By Amy Gorin, MS, RDN
Wondering how to become a dietitian and how to make a career change to dietitian? It's not as difficult or as scary as you think! Find out how to become a nutritionist.
I'm excited to share my top career-change advice with you. I'm so glad I went looking for a career change, because getting an RD degree was one of the best things I ever did for my professional self!
Before I became a dietitian, I was a magazine editor in New York City. And that career at times was as glam as it appeared in the movie "How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days." But I had a dream to become a registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN).
And so I went back to school to become a nutritionist, while working a demanding job full-time. I'm sharing how I did it, plus answering the most common questions I get about making a career change to become a registered dietitian.
If starting a new career as a registered dietitian nutritionist is your dream, you can do it, too!
Why I Pursued a Nutritionist Career
You might assume that because I'm a second-career dietitian that I disliked my first career. But that's not the case at all. I loved being a magazine editor. I love word smithing other people's writing, making good copy even better and sometimes spectacular.
Or you might assume that I didn't put enough into my first career, or that I didn't make it. But that's not the case, either. Back during my senior year of college, I I secured a prestigious American Society of Magazine Editors (ASME) internship in New York City—setting myself up for the beginning of a career in a world of competitive publishing.
By the time I graduated college, I had an article published in Ladies' Home Journal, I'd written for then-just-launched Women's Health, and I'd had my name published in Men's Health as a research assistant more than once.
I got into a top magazine journalism master's program at Northwestern University. (Yup, my master of science is in journalism—it's not a master's degree in nutrition!) And I had more than one job offer before finishing my first internship out of grad school.
The later years of my career were incredibly rewarding, too. You can read about them in my how to be a media RD post, but the sum-up is this: I was living my dream. If you watch "The Bold Type" on Hulu, I was kind of like the editor version of Jane Sloan.
I wanted to edit and write, and edit and write I did. I worked at many of of the top NYC publishing houses, including Time Inc., Meredith, and Rodale. I got to meet celebs on the monthly and sometimes weekly, and I got free stuff and super-super discounted beauty products all the time.
But I knew there was a part of me that wasn't as fulfilled as possible. I'm a sucker for education and learning. And so I thought about it and thought about it and decided to enroll at New York University (NYU) to begin my dietitian education.
If you want to read more about my new career path, my life as an RD, and what I'm up to now, check out my write-up of my path to becoming a registered dietitian.
Now, I'm going to answer the most common questions I get as a second-career RD about career change advice on how to become a registered dietitian. I'm also sharing invaluable advice from a couple of stellar second-career colleagues.
Is becoming a dietitian worth it? Heck yes. I absolutely love my registered dietitian nutritionist career and am so, so glad I entered this nutritionist profession. Read on to find out how to be a dietitian!
Q: Can you work full-time and complete your nutrition coursework at the same time?
A: Absolutely! This is how I did it. I would definitely recommend being transparent with your bosses because if you have their support, it will be so much easier to schedule classes to become a nutritionist. I went to school at night, NYU. At the time, I was working in New York City, and so I wanted to find in-person nutrition classes near me.
I had to leave work early once or twice a week to make this happen. Go at the pace that works for you. I started off my coursework taking a few classes a semester.
I quickly realized, though, that I needed to scale back if I was going to maintain any sort of healthy lifestyle and social life, and so there were some semesters I took just one class. I even took a semester off when I started dating my fiance.
Q: Is going back to school expensive?
A: It is, but there are ways you can scale back the cost. I was fortunate enough to have employers who, depending on the job, covered anywhere from a percentage of the cost of my classes to my full tuition, even including books.
I chose to attend in-person classes, but there are also so many virtual programs. Some of the distance programs can be much less costly than in-person classes.
And typically, you can take a certain number of credits at a community college to further scale back cost. I took chemistry and organic chemistry at my local community college for a fraction of what the price would have been at a private school.
Q: I've heard it's near to impossible to get into a dietetic internship. Is that really the case?
A: Internship programs are competitive, and my school advisors definitely scared me into thinking I might not get into one. But if you set yourself up correctly, you should be fine.
