wondering how to turn that into a career
  • You are a career-changer looking into how you can go back to school to study nutrition
  • You follow me here or on Instagram and are wondering how I became a dietitian
  • Or, just because :)

I explained in the post above this one what a Registered Dietitian actually is. Now, I want to explain the path to becoming one! It involves a lot of hard work, but definitely worth it as this field is filled with people fueled by passion, including myself.

Step 1: Complete the academic requirements from an accredited University approved by the Academy.

The traditional path is to complete a 4-year Bachelor’s degree in the field of Nutrition/Dietetics/Nutrition and Food Science. The required courses include subjects like Biology, Chemistry, Organic Chemistry, Biochemistry, Anatomy, Microbiology, and various nutrition-specific courses including Basic Nutrition, Human Metabolism, Medical Nutrition Therapy, Community Nutrition, Food Science, Nutrition Counseling and more. Lots of fun electives, too! My personal favorite was a Food Policy course I took senior year at UMass. The Academy also requires that nutrition students on the dietetics-track take several hospitality and management courses.

These required courses are known as DPD courses and are a part of the dietetics track in accredited nutrition programs. If you have a Bachelor’s degree in another field and are looking to change your career and become a Registered Dietitian (good for you!!), you have the option to take prerequisites required by your school, and then enroll in an accredited DPD program where you just take the required courses. These may also be part of a Master’s Degree in Nutrition, which is not required yet but will be in a few years.

Step 2: Get matched to, and complete, an accredited dietetic internship program.

The dietetic internship is 1200 hours of unpaid (very few programs pay a stipend) supervised practice hours in the various areas of nutrition. Programs must have a set amount of hours dedicated to the major areas – clinical, food service, and community nutrition. Some programs offer specialties that include more hours in a certain areas. Others include practice hours in other emerging areas of nutrition – such as entrepreneurship, worksite wellness, communications, sports nutrition and more.

Dietetic internships can be hosted by institutions like universities, hospitals, and in the situation of my internship: a worksite wellness company.

Getting into an UNPAID internship sounds easy right? Well the dietetic internship process is actually extremely competitive, as it is not like your typical internship process. In my opinion, it shouldn't even be called an internship. The term makes it sound like you're choosing to do this thing instead of starting a "real job" after college, which will lead to many confused family members and friends questioning your life choices.

Unlike applying to college and most jobs, applying to a dietetic internship is not the same as applying to several locations and hearing back from all of them and getting to choose one. You can apply to as many DI’s as you would like, but you end up getting MATCHED to either ONE or NONE. (This is similar to the process that med students go through to be matched to a residency program.) That is because there are way more applicants across the U.S. than there are internship spots. Hence, that is why it is so competitive. (Check out my Tips for Getting Matched page for more info on that!)

Internship programs range from 6 months to one year depending on where you do yours, but they all include the required 1200 hours. Some offer part time options for those who choose to work during their internship or have a family to care for. Others also offer a dual master's degree, which you may complete after the internship hours.

Traditional dietetic internships require you to relocate to wherever the internship site is. Others are “distance” options, meaning you can stay where you are and complete the internship hours there. Most distance options require you to find your own rotation sites, while traditional internships place you at affiliated sites. I completed a distance internship and had a great experience! I believe there are pros and cons to both. (Post on the benefits of a distance DI coming soon!)

During your internship, you will complete the required supervised practice hours which includes a number of competencies for each rotation. Once you've completed your internship, your internship director or manager will submit your verification forms to the Commission on Dietetic Registration (CDR), and you will soon be able to register for the RD Exam!

Step 3: Take and pass the RD exam.

Ah yes, the RD exam. Once you’ve completed your internship and submitted all the fun paperwork, you are now eligible to take this lovely test. It is done on a computer at a testing center and you have 2.5 hours to complete it. It includes a minimum of 125 questions and a max of 145, and includes the 4 major “domains” of nutrition – clinical, community food service, and management. I offer some of my personal advice on my "Passing the RD Exam" page!

Once you’ve passed the exam, you are officially an Registered Dietitian! Most states then require you to become licensed in order to work, so your credentials would be RD and LDN (Licensed Dietitian/Nutritionist). Some dietitians also choose to use RDN (Registered Dietitian Nutritionist). 

*Note: You can retake the exam if you don't pass the first time! You just have to wait another 6 weeks.

And that's it! Once you've lengthened your name with those new credentials, there are so many doors now open to you! And RDs are required to complete several hours of continuing professional education credits to stay up-to-date on new nutrition research. And like I said, it is a field fueled by people with passion, making it more exciting than ever :)