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Become a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist

Dietitians help people live healthy and active lives through the transformative power of food and nutrition. Learn about the dietetics profession, career options, pathways to the RDN credential, types of accredited dietetics education programs and more.

Dietitians help people live healthy and active lives through the transformative power of food and nutrition.

Registered Dietitian Nutritionists (RDNs) are food and nutrition experts with a minimum of a graduate degree from an accredited dietetics program, who completed a supervised practice requirement, passed a national exam and continue professional development throughout their careers. There also are specialty credentials in areas of gerontological nutrition (CSG), sports dietetics (CSSD), pediatric nutrition (CSP), renal nutrition (CSR) and oncology nutrition (CSO). Board-certified specialists are credentialed by the Commission on Dietetic Registration, the credentialing agency for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

Career options and specialty areas for dietitians are diverse and flexible. RDNs can:

  • perform medical nutrition therapy as part of the health care team in hospitals, clinics or other health care facilities.
  • manage foodservice operations in hospitals, school districts, colleges and universities, long-term care facilities, day-care centers, correctional facilities and more — overseeing everything from food purchasing and preparation to setting menus and managing staff.
  • consult with food companiesfoodservice or restaurant managers, food vendors and distributors, nursing home residents or company employees in corporate wellness programs.
  • develop public awareness campaigns in community and population health settings to improve peoples' quality of life through healthy eating habits.
  • help athletes, police forces, firefighters and members of the military understand the connection between food, fitness and performance in the field.
  • work in communications, consumer affairs, public relations, marketing or product development for food and nutrition-related businesses and industries.
  • educate physicians, nurses, dietetics students and other health practitioners the sophisticated science of nutrition and dietetics in universities and medical centers, .
  • conduct dietetics research to answer critical nutrition questions and find alternative foods or nutrition recommendations for the public.

Salaries and Job Outlook

According to the 2021 Compensation & Benefits Survey of the Dietetics Profession, the median full-time salary of RDNs is $72,000 per year. As with any profession, salaries and fees vary by region of the country, employment settings, scope of responsibility and supply of RDNs. Salaries increase with experience and many RDNs — particularly those in business, management, education and research — earn incomes above $90,000.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment of dietitians is projected to grow 7% from 2021-2031, as fast as the average for all occupations, because of the increased emphasis on the role of food and nutrition in preventing and treating diseases, a growing and aging population and public interest in nutrition.

How Do I Become an RDN?

To become a registered dietitian nutritionist, you will need to:

  1. Earn a minimum of a graduate degree from an accredited dietetics program. Classes vary according to program, but in general, coursework covers subjects that may range from food and nutrition sciences, foodservice systems management, business, economics, computer science, culinary arts, sociology and communication to science courses such as biochemistry, physiology, microbiology, anatomy and chemistry. A master's degree is required to be eligible for the RDN exam. Some accredited programs include a master's degree, while other students complete their undergraduate in dietetics and earn a master's degree in another field (e.g. public health, communications, etc.).
  2. Complete a supervised practice requirement. In addition, individuals must complete at least 1,000 hours of supervised practice to gain real-world experience and apply knowledge learned in the classroom to the context of a variety of work settings.
  3. Pass a national exam for RDNs. Once you complete your degrees and supervised practice, you may schedule to take CDR's Registration Examination for Registered Dietitians to become a credentialed as registered dietetics nutritionist. This is called "RDN eligibility," meaning you have completed the requirements to become eligible to take the national exam.
  4. Meet requirements to practice in your state. Many states have regulatory laws (i.e. licensure) for food and nutrition practitioners. All states accept the RDN credential for state licensure purposes.
  5. Stay up-to-date in dietetics through continuing education. After successfully passing the national exam and earning the credential, RDNs maintain ongoing professional development in order to stay up to date on the latest research, recommendations and best practices.

Dietetics education programs in colleges and universities are accredited by the Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics — or ACEND. As an accrediting agency, ACEND makes sure that students preparing for careers as RDNs are getting the education they need to qualify for taking the national RDN exam.

There are several kinds of accredited dietetics education programs — each offering a different experience and "pathway" to RDN eligibility.

Pathway: Coordinated Programs (CP)

Coordinated programs combine classroom learning with supervised practice experiences within one program. When you graduate from a coordinated program, you satisfy both the graduate degree and supervised practice requirements and are eligible to take the national RDN exam.

Pathway: Didactic Programs in Dietetics (DPD) + Dietetic Internships (DI)

This pathway consists of two education programs: First you complete a Didactic Program in Dietetics, which is your classroom coursework. Then you enroll in an accredited Dietetic Internship for supervised practice in real work settings. A master's degree must be completed prior to entering a DI program or during the DI program, concurrently with supervised practice. The majority of students who choose this pathway apply for a DI position through a competitive online matching process. However, some DPDs have placement agreements with DIs to ensure their graduates secure dietetic internship positions. If you are considering applying to a Didactic Programs in Dietetics, ask whether the program includes "pre-select matching."

