What is a registered dietitian?
It is someone who worked extremely hard to become an expert in the field of food and nutrition. They go to school for years and then they work for a minimum of 1200-hours to become eligible to sit for an exam that they need to pass to become credentialed. Registered dietitians translate science into genuine healthy living advice and separate facts from fads. They provide the highest level of nutritional counseling and recommendations that are individually tailored to your needs. They help manage or prevent chronic diseases like diabetes and heart disease. If you have allergies or intolerances, they can help you navigate through those. You can find registered dietitians working in many areas of practice, like; hospitals, health departments, WIC, long-term care, sports and fitness, corporate wellness, private practice, communications and media, community settings, school systems, correctional facilities, food industry, research, and many other places!
Every registered dietitian is a nutritionist but
not every “nutritionist” is a registered dietitian.
A registered dietitian is credentialled by the Commission on Dietetic Registration
the credentialing agency for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
How do you become a registered dietitian nutritionist?
- Complete a bachelor’s degree and receive a verification statement from an ACEND-accredited program – Didactic Program in Dietetics (DPD).
You need to complete the necessary DPD courses in order to receive a verification statement that states you have completed the work required to apply for dietetic internships. I completed my Didactic Program at Meredith College while working on my master’s degree. You do not need to complete a master’s degree (this is changing in 2024), but you must complete a bachelor’s degree. My undergraduate school did not offer the DPD courses I needed, therefore I decided to complete a master’s degree while obtaining those courses. You are allowed to apply for internships with the contingency that you will complete your degree and/or DPD courses within that semester. So I applied in February for internships even though I would graduate in May.
- Get matched to an ACEND-accredited supervised practice dietetic internship.
See next section for more information about the internship.
- Pass the Commission on Dietetic Registration’s (CDR) dietetic registration exam.
You can only sit for the registration exam once you have completed the required amount of supervised practice hours, 1200 hours minimum, and have received a verification statement from your DI director that states you have completed the internship successfully.
- Gain licensure in your state of practice, if applicable.
Not all states require licensure. It is separate from the RD credential that comes from the CDR. For more information, please visit this website from CDR.
- Pay all your fees each year so you don’t have to take the exam again.
- Earn continuing education credits, 75 per 5-year cycle, as long as you want to hold the RDN credential.
What is the dietetic internship?
- You can only apply after completing the required coursework as discussed above.
- Many programs expect you to have some related experience when applying.
— Some examples are volunteering in a hospital, shadowing or working for an RDN, working in a school cafeteria, working in a hospital kitchen, etc.
— You should not begin working on your related-experience the year you are applying for internships. You should be gaining experiencing for years before applying. Having more experience makes you more competitive during the match process.
- Submit an application and your program preferences.
— For spring match, applications open in December and they are due in February.
— There is also fall match, but not all programs participate in that.
- Hopefully get matched to a program in early April.
What is matching?
— You complete an application online through the Dietetic Internship Central Application Service (DICAS). Then you register for the DI match through D&D Digital, where you prioritize which internship programs you want. Doesn’t having two websites to work with sound crazy? But it allows the internship directors to see applications but not see the applicants prioritized list. This provides an “orderly and fair way to match.” For more information, please visit this website.
— Only about 50% of applicants will receive an internship that year during the first round matching. If you don’t get matched during first round, don’t be discouraged. There is second-round matching and you can apply for individual pathways through programs that offer it.
My Dietetic Internship Experience
A quick summary of my journey to the internship:
I completed my undergraduate degree at NC State. They are not ACEND-accredited therefore I was not able to complete all the required coursework there to enter a dietetic internship. After completing my bachelor’s degree, I took 1 semester off to fully decide if I wanted to further my education. Graduate school is not a light decision because it is not easy and you likely need to take out student loans out for it. After deciding graduate school was right for me, I applied to Meredith College. Within 2.5 years, I completed my master’s degree as well as the required DPD courses. I applied to 3 internships through the application and matching process. I was matched with the Meredith College dietetic internship, their Site Preceptor Pathway. This means I was provided with a clinical and hospital foodservice rotation, and I would need to find my own rotation sites for wellness, school foodservice, public health, and enrichment. I genuinely enjoyed the Meredith College Dietetic Internship and I do recommend it to anyone that has the passion and drive to become a registered dietitian.
There was an on-campus orientation for a week in July and then there was an online orientation for 10-days in August. We did a variety of things like review important topics, went over policies and procedures, and had a few guest speakers. There was a lot of discussion and getting oriented with what we were in store for. All of the dietetic interns needed to be at the on-campus orientation. Once orientation was completed, interns were allowed to begin their rotations.
There is not one intern that did the same thing as another after orientation.
We all have our own dietetic internship journeys.
Clinical & Hospital Foodservice:
This 16-week rotation combined two rotations. It was 12-weeks of clinical and 4-weeks of foodservice. The rotation was at a small hospital, ~150 beds. During this rotation, there were 3 other Meredith College interns with me. What special about our dietetic intern group was that we all knew each other prior to the internship, because we went to graduate school at Meredith College together. In my opinion, we were a pretty dynamic team.
