What you should know before pursuing a dietetic career

Last updated: June 23, 2024
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Eleana Bowman
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What you should know before pursuing a dietetic career
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Do you enjoy discovering new and healthy recipes but don’t want to work as a chef?

Or maybe you’d like to make a difference for people struggling with serious illnesses but don’t want to become a doctor.

If either of these describes you, then a career in dietetics might be the perfect fit!

As a dietitian, you’ll advise patients on how to manage their diets. Your expertise will change your patients’ eating habits — making them happier and healthier.

If you’re interested in learning how to become a dietitian, continue reading to discover what the job entails, salary information, and the steps to earning certification for an enriching career.

What is a dietitian?

Have you ever examined the nutrition facts on a package of food? Many people tend to look at the serving size and calorie count, but sodium levels, cholesterol, protein, and total carbohydrates also contribute to people’s health.

Sometimes, nutrition labels require you to read between the lines. For example, carbohydrates can negatively affect individuals with diabetes, but fiber (which is listed under carbohydrates in nutritional facts labels) doesn’t break down into glucose and won’t affect your blood sugar level.

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Nutrition is a complicated topic. That’s why they may need trained nutrition experts to help manage their diets.

Dietitians help their clients create healthy diet plans and manage their weight to reduce their risk of diabetes, heart disease, and other life-threatening conditions.

Not only does a dietitian help people read nutrition labels, but they can also help them create healthy eating plans. They teach their clients about healthy foods to eat, ingredients they should consume in moderation, and foods to avoid.

For example, if a client has a blood-clotting disorder, they may be advised by their doctor to limit their vitamin K intake. Vitamin K naturally helps clot blood, so too much of it can be detrimental to someone with a clotting disorder.

With 41.9% of adults and 19.7% of children overweight in the U.S., dietitians are essential for helping others manage their health and live long, healthy lives as a result.

Certifications available to registered dietitians

Registered dietitians have the option to pursue certifications to work with specific populations of people. The certifications available to dietitians include:

  • Renal Nutrition

  • Pediatric Nutrition

  • Gerontological Nutrition

  • Oncology Nutrition

  • Obesity and Weight Management

  • Sports Dietetics

  • Pediatric Critical Care Nutrition

If you know which specialty you’d like to work in, consider exploring a didactic program in the field of dietetics that offers clinical experience in that specialty.

Specialty certifications can help dietitians find new job opportunities and increase their annual salary. If you’d like to learn more about them, find out how certifications can help improve your resume.

How much do dietitians earn?

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, a dietitian can expect to earn $29.64 per hour or $61,650 per year. However, your salary will depend upon your location, availability, and clinical setting.

Many adult clients work full-time jobs, which means that dietitians who have weekend availability and weeknight hours will see more patients — resulting in higher wages.

Dietitians work in a wide range of healthcare facilities; however, their clinical setting will affect your pay. Outpatient clinic dietitians earn the highest average salary, whereas hospitals and rehabilitation centers often pay less.

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In addition to your availability and clinical setting, your location affects your yearly salary. Highly populated areas, like New York, New Jersey, and California, pay the highest wages for dietitians.

However, these locations also have a high cost of living, so you’ll want to evaluate if working in one of them is right for you.

Job outlook for dietitians

Before pursuing a new career, it’s important to look at the long-time job outlook. Fortunately, for prospective nutrition and dietetics professionals, the field is expected to grow by 7% until at least 2031, with an expected 5,600 new positions every year.

Keep in mind, though, that your location will affect your job outlook. If you live in a rural area, you may have more difficulty finding a dietitian job. However, suburban and urban areas will have more opportunities and clinical locations, which means more job opportunities.

Steps to becoming a dietitian

The job market is booming, the pay is good, and there are plenty of opportunities for advancement as a dietician.

If you’re interested in pursuing this career, here’s what you need to know about obtaining a degree in dietetics and the educational licensing requirements:

Step 1: Complete a dietitian degree program

Enroll in a school accredited by the Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics (ACEND). Graduating from an ACEND-accredited program allows those with a degree in nutrition to sit for the licensing exam.

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Previously, prospective nutrition students only needed a bachelor’s degree to become registered dietitians.

However, in 2012, The Commission on Dietetic Registration (CDR) raised the nutrition education requirements to ensure that professionals in the field have the necessary expertise to care for a wide variety of people.

Unless they complete a degree in nutrition from a four-year university before January 2024, dietitians will need to hold advanced degrees, such as a master’s or doctoral degree, to work in the field.

Step 2: Complete the dietetic internship requirement

Dietitian students need to complete an internship to practice in the field of nutrition. They have the option to complete this internship part-time or full-time; however, either way, they’ll need to complete 1,200 hours to apply for the licensing exam.