I got accepted on my first round of applications. The internship programs will be looking at your resume and experience—and so if you have any free time, you can secure volunteer hours and related work experience.
I volunteered at a local food pantry for months and also did standalone volunteer gigs at soup pantries and local hospitals. With the current coronavirus pandemic situation, you can look into virtual volunteer opportunities.
I had nutrition experience through my job as a nutrition editor, which also helped make my application attractive. I think it helps a lot to look well rounded when applying to internships.
Q: How challenging are the nutrition classes?
A: As far as nutritionist degree requirements go, you have to take a lot of classes. The coursework you take to become eligible to apply for the dietetic internship is called didactic programs in dietetics (DPD).
The coursework varies slightly by each school. Here's an example of the classes I took through my degree program at NYU. There's such a range in what these classes cover! You'll take everything from science to food management to research classes.
I never thought of myself as a hardcore a science person, and so organic chemistry and biochemistry were the most difficult classes for me. For these classes, I formed study groups with other students, and some of us are still friends to this day!
I was able to power through these classes because I saw how the learnings were applicable to real-life nutrition. For example, when I read research studies and saw organic chemistry diagrams, I knew what I was looking at.
Other classes, like the food science ones, were so fun. They're basically cooking and knife-skills classes, and I'm so thankful for this culinary training because a lot of my work as a dietitian today is in the kitchen!
Also, in case you don't know: Registered dietitian requirements are really cumbersome! You must complete a bachelor education in nutrition or the equivalent of this (a DPD). You must choose from a list of accredited programs. And beginning January 1, 2024, you must also hold a master's degree in order to sit for the registration exam for dietitians.
Then you must complete 1,200 supervised hours to grow your nutrition skill set. Dietetic internships are overseen by the Commission on Dietetic Registration. Note that due to COVID-19, these hours are reduced to 1,000 through June 30, 2022, per the Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics (ACEND).
If you're lucky, you'll get accepted into a coordinated program that combines your nutrition education with your dietetic internship. Internship hours focus on many aspects of nutrition, including food service and public health nutrition.
After you've done all that, you must pass a very difficult exam. Once you are finally a dietitian, you must complete 75 continuing education hours every five years. So the career move to dietitian is most definitely worth it. But it is a lot of work!
Q: How do you choose an internship program?
A: There are so many dietetic internship programs out there, including in-person ones as well as nutrition programs that are online. Some are more clinical, some are focused in community nutrition, and others have very specific concentrations such as children's nutrition or corporate wellness.
I knew that I wanted a distance program so I could continue living in New Jersey. I was also looking for an internship on the shorter side that would allow me to use previous work experience to further decrease the length of my internship.
Thus, the distance internship at Utah State University ended up being my first choice, and it was more or less an online dietetics program. It's one of the best nutrition schools for what I was looking for.
Even though it's a distance degree program, I met the instructors in person during orientation and was assigned an advisor to help me along the way. It was hands on enough for me. I got to shave several weeks off of my internship because of my prior work as a nutrition editor and my volunteer experience at the food pantry.
Q: How hard is it to pass the RD exam?
A: Some people will tell you that studying for the RD exam is a cake walk, and others will say it's the hardest thing they've ever had to do. I don't like to take chances, so I spent a full month studying for the exam. I don't think it was a cake walk at all, but my month studying more than adequately prepared me.
I wrote a guide on how to pass the RD exam, if you'd like to check out my top studying tips!
Q: Do you feel like the years before you were a dietitian were wasted?
A: Not at all! In becoming a dietitian, I wasn't exactly seeking a new career. Instead, I was looking to merge everything I love—nutrition, media, and art—into one new job.
Everything I've done in my academic and professional careers has in one way or another set me up for where I am today. I have degrees in art and journalism; there's no bachelor's degree in nutrition in my academic history!
Even though I never had a career in art, I use my visual skills every day when designing projects like a media kit for my business and when taking food photos of recipes. I learned so many skills as a magazine editor that apply to my daily work now.
