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How to Become a Dietitian Guide
Eating healthy is a huge part of staying strong and feeling good, mentally and physically. If you know this, and want to help others know so too, going into dietetics could be a great career path for you. Dietitians work in a variety of professional settings, helping people figure out the best foods to fulfill their nutritional needs and stay healthy. So, if you love good food and enjoy helping others, keep on reading our step-by-step guide on how to become a dietitian!
Also see: College majors for the future
1. Earn a bachelor’s or master’s degree and receive a verification statement from an ACEND-accredited program
What is the first step you can take to become a registered dietitian? Receive your degree! While this must be from an ACEND (Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics) -accredited school, it can currently be either a bachelor’s or master’s degree in nutrition, dietetics, or another related field. To find out whether your school or program is ACEND-accredited, we highly recommend checking out this directory of ACEND-accredited dietetics programs.
Bear in mind, however, that starting January 1, 2024, prospective dietitians must have a nutrition or dietetics degree from an ACEND-accredited master’s or other graduate program in order to take the CDR (Commission on Dietetic Registration) exam. If you’re going into college soon, that pertains to you especially. As for master’s degrees, both those in nutrition or public health are good options. Make sure to include any background or experience you have in nutrition when you apply to such graduate programs.
Lastly, no matter what type of degree you decide to pursue, make sure that you also receive a verification statement from your ACEND-accredited program. Besides your degree, this statement is also required to be able to sit for the CDR exam.
Now, onto the next step: internship!
2. Complete a dietetic internship or equivalent program
After graduating with a nutrition degree, prospective dietitians must gain hands-on clinical experience through an internship or similar program. Typically, students in such programs complete roughly 1,200 hours of clinical work under the supervision of a licensed professional. While this is certainly a lot of work, there is some good news: you have a few different programs to choose from!
Among these include your traditional Dietetic Internship (DI), Coordinated Program (CP), and Individualized Supervised Practice Pathway (ISPP). So, without further ado, let’s get into what each one entails.
Related: Why are internships important?
Dietitian Internships (DI)
Before we get into the specifics of Dietitian Internships, it’s best that we first cover how to apply to one. To apply for a DI, simply use the online dietetic internship centralized application service (DICAS). Nearly all Dietitian Internships are applicable to DICAS, and the system matches you with suitable DI and CP programs nationwide.
As for what Dietitian Internships entail, they’re typically eight to 24 month long programs. Many students choose to work either part- or full-time. If you cannot complete one in-person, there are also online and distance internship programs available.
Besides having both online and in-person options, there are also Dietitian Internships tailored to all types of different career pathways. So, whether interested in clinical nutrition, medical nutrition therapy, community nutrition, geriatric nutrition, pediatric nutrition, food systems management, or even the education side of things, there’s an internship out there for you!
Coordinated Programs (CP)
Coordinated Programs “kill two birds with one stone.” CPs allow students to complete the coursework component (as you would to earn a bachelor’s/master’s degree) and the practice/internship component of becoming a registered dietitian all in one degree granting program.
CP’s typically take around two and a half years to complete. CPs offer prospective dietitians an accelerated route to starting their career. Despite this, they provide students with the same knowledge and experiences as a traditional degree program and dietitian internship.
While Coordinated Programs can be designed at a “graduate degree” level, completing graduate coursework and a Dietitian Internship separately does not constitute completing an official Coordinated Program.
Individualized Supervised Practice Pathways (ISPP)
Last, but certainly not least, are Individualized Supervised Practice Pathways! These programs provide students supervised practice through ACEND-accredited dietetic programs. While there is no specific number of months or years that each ISPP will take, students can expect to dedicate around 1,200 hours of practice to finish their ISPP.
With that said, there are two types of ISPPs: those for Didactic Program in Dietetics (DPD) graduates and those for doctoral degree graduates. Let’s take a look at both types.
An ISPP for Didactic Program in Dietetics (DPD) Graduates is for those who were unable to match with a Dietetics Internship (DI) but have a DPD verification statement (those you receive from ACEND-accredited universities, as mentioned in step 1). Graduates of such programs who receive a verification statement and a bachelor’s or master’s degree may apply for an ISPP for DPD graduates. Like a Dietitian Internship, these ISPPs allow prospective dietitians to complete the supervised practice required to sit for the CDR exam.