We were expected to be at the hospital by 7:30 am. I was usually the first one in the office because I am a morning person and I feel like I always need to be early. Getting ready in the morning was easy because we were allowed to wear scrubs. To start our day, we would screen new patients to see if any of them met a certain criterion. If they triggered, they would go on our worklist for the day. We also reviewed the nutrition consults that were ordered. The hospital had other dietitians working so we didn’t see everyone that needed to be seen each day. We were never short of patients to see though. After we had our worklist, we would review the patients chart and come up with pertinent questions to ask during our visit. Even though the hospital was small, we saw a variety of patients and disease states. The variety really allowed me to expand my clinical skillset and helped prepare me for the real-dietitian world.
Tips for being successful in your clinical rotation:
— Once your day is complete, review your work. This will help you retain the information you learned that day, feel more confident the next time you see similar patients, and help you prepare the RD exam.
— Create and keep an on-going list of common medications you see. Create a document where you have the medications name, other common names, and nutrition-related side effects, and any food interactions. This will probably come in handy during your career.
— Get enough sleep the night before a work day. I promise you will not be able to process your thoughts properly when you are tired.
— Eat breakfast before beginning your day. You cannot run on empty.
— Trust the knowledge you learned in school. You won’t know everything but you will be surprised how prepared you really were. When you don’t know something, it’s ok to admit that to your preceptor because they are there to help you learn!
This was a 4-week rotation. It was completed in the same hospital as our clinical rotation. When we were in this rotation, our mornings started between 7:30 and 7:45 am. Our workdays started with patient tray line serving breakfast. We rotated through the various positions on the tray line and we had a good understand how working together can help make a process run quicker and smoother. After breakfast tray line, we would work on various projects or help in production. I could not tell you how many sandwiches I made over this 4-week rotation. We did a lot of catered meals for different department meetings. Other things we did in our rotation; wrote a proposal for a large piece of kitchen equipment, created a list of all the allergen-containing foods sold, planned and participated in 2 theme meals, assisted during employee-appreciation week, and organized a few different storage areas. Often, I hear the foodservice rotation is the least exciting rotation. Foodservice may not be the most exciting aspect of a dietitian’s internship or career but foodservice is all around us and it’s very important to understand how it runs.
Tips for being successful in your hospital foodservice rotation:
— Eat before you get to the department and start your day. If you don’t, you’ll have to listen to your stomach growl as you watch/prepare food until you get a break.
— Embrace the experience. This rotation will not be as challenging as a clinical or wellness rotation. Use this 4-week rotation to catch your breath.
— If you do a theme day during this rotation, don’t go overboard. You don’t want to plan something extravagant just to find yourself in over your head.
— Always ask for more. Food service managers and directors are used to their employees, not dietetic interns usually. You may need to ask them for more work or projects to help you get the most out of your rotation. Also, don’t let them treat you like an employee. You are there to learn, not to fill in as staff.
This was a 4-week rotation at a local private practice. The dietitian I was interned with actually opened a new company a few months prior. She is a seasoned dietitian in the private practice sector that was decided it was time for her to open her own practice. It was so eye-opening to see the early stages of a business. I consider myself very fortunate to get this experience because not everyone gets an opportunity like this. I will keep this newfound knowledge tucked away in case I want to start my own private practice in the future! Although this rotation was only for one month, I accomplished a lot. I helped set up the charting and billing system, developed a grocery store tour manual, created many handouts, and made a few meal plans. Additionally, I observed my preceptor counsel many different types of clients. Most of her clients at the time were through an employee wellness program run through company insurance. This was interesting to observe because there was an array of people you saw. Some people were really interested in changing their lifestyle habits and these sessions would go well. Other people were not interested in what you had to say, they were just there because they needed to get session completed for insurance purposes. I didn’t think I would enjoy the private practice sector of dietetics but this rotation opened my eyes. Private practice is something I could see myself doing in the future when I become more experienced.
Tips for being successful in your wellness rotation:
— Ask for projects and assignments from your preceptor. You will have required things to complete for the internship but you can take on more. Dietitians always have a long list of things they’d like to complete but usually have very little time. They will appreciate you taking on some of those things to reduce their to-do list.
— You’ll likely have to conduct a counseling session yourself. Embrace it! You want to be a dietitian, so be one! If you are nervous, ask your preceptor to rehearse with you beforehand. But more than likely, you will rock it without any help.
— Be good at making handouts because you’ll make a ton of them in this rotation.
— Do not interrupt your preceptor when they are talking to a client. If you have something to add, wait until a pause or make a gesture you have something to say when they are done talking.
Public School System Foodservice:
This rotation was for 4-weeks. This was not with the county I reside in but a neighboring county. The county I interned in is much smaller than the one I live in. While the school system did not have a dietitian employed, I was still able to complete a rotation with their child nutrition department. During this rotation, I spent a lot of time learning how the National School Lunch Program worked and ran. I went to a public policy update workshop where all the schools in this particular zone attended. There was another day where we went to the USDA warehouse/offices and my preceptor spoke to an orientation class of new managers and supervisor about the School Nutrition Association. I spent a day at a high school learning how their production and service are done. There were other days where we went out and visited schools during breakfast or lunch. I assisted in menu planning for the next year. Also, the 4-weeks I was there was the month right before their 3-year administrative review so I assisted them in getting ready for that. I looked forward to this rotation because I was thinking school foodservice is where I would ultimately get a job. While I thoroughly enjoyed my rotation with the public school system, I just couldn’t see me doing it long-term.
