As many people will tell you, becoming a registered dietitian is far from what some might call a walk in the park. Because of the winding road all dietitians travel to get to credential land, you’d be hard pressed to find any RD who won’t emphatically launch into a “difference between a nutritionist and a registered dietitian” soapbox rant to defend our education. (If you still don’t understand the difference, feel free to ask me I’d love to enlighten you). In the community of food and nutrition, being a registered dietitian is certainly not the only option and might not be the best choice for everyone. However, if your goal is to really affect the way people relate to, purchase, cook and consume FOOD – Dietetics and becoming an RD is ultimately the way to go – especially if you want to, you know, know your sh**. Dietitians truly understand nutrition as a biochemical science and are able to combine that knowledge with psychology, motivation and behavior, social, environmental and economic influences, food chemistry and culinary science, and business and analytical sense, (the list goes on!) for real-world application and sustainable impact. One thing I’m particularly happy about is that the career field for dietitians is booming – no longer are we confined to hospitals and rehabilitation centers (though the need there is still great, and the role of a clinical dietitian SO important to our healthcare system). Dietitians are everywhere – from grocery stores, to national restaurant chains, to public impact groups and non profit organizations, to start ups and food technology apps, to research, to corporate offices and gyms, with professional and amateur sports teams, in colleges and schools, to government positions and community-based organizations — basically the question really is what can’t you do as a dietitian (in the food world). I am fairly new to the world of professional dietetics, having just passed the registration exam in September 2015. If you’re interested, here’s a little bit about the path I took to get to where I am, and where I hope to end up “down the road”.
Dietetics in College
Luckily, I entered college knowing that I wanted to pursue a dietetics/nutritional science track that was accredited by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, so I could apply for dietetic internships after graduating. I applied to all schools that had accredited programs, and ended up choosing the University of Wisconsin, Madison (best decision ever – go Badgers!) The curriculum at Madison was definitely challenging. We took a lot of core science courses like chemistry, biochemistry, microbiology and biology that were hard, but gave us a strong foundation for understanding the science of nutrition. It definitely helps to be a bit of a science nerd as a nutrition professional, because it’s so important to understand how and why food components (chemicals, really) connect to body functioning – basically why are we what we eat? While I’ll happily refrain from ever drawing out another krebs cycle diagram, again I’m very glad that at one point I could recite it from memory if I wanted to. Our nutrition curriculum of course had specific nutrition and physiology classes, but also a food science component where we learned about food-specific chemistry, as well as the science of cooking and culinary culture. What I think sets dietetics apart from other nutrition-science majors, is a third focus on business and management. Since many dietitians work in managerial roles or even own their own businesses, taking management, food service systems and accounting classes was so helpful. Overall, dietetics is a challenging major (as it should be! you’re becoming an expert, right?) that is well-rounded and prepares you for a diverse career trajectory. It’s fine if you don’t LOVE every class – as long as you keep the big picture in focus: nutrition is a science but is not conducted in a lab (unless you’re synthesizing vitamins or something, which by all means go forth and do if that makes you excited). I also chose to double major in psychology, originally with the intent of fusing the two tracks into a career of eating disorder treatment. But psychology plays such a huge role in nutrition for EVERYONE that I’m so glad I chose to take more classes – it really helped synthesize the scientific backbone of understanding body systems and also how humans interact with each other and their environment, which is pretty essential to understand if you want to help people make behavioral changes.
Overall, it took me four years to complete both majors (luckily psychology and dietetics had a bunch of classes overlap). The importance of leadership, involvement, and work experience was drilled into us from pretty much day one, in terms of building a resume that would stand out in the internship application process. I served for two years on the leadership board of the student dietetic association, and obtained various volunteer positions through that during all four years of college. Work-wise, I picked up food service jobs and got really lucky with a food service position at a local hospital that turned into a long-term diet office position where I got to work in close proximity to the clinical RDs. I applied for (twice) and eventually completed one summer of the NACUFS internship at the University of North Dakota dining service before my senior year. I wanted to find a longer-term volunteer position and was so happy to discover Girls on the Run, an organization for which I served as a coach and which really transformed a lot of my thinking (more on that later). One of the most powerful experiences during undergrad was a three-week field work trip to Uganda where a group of health science students and myself traveled to rural and urban areas of the country to familiarize ourself with the health care and agricultural system. It was a super short trip that left me thirsty to learn more, and gave me a whole bunch of perspective on the interconnectedness of so many issues that influence nutrition and health. Happy to talk more to this if anyone is interested – hopefully it was not my last trip to Uganda or Africa in general.
Overall, I was a busy college student but every position I held taught me important lessons that I still use today. I don’t think I’d be where I am if I didn’t push myself. And, yeah, it does help to fill out your resume for the internship application process *eye roll*.
Cue the suspenseful music, I’m about to dive into my experience applying to and completing the infamous dietetic internship. Why infamous? Well, it’s a mandatory internship that all dietitians must complete before they can even take the credentialing exam. Dietetic internships are rigorous and fast-paced and have you switching roles every few months, trying to attain mastery within each position (clinical, food service, outpatient, community, management, and more). You’re usually expected to be on your best behavior at all times, juggle projects, be an active communicator, all while learning how to be an effective dietitian in the “real world”. And, oh yeah, it’s unpaid.
Sassy commentary aside, the internship is a pivotal chapter in every dietitian’s career. It builds you up and breaks you down, and teaches you lessons (not just about nutrition) that you’ll never forget. Unfortunately, it is a highly competitive application and matching process that doesn’t work out for everyone on their first try. If you’re committed to working as a dietitian though and you don’t match your first time, try and try again. There really is a lot to be said about persistence!
I applied to four internship locations and ended up matching with my top choice: Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. I was thrilled and pretty much in disbelief for a while that I matched at my #1 location, but really the goals of the internship at MGH matched what I wanted from an internship to a ‘T’. It was easy for me to communicate why I felt the internship was a good fit. The internship itself was so much more than I could have ever expected. I learned so much about myself and about other people. I documented everything on a blog, here — so feel free to read all about that year of my life if you’re interested!
I don’t really have too much to say about the RD exam except for the mantra that really helped me get through it: You know more than you think you know. Really, if you’ve gone through the education, the internship, and had any work experience in the field at all, you will do fine. The key is to not stress, and to use the Jean Inman study guide. I’m definitely not the best person to ask for study secrets because I’m fairly disorganized in the way that I approach most studying compared to my colleagues. I found that setting a goal of a section per week was useful, and I would first listen to the Jean Inman CD without taking notes. Then, I would read and highlight the study material, and finally listen to the CD again and jot down things not noted in my highlighted notes. What I found truly indispensable were the practice exam questions. They were structured basically identically to the exam questions, and were very helpful in highlighting areas where I needed to focus more time studying. I’m happy to go over the exam in more detail with anyone who has questions about it. Just reach out!
It was a big move from WI to MA, but I never looked back. I absolutely fell in love with Boston and New England so much that I decided to stay and chase after the MS, RD at Tufts Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, where I’m currently pursing my masters degree in Nutrition Interventions, Communication and Behavior Change.