Becoming A Registered Dietitian: A Step-by-Step Guide
Updated: Jul 27, 2020
A step-by-step guide of everything you need to know about becoming a RD.
Some of the most common questions I receive about my career are “what does it take to become a RD” and “haven’t you been in school for forever”, “what is your internship” and so on. The road to becoming a Registered Dietitian is not your average 4-year college degree. In fact, the process is more similar to that of a Medical Resident — science based, complicated, and lots of hard work.
Before we dive into that, let me give you a quick briefing on the difference between a Registered Dietitian and a Nutritionist. The two are commonly confused but easily differentiated.
The difference between a Registered Dietitian and a Nutritionist
A Registered Dietitian (RD) is a food and nutrition expert who has earned a Bachelor’s of Science in Nutrition or Dietetics, completed 1,200 hours of hands-on supervised practice in real practice settings through a accredited year long unpaid internship, and passed the national Commission on Dietetic Registration (CDR) exam. RD’s have knowledge on what food is made of, but they also have extensive knowledge about how food is metabolized in the body in healthy and ill states. They know how each specific nutrient works in the body and how different disease states can alter our normal functioning pathways.
A Nutritionist can be a lot of things — practically anyone who has knowledge of food can label themselves as a nutritionist. There are no defined requirements at this time to become one. Now, I am NOT saying that nutritionists aren’t qualified, many of them are. However, it is not a credible term backed by the U.S. laws.
It’s for this reason that all Registered Dietitians are Nutritionists, but not all Nutritionists are Registered Dietitians.
Starting on January 1, 2024 a dietetic student must earn a Bachelor's Degree in Dietetics AND a Master level degree in Nutrition before they are deemed eligible to sit for the CDR exam (find more information here).
The Step-by-Step Path to Becoming an RD
If you’re brand new to the field of dietetics, or maybe still considering entering it, you may be confused on what exactly the road to becoming an RD looks like. When my dad and I attended my college orientation, I was so overwhelmed by all of the dietetic terms thrown around, I had no idea that this wasn’t just an average 4 year degree. Needless to say, I could have really used some guidance on what exactly I was getting myself into.
Step 1: Didactic Program Completion
The very first step is finding a University that offers a Didactic Program in Dietetics (DPD) or has a Nutrition or Dietetics undergraduate program. If you haven't started college yet, finding an undergraduate 4-year degree is the quickest option. If you have some college credit and are looking to transfer or re-enroll, finding a DPD program will be the best use of your time and credits.
A majority of the courses you’ll take are heavy in chemistry and molecular sciences (Organic Chemistry, Biochemistry, Food Sciences, Vitamins & Minerals, Anatomy & Physiology, etc.). The other half of your courses will be focused on counseling, nutrition education, and psychology behind behavior changes. In my undergraduate courses we even took 2 semesters of cooking classes where we worked hands-on in a food lab modifying recipes and developing nutrition recommendations for different disease states and diet types. Those were my favorite! The science courses are tough - but they are all catered to nutrition students so you’ll be learning vital information to your career like the molecular structure of different nutrients, how they interact together in your body, etc. Each course helps to build on your overall “picture” of nutrition.
This is an image used in a project for my nutrition course where we had to modify the recipe for cookies to make them "healthier" and serve them to our classmates to see if they could tell the difference.
When it is all said and done, an undergraduate degree in nutrition will take you about 4 years and DPD courses will take you about 2.
Step 2:Dietetic Internship or Supervised Practice
After completing the required prerequisites, you’re eligible to apply for a Dietetic Internship or Coordinated Program. This must be completed before you can sit for the RD Exam. It’s 1,200 hours of unpaid interning, working a hard 40 hours a week for a full year.
Not all universities that have a nutrition program will have a Coordinated Program (CP) attached to it. For a university to organize a CP program, they have to be accredited by the Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics (ACEND) of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND) by meeting specific learning outcomes and guidelines. If you are attending a university that does have an accredited CP, you can apply to this after your Sophomore year of college. These programs are highly competitive and tough to get into. The application is long and in depth - it’s best to prepare for this early in your collegiate career to ensure you have the experience and knowledge to get accepted.
The good news is, once you are accepted, you are on a ‘fast track’ to becoming a RD! Your path to a 4 year Bachelor’s Degree is going to look a little different — You’ll complete one more year of nutrition focused coursework before spending your fourth and final year working in your dietetic internship.
What my undergraduate years looked like:
- Year 1: Gen Ed Courses
- Year 2: Gen Ed Courses + Applied for CP
- Year 3: Accepted into CP + Nutrition Specific Courses
- Year 4: Supervised Practice
If a CP Program is not an option for you, you can also apply to dietetic internship organizations throughout the country. This process is more of a matching process where you select and rank dietetic internship programs and they in turn select and rank you. I know, it sounds intimidating. But once you are matched the pressure is off and you get to start working in the field. Well, not really working because it’s an unpaid internship. I break down what my internship experience was like in another blog, find it at the bottom of this page.
Step 3: Master’s Degree
It is now required that any students entering dietetics programs from the beginning (a 4 year undergraduate program), must earn their Master’s Degree before sitting for the RD exam. My steps were a bit mixed, so I actually completed my Masters Degree in Nutrition Sciences before sitting for the RD exam even though I was before the 2024 cut off.
This is me after graduating with my Bachelor's Degree in Dietetics from the University of Cincinnati in 2018! Look how happy!
I chose to get my Master’s Degree to give me a leg up in the field since it will soon be required that every dietitian earn one. Graduate school is fun because you get to dive deeper into topics that you are interested in (Sports, Clinical, Eating Disorders, Pregnancy, etc.) and in most cases, you get to become a published research author!
Step 4: RD Exam
Once your internship is completed you are officially eligible to sit for the CDR RD Exam! This exam is by far the toughest exam I have had to take in all my years of school. The algorithm is a mix of
25% Principles of Dietetics
40% Nutrition Care of Individuals and Groups
21% Management of Food and Nutrition Programs and Services
14% Foodservice Systems
These percentages change every few years so make sure you check with the CDR before you begin studying. You will need to study everything from what chemicals make our broccoli green, what nutrients are most used by our kidneys, to how a bill becomes a law, and what type of tile to use on a kitchen floor.
The questions on the RD exam will no-doubt try and trick you. They were created to do this because they want to see that you can apply the knowledge you’ve learned, not that you simply memorized facts from a study guide. Practical application is key when studying for this exam.
The bad news is that there is a ton to study, but the good news is that there are so many areas of nutrition to get a job! You can read my blog below on resources commonly used to help best prepare you for the exam and break down what was most helpful to me.
Just like that, you’re done! You can now officially add MS, RD after your name — You’ll never feel so proud of 4 little letters!
About the Author
Ashley Mulkern, MS, RD is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist with a Masters of Science in Nutritional Sciences and Bachelor of Science in Dietetics from the University of Cincinnati. She loves anything covered in chocolate, sprinkles, or butter. Her favorite things to do are exercising, baking, and reading.