An ISPP for Doctoral Degree Graduates, on the other hand, is for those who have a doctoral degree but not a DPD verification statement. If you plan to apply for this type of ISPP, we recommend doing your research. Make sure you apply to one meant for individuals with doctoral degrees, and not for DPD graduates. Completing this ISPP will also allow prospective dietitians to sit for the CDR exam.
ACEND’s directory of accredited programs lists the ISPPs. However, keep in mind that specific eligibility criteria will differ by program.
And that’s it! If you want to take a look at some specific programs (of each type) and find out what’s out there, be sure to check out this directory of ACEND-accredited programs.
3. Pass the Commission on Dietetic Registration (CDR) exam
Passing the Commission on Dietetic Registration (CDR) exam is arguably the most important step in becoming a Registered Dietitian. Simply put, if you don’t pass it, you cannot become a Registered Dietitian. Don’t worry though, as you can take the exam again!
In order to take the exam, you must have first finished your degree and your internship or practice requirements. Then, you can become validated by the CDR and take the registered dietitian exam. As the eligibility rules for the exam are very strict, we would highly recommend looking them over and making sure your background qualifies you to take the exam.
Once you’re sure you’re eligible for the exam, it’s then time to look for a testing site! There are over 250 testing locations available nationwide. You can both schedule and pick your ideal testing site on the Pearson VUE website, as they are the distributor of the CDR/RD exam.
In all, the exam has roughly 145 questions and is two-and-a-half hours long. The questions are typically broken up as follows:
- 25% principles of dietetics
- 40% nutrition care for groups and individuals
- 21% management of food and nutrition programs/services
- 14% foodservice systems
To learn more about the details and specifics of the exam questions, we would highly recommend checking out these Registered Dietitian test specifications.
And, if you think you’ll need some extra practice before you officially take the exam, consider checking out these helpful resources:
- Study guide for the registration examination for dieticians
- CDR RD exam prep
- Registered dietitian practice test
We wish you luck!
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4. Obtain licensure in your preferred state of practice
By now, you’ve hopefully finished and passed the CDR exam, so, congratulations! Now, it’s time to gain licensure in your preferred state of practice if your state requires it. While some states allow individuals to gain employment as a registered dietitian based on their degree, internship, and CDR result alone, the majority of states still require dietitians to hold a state license. Check out this helpful state licensure map to find out. If your state does in fact require a license, you will also be able to find out how you can acquire one by clicking the links available for each state on the map.
5. Maintain state licensure requirements
Once you have your state license (if your state requires one), you’re free to work as a dietitian. You will improve people’s diets (and lives in the process)! Since learning is an ongoing process, registered dietitians are expected to complete 75 continuing education credits. This occurs every five years (with one credit being in ethics).
As you complete your continuing education activities, you will keep and submit a learning plan and activity log. This must be done within 120 days of doing your first activity. Lastly, you’re required to pay an annual registration maintenance fee on your MyCDR page. This fee is due August 31st of every year. The fee amount will vary based on your specific position.
However, the good news is that this your last “step” in becoming/being a dietitian! We hope you love your job and recognize that you’re helping people every day. With that, we’ll send you off. Good luck, future dietitians!
Frequently asked questions about how to become a dietician
How many years does it take to become a dietician?
Depending on your career pathway, state, and a number of other factors, it can take between four and eight years to become a registered dietician. Roughly, this may include four years of undergraduate schooling, two years to complete a master’s program, and one year of an internship. Add a few months to study and pass the CDR exam, and some extra time to receive state licensure.
Do dietitians get paid well?
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, dietitians made an average of $63,090 in 2020. However, this average varied across industries, with some dietitians making more than others. Those working in outpatient care centers made an average salary of $69,660 in 2020. Dietitians in government made $64,010, while those in hospitals made roughly $63,380. Dietitians working in nursing and residential care facilities made an average of $60,330.