If you work full-time, you should meet the licensing exam requirements within eight months. On the other hand, working at an internship part-time can take up to 24 months to complete.

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Fortunately, the Dietetics Inclusive Centralized Application Service (DICAS) makes applying for and securing internships easy. The majority of students and ACEND-accredited programs use the DICAS to match with an available internship program anywhere in the country.

When you’re ready to find an internship, simply fill out the DICAS online application and apply to your desired internship site. After applying, you’ll wait for appointment day (otherwise known as match day) to discover if you’ve been matched with any internship sites.

Step 3: Take the CDR credentialing exam

Once you’ve completed your 1,200-hour dietetic internship and graduated from an ACEND-accredited program, you’ll be eligible to sit for the CDR exam.

Students who are ready to take the CDR exam will need to study the following topics:

  • Nutrition care for individuals and groups

  • Principles of dietetics

  • Management of food and nutrition programs and services

  • Foodservice systems

According to the CDR’s test specifications, around 45% of the exam focuses on nutritional care, including patient assessment, diagnosis, and treatment planning.

Step 4: Earn state licensure

Before you start applying for dietitian positions, it’s important to research the requirements for licensure in your state. Most states will require applicants to complete a criminal background check.

While all states accept the CDR credential, some will have extra requirements to complete before issuing state licensure. For example, if you’re hoping to practice in Pennsylvania, you’ll need to take a three-hour training course on how to identify and report suspected child abuse.

Research your state’s requirements ahead of time so you’re well prepared to apply for state licensing once you pass the CDR.

Step 5: Apply for dietitian jobs

Once you’ve completed steps one through four, it’s time to start applying for dietitian jobs!

Your job application will be the final obstacle to becoming a dietitian, and it’s essential that you craft an amazing resume and cover letter to secure your dream job.

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When you’ve got years of work experience, impressive academic experience, and a dietetic internship, it can be tough to decide what’s appropriate to include on your resume and cover letter. Here are some great tips and tricks that will help impress potential employers.

Not sure where to start the hunt for a dietitian job? Not to worry — head over to Jobcase’s job board and insert your desired position and location. From there, you can find immediately available dietitian positions across the country.

Step 6: Maintain your state license

Unfortunately, your hard work doesn’t end once you’ve secured a dietitian job. You’ll need to renew your state license to maintain your position as a registered dietitian.

Much like obtaining state licensure, every state has different requirements for renewing your dietitian license. While almost all require continuing education credits, each will have a different renewal period.

For example, California requires dietitians to pursue 75 continued education credits over five years to renew their state license. On the other hand, Pennsylvania requires 30 continued education credits over two years to apply for license renewal.

Prospective dietitians should look into their state renewal policies ahead of time so they’re prepared to maintain their licensure. If your home state requires renewal every two years, you’ll want to complete continued education courses before your license expires.

FAQs about dietitians

How do dietitians differ from nutritionists?

To become a dietitian, you need to obtain an advanced degree, complete an internship, and pass the CDR exam. Dietitians can be considered nutritionists because they help a wide variety of individuals with health concerns and teach their clients about healthy food options.

However, nutritionists have fewer educational requirements than dietitians. Some states don’t require post-secondary education at all — meaning that a person can call themself a nutritionist without specific training.

Is completing a dietitian degree hard?

The academic requirements for becoming a dietitian will change in January 2024, meaning that completing a dietitian degree will become harder at that point for prospective applicants.

Originally, dietitians only needed a bachelor’s degree to sit for the CDR exam and apply for state licensure. But unless you are eligible for the CDR exam by the end of 2023, you’ll need a master’s or doctoral degree to become certified as a registered dietitian.

Additionally, many degree programs include a dietetic internship in their academic requirements. While this will help students meet the required 1,200 hours for the CDR exam, it can be challenging to complete.

The vast majority of dietetic internships are unpaid — which makes obtaining a dietitian degree difficult for many. Students who come from low-income households or have children may have difficulty working unpaid internships while keeping up with their bills and supporting their families.

How stressful is a job as a dietitian?

Becoming a dietitian, while fulfilling, can also be stressful.

For many dietitians, the initial new patient appointments are tough. New patients have often recently received a troubling diagnosis from their physician — which means they might still be coping with their emotions and the idea of changing their diet completely.

Helping patients understand that they need to alter their daily routine and eating habits can be stressful, as well. Considering that fruits, vegetables, and other healthy ingredients can be expensive, low-income families may struggle to be able to follow dietary advice.

Find a dietitian job today

Are you ready to start helping patients pursue a healthy lifestyle by offering them dietary advice? The booming dietician field is ready to accept new professionals! All you need to do is complete an ACEND-accredited degree program, finish an internship, and pass the CDR exam.

Once you have your state license as a registered dietitian, it’s time to find a job. Take a look at the current listings on Jobcase and start your search for your dream career today.

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