Becoming a Dietitian

Several career paths are available.

Registered Dietitian

To become a Registered Dietitian (RD), you need to complete at least a bachelor’s degree from a U.S. regionally-accredited college or university that uses dietetics coursework and a supervised practice program accredited by the Commission on Accreditation for Dietetics Education (CADE), the accrediting body for the American Dietetic Association. In addition, you must pass the registration exam for dietitians.

Class work can include college courses in food and nutrition science, foodservice systems managements, economics, culinary arts, anatomy and physiology, chemistry, microbiology, and communication. The supervised practice programs, also referred to as dietetic internships, contain a minimum of 1,200 supervised practice hours. Students gain hands-on experience in a variety of settings under the supervision of preceptors. The programs typically range in length from 10 to 12 months. Some programs offer distance learning courses.

There are two ways to complete the educational requirements:

1. Complete a CADE-accredited Coordinated Program in Dietetics (CPD). This type of program offers both the required coursework and the supervised practice along with at least a bachelor's degree.

2. Complete a CADE-accredited Didactic Program in in Dietetics (DPD). This type of program offers only the required coursework, along with at least a bachelor's degree. After you complete the DPD, you must also apply to and successfully complete a CADE-accredited Dietetic Internship.

Specialized Training and Advanced Degrees

RDs can get additional certifications in such specialized areas as diabetes education, nutrition support and pediatric or renal nutrition. Master’s degrees and PhDs are available under such names as “nutrition” or ”human nutrition” and “food science” or “nutrition science.” Some dietitians find it is helpful to earn a complementary degree in such fields as management, public health or education.

Dietetic Technicians

Dietetic Technicians (DTRs) hold an associate-level degree and typically work under the supervision of a Registered Dietitian or nutritionist. In addition to dietetic course work, you need at least 450 hours of supervised practical experience at a CADE-accredited Dietetic Technician program. Graduates of these programs are eligible to take the Registration Examination for Dietetic Technicians.

Advice for Students Who Want to be Dietitians

Juanita (“Kit”) Hines, Menominee, RD, LD, recommends that prospective dietitians take classes in food production, nutrition and management.

Meriah Gille, Choctaw/Cherokee/Siouan, RD says, “Becoming a dietitian is pretty competitive, so stay strong in science and math. Don’t opt out of courses, even if you can. Stay strong in computers. They are a major part of the future in health care.”

Brenda Bodnar, Carrier Tribe First Nations, RD, CDE, stresses the importance of good study and reading skills. At times, during her training, she was overwhelmed by all that she had to learn. “I decided to focus on one semester at a time,” she said. “Each time I completed a class, I was one step closer to my goal.”

Valora Tom, Navajo, RD, suggests being involved with programs that focus on science and math, such as AISES or Upward Bound. “Learn about your culture, including your food culture,” she says. “To see what the work is like, shadow a dietitian.”

Native-Focused Internships

To be eligible for the following dietetic internships, candidates must have completed a didactic program in dietetics and earned at least a bachelor’s degree.

Southwestern Dietetic Internship Consortium

The Southwestern Dietetic Internship, offered by Phoenix Indian Medical Center (PIMC) and Kayenta Health Center, is designed to prepare dietetic professionals to work in both urban and rural American Indian communities. Interns have a wide range of supervised experiences at PIMC - a hospital that provides comprehensive health care services for American Indian people from over 30 tribes. Working with interdisciplinary teams, interns offer nutritional support and education to hospitalized patients with such problems as malnutrition and the complications of advanced diabetes. Interns spend time in relevant parts of the hospital, including the pharmacy and the food service department where they learn about all aspects of managing a large food service operation. Interns have hands-on experiences in the PIMC outpatient clinic and also travel to field clinics and participate in nutrition programs at six different tribal locations in the Phoenix area.

To complement their urban experiences, for six weeks, interns experience the challenges and rewards of providing nutrition education and care in rural Kayenta, which is located on the Navajo Reservation. They also participate in the administration of health programs for this population that doesn’t have access to much fresh produce and includes households that do not have electricity and running water. 

(See the profile of
Valora Tom who completed the internship.)

For more information contact
Southwestern Dietetic Internship Consortium
Edith M Clark, MBA, RD, CDE
Fax: 602/263-1649

University of Alaska Dietetic Internship

Registered dietitians are in high demand in Alaska. The UAA Dietetic Internship, through its concentration in Alaska Native culture and the Alaska healthcare delivery system, helps prepare dietitians to work in both urban and rural areas in Alaska. After a two-week orientation, which includes an introduction to Alaskan Native foods and customs, interns work and learn for three weeks in rural communities. When they return to Anchorage for the balance of their nine-month internship, they are assigned to one of the three hospitals in Anchorage. All interns continue to care for Alaskan Native people, particularly if they are based at the Alaska Native Medical Center. Having experienced slow-paced rural communities, interns better understand the challenges facing Alaskan Natives who have had to leave their homes to get medical care in a big hospital in the relatively fast-paced city of Anchorage where people speak quickly.

For more information contact:
University of Alaska Dietetic Internship
Carrie King, Cherokee, MS, RD, LD, CDE
Fax: 907/786-1402
cover_lg This article was originally published in the Summer, 2009 issue of Winds of Change. (The cover artist is William Rabbit, Cherokee.)