Becoming a Registered Dietitian: What You Should Know
One of the most frequent questions I’ve received over the years on my path to becoming a dietitian goes a little something like this:
“I’ve become really interested in food/nutrition/health and I’m thinking about switching my major/going back to school to become a Registered Dietitian. Would you recommend this?”
My answer is not as simple as one would think. As someone who’s put in the work, got the degree, finished the internship, studied and passed the RD exam, I’ve put together a list of things to consider before deciding to pursue a career as a Registered Dietitian.
Before we get to the list, let me tell you a little bit about myself. I was very athletic and extensively involved in sport the majority of my life. At young age I developed an interest in properly fueling my body for my athletic performance and optimal health. This interest essentially stuck with me throughout my latter years of junior high and onto high school.
In high school, I continued my heavy involvement in athletics and maintained a strong interest in healthy eating. I also discovered my potential in sciences, thoroughly enjoying my chemistry and biology classes. When asked what I wanted to pursue career-wise after high school, dietetics was always a thought, but I wasn’t fully committed. Thus, heading into university I decided to pursue a degree in general sciences.
After my first year of general science, I wanted out. I remember going to register online for second year classes and panicking because I hated the options. With my passion for nutrition and health still persistent, within 48 hours I made the switch. Immediately I was more motivated. Looking at my new course schedule, I couldn’t wait to attend “Intro to Nutrition” and “Macronutrients” class. And honestly, the rest is history.
Here I am, 5 years later, a whole lot wiser, considerably more mature, a little less naïve, and ready to share my thoughts on becoming a Registered Dietitian.
1.Be prepared to work.
In those 48 hours that it took me to switch my degree from a general BSc. to a BSc. in Human Nutrition, I did not take the time to consult any students who had previously or were currently completing their nutrition studies. I had not yet realized the “perfectionist” reputation of most “rd-to-be’s” – although I will admit I fit right in. The nutrition degree is grueling (it is a Bachelor of Science, remember) with multiple science and nutrition-based labs per week on top of classes. Not to discredit other degrees in any way at all (any university degree is tough) but I remember my Business friends snoozing on their days off while I headed out to my 8:30 am lab on Friday morning. Safe to say I was #salty.
Not only is it a lot of hard work to complete the degree, it is competitive. This brings me to my next point.
2. Internship placements are not guaranteed.
If you didn’t know by now, becoming a Registered Dietitian requires the completion of an approximately one-year long dietetic internship program, which is essentially your training as an RD. Consider it like a residency after medical school, only shorter and no pay! In Canada, internship can be completed in semester long segments included in the nutrition degree at certain schools (known as “Integrated” internships) or they can be completed as a graduate program, where you finish your degree and then complete the entire year of unpaid training with or without obtaining a Master’s degree. If you’re interested in reading about my internship program, you can read that here.
Now that you know what a dietetic internship is, let me be the one to tell you that the competition for internship placements is high. There are a lot more dietetics students than there are internship spots. Therefore, your degree will require even more hard work, good grades, and extracurriculars if you want to secure yourself a spot and be guaranteed to become an RD.
“You mean I could complete four years of an insanely expensive nutrition degree and not be guaranteed an unpaid internship that allows me to become a Registered Dietitian?” I hate to break it to you, but that is correct. And to be honest when I switched into nutrition in my second year of university, I didn’t know that either.
3. Did I mention it’s an unpaid internship?
Like I mentioned, here in Canada, you complete your year-long internship either after your nutrition degree or in semester long segments integrated into the final years of it. The internship consists of training to become a dietitian by working under, alongside, and sometimes as the dietitian in a very wide variety of settings – but most internships must include training in specific areas including Food Service/Management, Population Health/Community Nutrition, and Clinical Nutrition.
In the dietetic internship, you’re essentially working full-time, studying (to ensure preparedness for each day), and also preparing projects and presentations for your preceptors. All of this is without pay – because essentially it’s a part of your education on the path to becoming an RD.
I’m not telling you this to be a drag, I’m telling you this so that you’re prepared. If you want to become a dietitian, you’ll have to figure out how to support yourself (or who will support you – I love you Mom & Dad!!!) throughout your training – especially if you’re doing your internship apart from your degree, because those programs aren’t considered “school”…therefore student loans won’t be an option.
4. The employment reality.
Now I’m writing this post from my home in Nova Scotia, Canada, and I’m also writing from my own (and a few others) experiences, so please keep that in mind. From what I’ve experienced since finishing my dietetic internship 6 months ago, Registered Dietitian positions are not necessarily in abundance.
If you want to become a dietitian, good for you! It’s seriously an amazing, rewarding thing to be passionate about something and using that passion to help improve the health/lives of others. That being said, be ready to job hunt, and don’t expect to land a job right away. There are a lot of other dietitians being graduated into the field, while the amount that this profession is being valued and utilized is still on the rise.
I remember when I was finishing up my dietetic internship and beginning to complete job applications. Countless preceptors and mentors told me not to expect a job right away, and although I wasn’t expecting that at all, I did think that because I completed a well-recognized, clinical-focused internship program that the process may have been a little quicker than it turned out to be.
Job-hunting is most definitely a humbling experience that teaches you patience and gratefulness, and I recognize that the majority of people regardless of profession have to go through this in their lives. I just want YOU to recognize that although you complete the degree, the internship process, and then come out of it all with a professional designation, it may even take some more time after that!
5. You can do anything you set your mind to.
I know you’ve probably read the last 4 points and you’re now thinking that you’ll be exhausted, stressed, broke, and unemployed at the end of your dietetics training. While I have felt every one of those things throughout the journey, becoming a Registered Dietitian is my biggest accomplishment to date and it has been so rewarding to set goals (from test marks to graduating with a certain GPA to landing the internship in Toronto to passing the CDRE) and achieve them along the way.
Becoming a Registered Dietitian was something I wanted to do since high school. I didn’t always know what to expect and what it would take to get here, so this is why I wanted to lay out these realities for you. It is totally do-able; these are just some things to consider if you’re on the fence.
I’m confident that if nutrition is your passion and the dietetics profession is right for you, you can and will do what it takes to get there. So study hard, put yourself out there, take some risks, be confident, care less about what others think, and trust that everything will work out in the end.