How to Become a Dietitian (as Your Second Career)

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I never, ever thought I would become a dietitian. As an undergrad, I majored in creative writing (poetry!). Then I when went to culinary school and spent two years working in New York city restaurant kitchens before I started my journalism career at BuzzFeed. Truth be told, I didn’t know what a dietitian was until I was assigned a nutrition-related article in 2014 and had to reach out to one. Eventually, though, after years as a food editor with an eventual nutrition focus at both BuzzFeed and SELF, I decided that becoming a registered dietitian was actually a great next-step.

I’m guessing you can’t relate to this exactly. But if you’re trying to figure out how to become a dietitian after several years in another field, you can definitely relate at least a little bit.

Are you simultaneously overwhelmed by the massive lists of prerequisite classes and other requirements listed on university websites, and the baffling lack of centralized information about various routes you might take to become an RD?

Have you emailed several nutrition masters programs in your state (because in-state tuition is absolutely the way to go, more on that later) only to learn that most of them aren’t accredited by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and won’t actually help you become a dietitian?

Are you totally gung-ho about this career shift but totally terrified of organic chemistry?

If any of this sounds like you, then we have a lot in common already.

I went back and forth about becoming a dietitian for a few years before deciding to bite the bullet. First, the bad news: Figuring out how to become a dietitian is tricky, and applying to programs can be a lot of work. Now, the good news: Becoming a second-career dietitian is absolutely possible, and the hardest part is figuring out which programs to apply to and what you need to do before applying. Plus, most programs love second-career applicants (because, as you know, work experience teaches you a lot more than formal education ever could), and having that experience under your belt will make going back to school so much easier and less stressful.

If you need a little more guidance on how to become a dietitian as your second career, here’s some advice from someone who has gone through the process and can finally see the finish line.

I’m currently a second-year master’s student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Barring disaster, I’ll have my Masters of Public Health and Registered Dietitian (MPH RD) credentials in the fall of 2021. Here’s everything I’ve learned about how to become a registered dietitian in the past three years.

Step 1: Take general chemistry at a community college at night.

If you’re still on the fence about whether or not to become a dietitian, sign up for a nighttime general chemistry class. Any accredited program will require that you take this, and it’s a prerequisite to all of the other prerequisites you’ll probably have to take. (Full disclosure: I didn’t do this, and I so wish I did! You’ll need four consecutive semesters of chemistry before you start grad school, and having the first one under your belt while you’re still working will seriously speed up the prerequisite process.)

Specific prerequisite requirements vary by program, but you can take the first semester of Gen Chem before you decide to leave your day job as a way to figure out whether or not you really want to dive into three-plus years of full-time school.

If that goes well, you can start figuring out what route you want to take in becoming a dietitian.

Step 2: Find the coordinated master’s program in dietetics that you’re most interested in.

You probably already know this, but starting in 2024, you’ll need a master’s degree to sit for the RD exam. That solves the problem of whether or not you should get a master’s degree. (You should, and you’ll probably have to.)

Still, there are two types of masters programs to choose from. A didactic masters program in dietetics means you’ll do two years of graduate coursework and then apply separately for an internship (1,000-plus hours of unpaid work). Generally, a didactic masters program plus an internship takes three years to complete

A coordinated masters program (which may also be called a future education model graduate program) combines the coursework and the 1,000-plus internship hours into one program. Often, your internship will happen during summer break, which means you can finish the coordinated masters program in two years.

A coordinated masters program should be your first choice for several reasons. First, it’s faster — two years, versus three years for a didactic program. Second, it saves you a lot of time and headache because you won’t have to apply for an internship separately. This is great because a) it takes a LOT of pressure off of your grades, and b) only about 70 percent of masters students who apply for internships actually get them. You might be stuck applying for two or more years. Eventually, you might just quit and not become an RD.

So, OK, you’re going to try for a coordinated program. The next step is to find one you like. I chose UNC’s program because I could get in-state tuition after just one year of living in North Carolina, and because cost of living here is relatively low to begin with. Remember: being an RD isn’t traditionally a high-paying career (although of course there are exceptions and this doesn’t mean you can’t make real $$$ as an RD entrepreneur or executive!), so the less student debt you accrue, the better.