Tips for being successful in your school foodservice rotation:
— The child nutrition program is very complex. Don’t be afraid to ask questions.
— I feel like child nutrition departments go to a lot of meetings and conferences. Ask to go to with them! Use the opportunity to learn more about the child nutrition program, policies around the program, and network.
— Embrace the menu and menu planning. It is one complicated beast.
This rotation was 3-weeks long. I completed my public health rotation at the local food bank. Usually, this rotation is completed at a WIC or health department office but I was lucky enough to be the first intern at this site. I was so fortunate to be able to complete my rotation at this site because it really opened my eyes to a whole different aspect of food and nutrition. During this rotation, I learned a lot about what a food bank does for the community. I’ve seen the donation boxes in stores but never thought about it beyond that box. I got to see the many donations come through the food bank and be distributed out to various food pantries. Additionally, I got to see the nutrition education team go out into the community and provide nutrition education. I even taught a few classes! After this rotation, community nutrition has a special place in my heart because you cannot achieve a healthy life if you do not have access to the foods you need to nourish your body.
Tips for being successful in your community/public health rotation:
— Say YES to everything. I hate talking in front of people but I did it quite a few times during this 3-week rotation that I got over that fear real quick.
— Use this rotation to help you study the community programs available to the public like WIC, food banks, food pantries, SNAP, EFNEP, etc. You will need to study them for the RDN exam anyways.
— Embrace all the walks of life you will meet during this rotation. This rotation will be the one to open your eyes to different ways of living. You will come out of this rotation with expanded skills when working with people.
An enrichment rotation is 4 weeks where you get to pick your own site or sites in whatever interests you as long as you are interning under a dietitian. I picked private practice, more specifically corporate wellness. I chose to do all 4-weeks at the same enrichment while others in the past have split it up into two 2-week rotations. While I already had a rotation in a similar area, I wanted to intern with another company and get more experience in the private practice area of dietetics. The biggest thing I learned in this rotation was that all nutrition counseling and advice should be individualized for clients. Everyone is different; therefore, they should not receive the same nutrition counseling as another client.
*** Not all dietetic internships have this specific rotation
Tips for finding an enrichment rotation:
— Decide which area of dietetics interests you the most or which area you’d like more experience in.
— Think about all the dietetic connections you have already and see if any of those may work out for a rotation. I reached out to a coworker of a friend to ask if she’d precept me.
— Talk to your DI director about enrichments prior interns did to see if there were any unique ideas you may want pursue for your enrichment.
— Don’t be afraid to email or call the dietitian you want to complete your enrichment with. Honestly, they will probably be thrilled to hear you want to intern with them.
The RDN exam:
I finished my dietetic internship at the end of April. I took about 16-18 days off to recharge. The dietetic internship is both mentally and physically tiring. I suggest to everyone to take a break for a short amount of time to rest and recharge. During my little break, we went on a family vacation to the west coast. Read about our adventure here.
Once we got back, studying became my full time job for 23 days. We have an office in our home, but my study space of choose was the couch in our formal living room. There were many days I didn’t move off that couch from morning to night. I had a blanket and pillow with me. I never fell asleep but I wanted to be comfortable.
The study resources I used where Jean Inman, EatRightPrep, and notes from graduate school and internship. I mainly studied Jean Inman and worked through her practice problems. Once I finished with her 1000+ practice questions, I used a 3-day free trial of EatRightPrep. Since I only had that for 3 days, I studied for 10-12 hours on those days. EatRightPrep introduced a few new topics to me that I was not aware of. After EatRightPrep, I went back and review all Jean Inman’s notes.
The night before my exam, I tried to relax and get a good nights sleep. My exam was at 5pm on a Tuesday. Such a random time, I know. The day of my exam, I woke up at a reasonable time, went to the gym to burn off some energy, got showered up and dress professionally, and went to Starbucks for a few hours beforehand to study. To study, I read through Jean Inman’s notes again. I was not going to learn anything the few hours before the exam but I wanted bring all the knowledge I already did to the front of my memories.
While I was taking the exam, I felt like I was failing. I remember being on questions 59 and thinking “yep, I’ve failed this.” I had the same thought on questions 77 and 121. I was only asked 125 questions on my exam. You can have up to 145 questions. I still have 55 minutes left when I finished the exam. When you are finished, the exam just stops and you have to answer a survey about the testing center before you get your results. Staying focused on those survey questions was the hardest thing I’ve had to do. I was so nervous. Thankfully I was wearing dark colors because I think I sweated through my clothes.
Passing the RDN exam felt like having a heavy weight just lift off your shoulders.
If you are on this journey right now, GOOD LUCK! You got this.