There are two defining days in the life of a student who wishes to continue her education as a registered dietitian (RD): application deadline day and match day, which this year fall on February 15th (today) and April 1st (April Fools Day. Really?!)
The application deadline day is just as it sounds: the day that your application for dietetic internships is due. The matching day is also as it sounds: the day that you are potentially “matched” with an internship and you begin the next step on your path to becoming an RD.
But what exactly does that mean?
I’m so glad you asked! In the past 3 years that I’ve been pursuing this career, I have had many opportunities to explain the extensive requirements for becoming a registered dietitian, and why it therefore frustrates me when celebrities refer to themselves as “nutritionists,” confusing their expertise with ours.
With each explanation I thought, “I need to write a post about this so I don’t have to explain it again!”
And here it is.
HOW TO BECOME A REGISTERED DIETITIAN:
There are a few options -
1. Complete a bachelors degree at an accredited nutrition/dietetics school.
2. Having already completed a bachelors degree in nutrition/another science field, pursue a Didactic Program in Dietetics certificate.
3. Having already completed a bachelors degree in another field, complete a MS degree in a higher level of nutrition paired with a Didactic Program in Dietetics certification (the option I chose).
There are a myriad of other ways to get the education part down – maybe you were pre-med in college so you’ve taken the bulk of the science requirements or perhaps you would prefer to pursue a 2nd bachelors degree rather than a MS.
Details on what you would need to do based on your background can be found here.
Below are the requirements I had to complete coming into Tufts/Simmons as a MS Nutrition Communication/DPD student with a BS in Communications and none of the science requirements (Note: some of these were requirements to enter Simmons, some were requirements to enter Tufts, and some were requirements outlined by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics). I also included when and where I did them, to give you a sense of the time commitment:
General Biology + Lab (Simmons College, currently)
General Chemistry + Lab (Boston University, Summer ’09)
Anatomy + Lab (Boston University, Spring ’10)
Physiology + Lab (Boston University, Summer ’09)
Biochemistry (Boston University – Medical Program, Spring ’10)
Microbiology + Lab (University of New England, currently)
Organic Chemistry + Lab (Boston University, Fall ’09)
That doesn’t included the Didactic Program in Dietetics that I’m completing at Simmons, which includes:
Food Service and Production (including Serv Safe and HAACP certifications) (Fall ’10)
Advanced Food Science + Lab (Fall ’11)
Clinical Dietetics + Rotations (currently)
Medical Nutrition Therapy (currently)
Advanced Community Nutrition + Fieldwork (currently)
Or the MS I am completing at Tufts, which includes a variety of courses (15 credits) covering food policy, nutrition science, writing, communications. Some examples include:
Management, Planning and Control of Nutrition and Health Programs and Organizations (currently)
The Public Policy of Health Claims for Foods (currently)
Community and Public Health Nutrition (Fall ’11)
Nutritional Biochemistry (Fall ’11)
Communicating Health Information to Diverse Audiences (Fall ’11)
A full description of masters levels classes offered at the Friedman School at Tufts can be found here
In addition, I needed to have completed two college-level economics/sociology/psychology classes.
Overall, I will have taken 7 prerequisites, 5 classes at Simmons, and 15 credits at Tufts (some classes are 0.5 credits and some are 1.0 credits, so it totals 19 classes) plus completed a required 400-hour internship (at the Good Housekeeping Research Institute).
Still with me? Exhausted already? Me too. We’re not done yet.
After completing these requirements, you are eligible to apply for a dietetic internship. Dietetic Internship Centralized Application Services (DICAS) is the application system used by the majority of the schools and hospitals that offer the dietetic internship required to become a registered dietitian (a full list of programs can be found here.)
While each dietetic internship has to fulfill certain requirements to be accredited (outlined by the Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics, formerly CADE), each hospital or school will have a different emphasis or different rotations depending on the style of the hospital and the population they serve.
What they all have to provide is 1200 hours of supervised practice hours that include instruction in clinical dietetics, community development, and food service and management.
So, at this point the process becomes very similar to applying for college or graduate school. You visit different sites, ask questions, potentially go on interviews, and determine which hospitals or schools are the best fit for you. Then, you fill out your application, write individualized personal statements for each program you’re applying to, and submit everything through DICAS.
Here is how the process is not very similar to applying for college. Rather than getting accepted to multiple programs that want you, you rank the programs based on your preference and they rank you based on their preference. So if you are applying to 6 programs, you rank them 1-6. If the program has 16 slots, they rank their top 16 (not 1-16 but more like 16 “1st places”) and you see if there is a match. You can only match to one program, so if the numbers don’t line up, you’re out of luck for that year.
There is absolutely no guarantee that you’ll get an internship. In fact, as of 2009, approximately 50% of applicants did not match for an internship.
The process is challenging to be sure, so you put your best foot forward on February 15th and hope for a positive result on April 1st.
After that, you complete the 1200 hours of your internship, sit for your national boards, and then you are a licensed registered dietitian.
4 short years later.
I am by no means trying to pull the “woe is me,” card here – yes, there are a lot of requirements to pursuing this profession, but thousands of people complete them every year. My point is, this is what it takes to be a registered dietitian.
Do you know what it takes to be a nutritionist? Calling yourself one.
There are benefits to completing weekend seminars, getting nutrition certificates, and studying the field of nutrition to gain a better understanding of your own health and wellness. But they are not the same as going through this exhaustive process – and for good reason. Dietitians work in hospitals prescribing tube feedings, counsel individuals trying to feed their families on SNAP (food stamps), and address serious chronic illnesses with changes in diet. These are jobs that require training. Would you allow your friend who read “Root Canals for Dummies” get at your back molars? I didn’t think so.
I hope I haven’t deterred you other future RDs-to-be from pursuing this field. Has it been a challenge? Yes. Has it caused many sleepless nights? Well yes, because I was up studying organic chemistry. Was it worth it? I’ll tell you on April 1st. That’s not completely true – it has already been worth it. I know I am in the field where I belong, and that no matter what happens on the day of practical jokes (April 1st), I’m excited to learn what the next phase of this process will entail.
But for now, I am going to go out and celebrate the end of phases 1-897. After Biology lab, of course.
- The Aspiring RD