After my guest post on Kath Eats Real Food last week, I received lots of emails from people asking for advice about becoming a registered dietitian. My journey to becoming an RD was a little long, but hopefully it will help someone out there who is thinking about this career path.
So let’s start back at the beginning….
I went to Virginia Tech for undergrad… Go Hokies!
I originally wanted to be an obstetrician, so I declared biology as my major. It only took me 2 semesters to realize that I hated any classes that had to do with plants or animals.
I think a little part of me died every time I had to go to Evolutionary Biology.
On the other hand, I naturally gravitated toward any material that had to do with nutrition. I took Introduction to Nutrition and absolutely loved it. After my freshman year, I decided to change my major to Human Nutrition, Foods and Exercise.
At Virginia Tech, there were several different concentrations within HNFE: dietetics, science and health promotion. The science concentration was geared towards pre-med students, so that was the one I went with.
I continued with school but as graduation neared, it was pretty evident that I was not cut out for med school. I decided to pursue nursing school after graduation instead because it was less school but I could stick with the medical field. I was accepted to Radford’s nursing program and planned to attend the fall after graduation.
Welcome to School Nutrition
One night during summer before nursing school, I came across a vacancy for a school nutritionist position. I wasn’t planning on looking for a full-time job at the time and I was under qualified for the job according to the description.
Did I have experience? No.
My RD? No.
So naturally I applied anyway.
I’m still not sure how or why, but I got a call for an interview the next day and was eventually offered the position. The thought of nursing school completely went out the window… I had worked my way through college, sometimes 2 jobs at a time, and the idea of having a real salary with benefits was too good for me to turn down.
So that’s how my career in nutrition began. I took me about 30 seconds at my new job to realize that I had no freakin’ idea what I was doing. I knew nothing about food service or feeding kids. Heck, I didn’t even know a school system had a child nutrition department…. I thought the individual schools planned their own menus.
I felt a little lost in the beginning, but I spent the next 3 years learning everything I could about school food service. I read extra material, worked from home many nights, joined the School Nutrition Association, and got a few extra certifications to be able to teach some classes to our staff.
I became really passionate about the field and loved it!
Growing Up & Thinking about the RD
During that same time, lots of exciting things were going on in my life! Kyle and I got engaged and then married, we bought our first house and I graduated from VT with my master’s in health education. I felt very fulfilled, both personally and professionally.
The only thing that was missing was my RD.
At work, I got asked if I was a registered dietitian all.the.time. by parents and teachers. There once was a time when one of the school librarians told me she wished the school system would have hired a “real” nutritionist. That really hurt my feelings because I was trying so hard to do well at my job.
But at the same time, I wondered if I could be doing a better job with product selection and special diets had I had the experience of becoming a registered dietitian.
So in 2010, I began looking at what it would take to get my RD.
How to Become an Registered Dietitian
There are 4 basic steps to becoming an RD:
- Earn a bachelor’s degree
- Complete an accredited dietetic program
- Complete a dietetic internship
- Pass the RD exam
I obviously already had a bachelor’s degree, but I did not technically complete an accredited dietetics program because I chose the non-dietetic concentration at Virginia Tech when I was pre-med. I talked to the dietetics program at VT and after a transcript evaluation, I saw that I would need to take 12 more classes to complete the coursework. I tried to enroll in their program, which would have taken me 1 year to complete, but my job at the time declined my request to leave work early 2 days per week to attend class. So my RD plans were put on hold.
The Move to Charlotte
We decided to move to Charlotte in early 2011. K moved in January for a new job and I stayed back in Virginia while we tried to sell our house and I job-hunted. I had SUCH a hard time finding a nutrition job in NC because almost everything either required or strongly preferred an RD. It took me 6 months to find a job (a really great school nutrition job, by the way) and after that experience, I knew I needed to finish school.
My boss at my new job was very supportive of me becoming an RD, so I continued to explore options to complete the coursework I needed while still being able to work full-time. My options were to attend Winthrop University or try to find an online program. I was actually accepted into Winthrop, but the commute and class schedule made it very difficult to consider that as a feasible option. So I decided to go the online route.