I chose to apply only to state schools because in-state tuition seemed like the best bet. That said, I know now that private schools have much, much more scholarship money to give you. So, IDK, maybe it’s worth keeping an open mind about those, too!

You can find the list of coordinated and future education model masters programs here.

Step 3: Find other coordinated master’s program in dietetics with similar requirements. They’ll be your back-up school(s).

The most frustrating thing about going back to school to become a dietitian, particularly if you don’t have a science background, is that every school has different prerequisites. Some require microbiology and some don’t. Others require advanced food science and food safety courses Some require that you be finished with your prerequisite courses before you apply; some don’t.

Here’s my advice: Pick your number one choice based on what’s important to you — location, price, how long you’d have to wait to apply based on their requirements, and what their core values seem to be. Then, find other master’s programs with similar requirements that you can apply to as well.

UNC was a) the cheapest good option out there, factoring in cost of the program and cost of living, b) let me apply before finishing the prerequisites, as long as I completed them before the start of the program, and c) seemed to have a less academic and more real-life focus, which was important to me after eight years of work experience. I also applied to the University of Washington (UW), primarily because their requirements were very similar (no extra work!). I also happen to think Seattle is a very cool place, and their program happens to be amazing, but — and I cannot stress this enough — PRIORITIZE PICKING ADDITIONAL PROGRAMS THAT HAVE SIMILAR REQUIREMENTS TO YOUR TOP PROGRAM. The prerequisite/application process is rough, and this will make it so much easier.

You can find the list of coordinated and future education model masters programs here.

Step 4: Figure out part-time work.

I’m a career writer and journalist, so continuing on with that while I went back to school was an easy and obvious choice. You might also be able to work part-time in whatever field you’re coming from, too. If not, figure out what kind of work would fit with your schedule and preferences — something remote might be perfect, since you could keep it up even if you end up moving for grad school.

Step 5: Plan your prerequisites. It will take 3-4 semesters, including summers.

I can’t tell you exactly which prerequisites to take and in which order to take them, because every program is different. I can tell you that you’ll likely have to take four consecutive semesters of chemistry (gen chem 1 and 2, organic chemistry, biochem), so unless you already have one or more of those done, this is going to take you over a year.

You could do these classes while continuing to work full-time, but it would be tough. Here’s why: many of the classes have required lab sections, so doing them online is difficult. Also, having taken one class (Biochem! The horror!) online, I can tell you that it’s much, much harder to do it that way. It would also take much longer — do it in four semesters and you’ll take up to three classes at a time, which just isn’t realistic with a full-time job that has regular hours.

Instead, I quit my full-time editor job at SELF, left NYC, moved to North Carolina (for the in-state tuition!), and started working as a freelance writer while I went back to school. Here’s what my prerequisite and application schedule looked like:

Step 6: Enroll in prerequisites and sign up to take the GRE.

Look, science was never my thing. If you’re worried about those classes, my best advice is to just dive right into them. They weren’t as hard as I thought they would be — plus, if you apply to a school that accepts you before your prerequisites are done (like I did) you really only have to do OK in your spring and summer classes (the hard ones).

I took most of my classes at a local community college, which worked great because they’re set up for part-time students. For one class, I went to a local 4-year school because it was the only time that worked with my schedule. Enrolling there as a part-time student for a single class was a pain. I took one class online, which seemed more convenient but ended up taking me more time my in-person classes.

A quick note on the GRE, because that’s really all the space it deserves. Just sign up for it, buy a practice book, study for a handful of hours, and take the test. Both schools I applied to didn’t actually look at GRE scores. I suspect that this is the case for a growing number of graduate programs.

Step 7: Reach out for letters of recommendation, brainstorm a personal statement that tells your story, and apply!

Most applications are due in December. Reach out several months before then to the three people who you’d like to write your letters of recommendation. Most schools *recommend* that at least one of these be academic. But….if you’ve been out of school for years and are taking night classes at a community college, there may not be a teacher who you think could write you a decent recommendation. This was the case for me, so I asked two former bosses and one former coworker to write mine. (I don’t know whether this is truly taboo or not, but hey, I got in.) Ask early, give people plenty of time, and send thank you notes when the letters are in.