These range from more obvious word-smithing skills to less-obvious networking skills. As an editor, I used to meet with at least a few dozen strangers a week who were representing products I might want to write about. I used to be incredibly shy, but through all these meetings and the many events I'd attend, I no longer consider myself shy at all!
Q: How did you end up working in the media?
A: For me, working as a media dietitian was a natural transition, as my skill set is media. If you want to check out my back story, you can read all about how I became a media dietitian.
I now help other dietitians work in the media, too, through the Master the Media e-course I run with fellow media nutritionist Erin Palinski-Wade.
Q: What are some of your top tips for being a successful career changer?
A: My top piece of advice is find people who can be mentors to you! I had RDNs with amazing nutritionist careers give me advice when I first started out, and I still go back to these people when I need to discuss burning questions. Ask for informational interviews with these dietitians.
Also, find your people. You may get a job working for a company where you're surrounded by colleagues, but I decided to start my own business. Which means things can get lonely if I let them. I found other like-minded colleagues, and I talk to these people weekly, if not daily.
I also created a mastermind group of fellow media RDs. If you're a private practice RD or a corporate wellness dietitian, you can create a mastermind group of fellow colleagues, too. My mastermind group and I "meet" over the phone once a month to talk things out. We e-mail each other almost daily.
The bottom line: You don't have to problem solve on your own! When you feel secure enough in your career to be a mentor, you can pay it forward!
More Second Career Advice
Now that I've shared my top advice for becoming a second-career registered dietitian, I'd like to share Q&As with two my fellow second-career colleagues on how they got started with their dietitian careers.
They're spilling their best tips on how to make a career change to nutritionist, and their stories are fabulous examples of how there are so many second-career ideas out there! You'll also see that there's more than one dietitian career path out there.
Nutritionist Career Path: Ginger Hultin
First up is my pal Ginger Hultin, MS, RDN, CSO. Ginger is a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND) and owner of the blog Champagne Nutrition.
She lives in Seattle and is going to answer all of your "how do you become a nutritionist?" questions!
Q: Tell us about your previous career.
A: "I was a restaurant manager and bartender for eight years before I became an RD. I'm so glad I did this. The restaurant I worked at was extremely high volume.
"We sold the most liquor of any restaurant in the northwest region at the time. An independently owned and operated establishment, we were literally line-out-the-door busy from the moment we opened at 9am until we closed at 2am the next day, seven days per week."
Q: And how would you describe your current career?
A: "I run a virtual private practice and nutrition company called Champagne Nutrition. I am also a spokesperson for the AND, and I teach in the medical clinic at Bastyr University, working with master of nutrition and dietetics students.
"I enjoy clinical nutrition work, helping clients make changes in their behavior and writing about nutrition and health. I have previous experience in integrative oncology and in nutrigenomics. There is so much you can do with nutrition."
Q: What skills did you develop in your first career that help you in your current dietetic career?
A: "Dealing with angry customers is one of my most cherished skills to this day. As a restaurant manager, you mostly deal with people who are upset for one reason or another. You are problem solving nonstop. A lot of people feel threatened by meeting with dietitians for a variety of reasons.
"When we ask them to make changes to their diet or lifestyle, that can create a lot of emotions. If someone is angry, scared, unhappy, or
even just a bit grumpy, the skills I gained working with the public in a busy restaurant for years helps me a lot here.
"Customer service is another important skill. Working with nutrition clients is all about making them happy, empowered, and ready to make change. Because of the restaurant, I'm obsessed with customer service. Going above and beyond to wow your nutrition clients keeps them coming back, just like it kept my restaurant guests happy.
"I learned about recipe development, too. Understanding how to put together a menu; which foods go together; and how wine, beer, and cocktails fit into the dining experience is the foundation of my work at Champagne Nutrition. I have a passion for wine culture, and I enjoy helping my nutrition clients who like to include wine and alcohol in their diets."
Q: What advice do you have for current or potential second-career RDs who would like to make the most of their previous-career skillset?
A: "Think creatively! What gives you the background that other people don't have? Even if it doesn't seem innately connected or related to health or nutrition, there are often skills you've built that give you a competitive edge. You'll likely have unique skills you can use with patients and nutrition work.