Didactic Program in Dietetics: The University of Alabama
After searching for accredited online programs (there are very few, by the way), I decided on UA’s DPD program. I spread out my coursework with a plan to take 1-3 classes per semester and finish in 2 years.
I thought taking online classes would be easy but the program was actually pretty difficult. I had lots of assignments, studying and group projects. I even had to get all of my exams proctored. It was a lot more than I anticipated, especially with starting a new job, but I kept my eye on the prize and finished in May 2013.
During my last semester of UA, I started applying to dietetic internships. I was looking for a program that started in the summer, was concentrated in school nutrition, had some flexibility to arrange your own rotations, and gave me as much credit as possible for my food service rotation.
My options in the Charlotte area were limited with this criteria, so I had to do *a lot* of research on programs.
The dietetic internship application process is a centralized match process. I had to send all of my materials to DICAS, rank the programs in the order of my preference and wait to see which one I was matched with!
It was a very suspenseful process. The programs I applied to were:
- Utah State University
- Iowa State University
- South Carolina’s Department of Health
- Morrison/Chartwell’s Regional Program
- Meredith College
In April, I found out I was matched with my first choice internship- Utah State University!
At the beginning of June, I boarded a plane by myself to Salt Lake City, UT for my DI orientation.
I spent 4 days learning all about the internship process as well as meeting my fellow interns.
I found many interns to be in the same situation that I was in: started working in nutrition, realized they needed their RD, and were taking a break from work to finish their internships.
I really enjoyed meeting everyone and the orientation was a great experience. Also, Salt Lake City is beautiful.
I immediately started my rotations the following week. Here’s what my schedule looked like:
- Inpatient Clinical: 6 weeks
- Staff Relief: 2 weeks
- Food Service Management: 7 weeks (shortened from 13 wks bc of work experience)
- Outpatient Clinical: 3 weeks
- Long-Term Care Clinical: 2 weeks
- Community/WIC: 4 weeks
So for the next 6 months, I interned away! That time was honestly such a blur to me that it’s hard to remember everything now. I interned for 40 hours/week, did school work for 2-3 hours every night and then worked a little bit on the side for my school nutrition job. It was a crazy time, but I luckily had lots of great support from my friends and family. I finished my internship at the end of November 2013!
The RD Exam
After spending a week relaxing with my family over Thanksgiving, I started to buckle down and study for my RD exam. At the recommendation of my internship director, I studied for ~2 hours every night for 4 weeks.
The study tools I used were RD in a Flash and The Inman Review. I carried the flash cards with me everywhere and pulled them out whenever I could. Here’s how I used The Inman Review:
- Listened to each of the CDs all the way through without looking at the study material (many fond memories of taking bubble baths while listening to Inman on my iphone)
- Went back through and listened to each CD again, this time with the study guide. I highlighted anything that seemed like I didn’t fully understand
- Studied anything I highlighted very hard
A little secret that I kept from everyone except my husband was that I registered to take my exam (on January 2) right when I finished my internship. I didn’t want people to know when I was taking it just in case I failed. We went on vacation over Christmas to visit family and I spent every second of my spare time studying!
I will never forget spending New Year’s 2014: a champagne glass in 1 hand and my study guide in the other
January 2, 2014 will always be one of the happiest days of my life. After 2 years of classes, 6 months of an internship and 1 month of studying, I passed my RD exam!
The road was long, but I am SO glad I became a registered dietitian. I learned so much during my internship… it was very eye-opening to see how much I didn’t know about nutrition! And it was awesome to get to actually experience all of the different areas of dietetics to see which was the best fit for me.
It has been less than a year since I finished school and my RD has already opened up a lot of doors for me. I also see a trend that more and more jobs are requiring RDs, and I’m glad I will not be limited in what I can do because I didn’t finish the process.
My advice to anyone starting this process is to take it 1 step at a time. The thought of school + internship + exam is overwhelming but it is worth it in the end!