This post has been featured as a guest post on my friend Jessica’s and blog, but I figured I should have it housed on my blog, too! Sorry for any repetition!
First of all, it’s important to know the difference between a dietitian and a nutritionist. Anyone can call themselves a nutritionist – you can print a certificate from a website and declare yourself a nutrition expert.
Does that make dietitians the Food Police? Absolutely not (even though I have a sweet t-shirt with that logo). RDs are people too – I know I don’t eat perfectly. I eat too many calories on a regular basis and fuel my body with less than ideal nutrition – but I do have the knowledge to try to keep my diet balanced.
There are several different routes to becoming an RD, but they all culminate in taking a national registration exam (similar to a medical student’s boards or a law student’s bar exam). Before you can take the registration exam, you have to complete some combination of education and 1200 hours of supervised practice (or an internship). While some schools offer a bachelor’s degree in nutrition that prepares you to apply directly for an internship, others offer coordinated programs that help you complete your internship hours and education at the same time. For more information on the various options, you can check out the Commission on Accreditation for Dietetics Education’s website.
My own route was a variation on the coordinated program. I completed the Coordinated Masters in Dietetics and Nutrition program at the University of Pittsburgh after obtaining my Bachelor of Science degree in Biochemistry. When I decided I wanted to pursue the higher degree in nutrition, I actually needed 3 years of the Masters program to complete all of my nutrition pre-requisite courses. Other students who already had a Bachelors degree in nutrition only had to do 2 years of the Masters program. The advantage of a coordinated program (rather than separate education and internship programs) is that you are automatically assigned to supervised practice sites, whereas those doing a separate dietetic internship have to apply and match to a program.
After the education requirements are met, you complete your supervised practice, and you pass your registration exam, you can finally call yourself a dietitian – but the work doesn’t end there. We are also required to keep up with continuing education programs and report our progress to maintain our RD credentials. Each state also has different requirements for being licensed (which contains rules regarding practicing in your state). All of this work makes us proud to be an RD – and personally makes me a bit defensive when someone calls themselves a nutritionist.
So where do dietitians work? The most common role is in a clinical setting – ie, a hospital or long term care facility. Many hospitalized patients require specific dietary needs and monitoring that most doctors and pharmacists just aren’t trained for. While the role of the dietitian is changing and growing, they will always be needed in clinical settings. Similar positions are held in nursing homes, where many of the residents may need special or modified diets.
Many RDs start in the clinical setting since we are so well prepared for it during our internships. The majority of my education was based on learning each disease state, applying the patient’s specific needs and helping to plan a diet that would help manage their symptoms and prevent further complications. In my experience, dietitians bounce around several times in the field before they find their niche. Other options for dietitians are in sports medicine, business and the food industry (like restaurants or manufacturers), community or public health settings (like school districts), research, or media (like magazines and websites). Some RDs work as independent consultants and dabble in many different aspects of the field.
Although my time spent in the clinical setting was extremely challenging and rewarding, I knew that role wasn’t my ideal job as an RD. My first job was with a supermarket chain, in their sensory department, testing foods and recipes. I always found food science one of the most interesting components of nutrition. I am also drawn toward the ideal of wellness and prevention, which is directly in line with my current position. I am also fascinated with human metabolism and some day would like to apply my biochemistry degree to the nutrition field.
Any questions about the process? Feel free to e-mail me at clairetherd at gmail dot com.