"For example, I can multitask and work very quickly, I think partially because of my work at the restaurant. Everything you go through earlier in your life leads to wisdom later in one way or another, later."
Nutritionist Career Path: Mandy Enright
Next up is a fellow Jersey girl, Mandy Enright, MS, RDN, RYT. Mandy is owner of Team with ME: Nutrition & Fitness Consulting in Neptune, New Jersey.
She also practices as a yoga teacher and runs the Nutrition Nuptials blog and podcast. In her words, she's going to answer the, "How do you become a nutritionist?" question.
Q: How would you describe your first career?
A: "I was an advertising executive in New York City. As an account manager, my role involved wearing a lot of hats.
"I planned tactics to support brand client strategy, oversaw the creation and execution of work my team created to ensure they were staying on strategy with the brand client, and acted as the main communication hub between my team at the agency and the client's agency.
"I was also responsible for managing budgets, attending regulatory meetings, and assisting with new business pitches."
Q: And what do you do now?
A: "I originally thought my career goal would be private practice upon finishing my internship, and that’s where I started. After a few years working in private practice, I realized I didn’t have the passion for it I thought I would.
"My internship director suggested media would be a great place for me to explore in my dietitian career. I wound up moving into a role that combines my prior experience with advertising and communications with my nutrition expertise. I now run my own business that specializes in nutrition communications and corporate wellness.
"I find corporate wellness extremely rewarding because I know I did not take care of myself when I worked in my advertising career. This means there are plenty more Mandys out there that need my help and guidance to start making themselves a priority.
"In addition to being a dietitian, I also obtained my yoga teaching certifications. This has opened even more doors for me in the corporate wellness world to assist with offering yoga and mediation sessions to busy professionals."
Q: What skills from your first career are most valuable in in your current career?
A: "Project management is a big one. At any given time, there were 20 to 30 projects going on for a client. I needed to know the status of every single project so I could report back to my clients.
"As a dietitian, I now live and die by creating timelines for projects, working backward from anticipated launch dates, and identifying key steps and milestones to hit. And multitasking is simply second nature to me.
"Presentation skills are invaluable. I was constantly giving presentations in my prior career, whether it was to my agency or to our clients. Public speaking comes incredibly naturally to me.
"I was put into presentation boot camp along with senior executives at my agency, so I received quality training to excel my public speaking skills. Now when it comes to giving a corporate wellness presentation or doing a TV segment, I have no fear and know how to be organized and confident.
"Mentorship and leadership is so important, too. I had amazing bosses and mentors in my time working at the advertising agencies. I also had the opportunity to be a manager and lead large teams.
"I know the value of having strong mentors, and I always aim to give that to dietitians I encounter, whether they’re part of the coaching course I run for dietitians or someone I meet at a networking event.
"I tend to gravitate toward leadership roles and have been able to obtain incredible leadership roles as a dietitian within my state dietetics association and AND dietetic practice groups, including Nutrition Entrepreneurs."
Q: How can fellow second-career dietitians find success?
A: "My No. 1 piece of advice is don’t forget where you came from. I swore up and down when I left advertising that I would never work at another agency and that I would never do anything related to advertising again.
"My new goal was to help people get healthy and lose weight. But over time, I learned my roots in advertising are strong, and I can’t completely shut off that part of my brain.
"This is why I now love and get so much satisfaction from being able to offer a unique opportunity for dietitians to learn from me about ways to build and enhance their businesses from skills I can teach them based on my prior career.
If you’re an RD who had a prior career, don’t shun it. Instead, use it to your advantage to create a unique offering to clients or colleagues."
This blog post was updated in July 2020.
- Prerequisites: Didactic Program in Dietetics (DPD), New York University
- 2024 Graduate Degree Requirement - Registration Eligibility, Commission on Dietetic Registration
- ACEND Information Regarding COVID-19, Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics
- Ginger Hultin, MS, RDN, CSO
- Mandy Enright, MS, RDN, RYT
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