Next, figure out what kind of online platform(s) you need to apply through. Some schools are part of a common application and supplemental materials; other schools have their own platforms entirely. Look through each platformand figure out exactly what you need to do and when to do it. Fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Whether or not you expect to take out loans, this is the only way to be considered for scholarships, assistantships, and grants.

Finally, your personal statement. If you have work experience, you already have a massive advantage because you have more of a story to tell. Sure, my background was in cooking and food/nutrition writing, so it was easy to tie that in. But really, all successful careers are about creative problem solving, good communication skills, teamwork, and the ability to learn and evolve. You’re probably great at at least a few of those things. So, figure out how to tie them into your reasons for wanting to become a dietitian. If you can mention the work of a faculty member at the school to which you’re applying in your essay?Even better.

Apply as early as (reasonably) possible, since some programs do look at applications when they come in. Earlier applications often get preference for funding, too.

Step 8: Get accepted, CELEBRATE, and figure out logistics.

If you submit a great application and have a compelling reason for wanting to become a registered dietitian, you’ll get in to at least one of the programs you apply to.

When you get the acceptance letter, celebrate! If you get more than one acceptance, take the time to weigh your options. Then figure out the logistics of where you’ll live, when you’ll move, and how you’ll pay for school.

Step 9: Make the most of grad school without stressing out.

The absolute best thing about going back to school as a 30-something? I have a much better understanding of what matters and what doesn’t than I did when I was 19. Most graduate programs have a pass/fail structure, so you don’t need to stress about getting perfect grades.

You’ll find that some classes are more interesting/relevant to you than other classes. It’s OK to put more time into those classes and less time into the ones you just need to check off the list. If you find a professor or another faculty member that you really admire, connect with them. Make friends. Take electives in areas you think might help you in your career, whether or not it’s related to nutrition. Leave grad school with a network of people who you like and who like you. If you have work experience, you know that a network is the important most career asset there is.

Step 10: Get through your internship and try to learn as much as possible.

Real talk: Being an intern in your 30s — after you’ve had interns of your own, and maybe even had full-time direct reports — is kind of a bizarre experience. And of course, you’re not going to be super interested in every internship rotation. Still, there’s something kind of freeing about knowing that you’re just there to learn.

I wasn’t excited about my clinical internship, but I ended up liking it because my preceptor was great and because it got me out of the house during the COVID-19 pandemic (yup, I did it during all that). It’s a process everyone has to go through, so you might as well focus on the positives. (I don’t mean to seem so Pollyanna about it. You should know that in my second week at the hospital, I had a panic attack during rounds on the oncology floor because I’d never been around so many terminally ill people, or so many health care worker talking about them like being terminally ill was totally normal.)

Step 11: Study for and pass your RD exam.

I’m still months away from this one, so you’ll have to check back in October 2021 to see how that goes. From what I’ve heard, though, it’s just a matter of carving out a few weeks to study and then sitting through a long and tedious exam.

Step 12: Apply for state licensure if you need it.

In North Carolina, I’ll need to apply for licensure through the state (which I’ll get as long as I pass my exam and pay). The same is true in most states, although a few don’t actually have licensure requirements. You can find that information here.

Bottom line: Becoming a dietitian isn’t easy, but you can absolutely do it if you want to.

It sounds cliché, I know, but the hardest part really was deciding to do it and then figuring out a plan for the prerequisites and the application. Once I got accepted to a program, teachers and administrators told me exactly what to do and made sure I was able to do it.

Now you know exactly how to become a dietitian. If it’s something you want to do, just go for it — 3.5 years is a long process, yes, but that time will pass anyway.

Have a specific question about anything you read above? Get in touch!

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1 Comment

  1. Lisa L

    Thank you for laying this out. I have an MBA and have been a career sales professional in an unrelated field for 30 years. I would like to learn the science aspects of being an RD, but do think the GS courses within a BS undergrad program, would be irrelevant at my stage in life and education. I have been looking for a straightforward path on becoming an RD that would include all of the chem and science based courses only. If you run into any alternative programs please post. Thanks!

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