Students who graduate from both a DPD and a DI and have completed a master's degree meet both the degree and supervised practice requirements to take the national RDN exam. Most DPDs offer bachelor's degrees, while others satisfy the minimum graduate degree requirement. DI programs will either offer a master's degree as part of their program, require interns to complete a master's degree of their choosing while they complete the DI, or require interns to complete a master's degree prior to entering the DI program.

Pathway: Future Education Model (FEM) Graduate Program in Nutrition and Dietetics (GP)

This pathway consists of graduate-level coursework and supervised experiential learning incorporated into a one graduate degree program. When you graduate from a GP, you satisfy both the degree and supervised practice requirements to be eligible to take the national RDN exam.

Note: It's important to differentiate accredited GPs from other master's or doctorate programs that may not include the specific coursework or supervised practice required RDN eligibility. Examples are advanced degrees in disciplines that existing RDNs might pursue to complement their credential but that are not accredited by ACEND for their graduates to be eligible to take the national RDN credentialing exam.

Accredited Program Directory

Choosing the Right Program

While all ACEND-accredited programs meet the standards and requirements for graduates to become RDNs, the decision about which school or program to attend is personal and should be made based on a variety of factors that are important to you, such as:

  • Size of school and program: Would you be more comfortable in a small private school or a large state (public) university?
  • Cost: Can you afford a private school or is a state-supported school a better value for you?
  • Available financial aid: What resources are available to you?
  • Geographic location: Do you prefer a rural or urban setting, residential or commuter school? Several programs also offer distance education.
  • Faculty composition and qualifications: Have you visited the website or campus and talked with faculty?
  • Degree awarded: Do you want to begin with a bachelor's degree or immediately purse a graduate degree?
  • Success of graduates in obtaining internship placement and jobs: How well do graduates do after completing the program?
  • Success of graduates in pursuing career goals: What are your career goals and do they match the goals of the program?

Talk with program directors (contact information is in the Accredited Program Directory), discuss the program details and ask to visit. It is sometimes helpful to speak with current students and graduates, or RDNs and NDTRs located in the area near the program for insights that may be helpful in making a decision.

The Application Process

Application requirements and admission processes vary depending by program type. For information on applying to accredited dietetics programs, you must research each specific programs requirements and processes. (The programs' websites are listed in the Accredited Program Directory.)

Financial aid

There are many resources to help students pay for college. You may be able to obtain a grant or scholarship from a corporation, community or civic group, philanthropic or religious organization, or directly from your chosen school or college. Federal grants and low-interest loans may also be available.

  • State and Local Sources of Financial Aid: Financial assistance is essential for many students enrolled in dietetics education programs. Information about student aid should be sought from the financial aid office or administrator at individual institutions. Additional sources include the state higher education agency and local civic, professional and community organizations or foundations. Detailed information about federal grants and loans administered by the United States Department of Education is available at the Federal Student Aid website.
  • Academy Scholarships: Progress in the educational and scientific advancement of dietetics inspires friends and members of the profession to make funds available for qualified candidates to receive scholarships through contributions to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics Foundation. In addition, some state and local dietetic associations may offer scholarships to prospective students in their area. You should contact these groups directly for more information.
  • International Financial Assistance and Resources Directory: Made possible through the Wimpfheimer-Guggenheim Fund for International Exchange in Nutrition, Dietetics and Management, this 90-page directory is a reference for U.S. and international students and professionals seeking funding for professional study, work experience or research in their home country or abroad.

Career Changers and International Students

If you are interested in a nutrition career, you can become a RDN or a NDTR — even if you have a degree in a different area of study. If you already have a degree from a U.S. institutional-accredited college or university that is recognized by the United States Department of Education, you will need to have your college transcripts evaluated by a director of an accredited dietetics program. Because the policies, procedures and costs for the transcript evaluation may vary from one institution to another, you may want to contact more than one dietetics program for further information. The program director will evaluate your previous academic preparation and identify the courses that you will need to complete at that school to meet the educational requirements for dietetic registration. It may be possible to complete the required dietetics coursework while enrolled in a graduate program. The dietetics program director can advise you of your options.

If you completed your education and training outside of the United States, or received credentials in another country, you may be eligible to become credentialed practitioner in the U.S.  Individuals who have completed the education and credentialing requirements in one country may be eligible for another country's credentialing examination if the two countries have entered into a "reciprocity" agreement to allow this. If reciprocity does not apply, you must have your academic degree validated as equivalent to the bachelor's or master's degree conferred by a US regionally-accredited college or university and complete any additional required course work plus an ACEND-accredited supervised practice requirement to establish your eligibility to sit for the exam. It is important to note that all individuals who establish registration eligibility — whether under the provisions of a reciprocity agreement or through the combination of a validated academic degree and supervised practice program — must successfully pass the RDN exam. Visit ACEND to learn more.

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