Should You Become a Registered Dietitian (RD)?

I’m not cut out for medical school. I was a student intern in my hometown’s hospital for one summer. I was a new college graduate, about to start my dietetic internship, and completely unsure of the path my career might take. Hospitals are weird places. Not everyone is up for spending their days walking the hallways of any given floor—surgical, pediatrics, ICU or NICU, etc.—past the rooms of people who are experiencing some of their lowest lows. I was shaking the first time I walked into a patient’s room. I only had three questions to ask; Patient only wanted to sleep and be left alone for five damn minutes. One time the person I was about to go “assess” died minutes before I arrived. One time I took a nap in the meditation room. (I now know of a better use for those rooms—actual meditation.) One time I visited with a young dude who had Cystic Fibrosis; he knew every nurse on the floor and had opinions about the food menu. Many times I was asked to review a doctor’s notes for something specific, I could hardly read or understand the entries.

I was sure that nutrition was the right field for me, but that summer gave me pause. Should I study for the MCAT? I don’t want to be the “nutrition person” in the hospital, I thought. I wanted to be the person who knew more than which diet might be right for someone, how many calories or milligrams of sodium they should be restricted to. I wanted to know the list of medicines that could help with Patient’s A or B problem. I wanted to decipher the acronym codes to identify a diagnosis and treatment plan. I wanted to think beyond a diet list, nutrients, and trays of food. (Oh how little I knew about the full potential of a dietitian in clinical nutrition.) So, I thought, OBVIOUSLY I should go to medical school.

A few nights of flipping through an MCAT prep book suggested otherwise. My early days of being repulsed by my dad’s medical journals on the kitchen table, with photos of something gruesome and pussy, suggested otherwise. The time I almost fainted in a hospital room while a 5 year old little gal—newly diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes—had her blood drawn, suggested that medical school was maybe not going to be My Thing.

Episode 24: It is a VERY small (dietetic) world
Listener question: Should I become a registered dietitian?

As it turned out, I did enjoy clinical nutrition.

My clinical internship rotations at St Agnes, Children’s National Medical Center, and the Baltimore VA hospitals were good experiences. I enjoyed the calculations, assessments, mostly predictable schedules, and getting in some steps throughout the day by walking the halls. I enjoyed the registered dietitians I interned with. I have very few memories of being miserable or uncomfortable during those days, unless you count the feeling of not being an expert, or even, ya know, “good” dietitian yet. I had a LOT of questions. I was once told I asked questions like a medical student and I was like HUMPH—OR A CURIOUS NUTRITION STUDENT. (I probably said something more respectful. I hope.)

Now, I get asked questions all the time about the profession of dietetics. People are more interested in nutrition by the day; our world is saturated with diet information and people have QUESTIONS. The top query has to do with a career switch, though. It’s a hard one for me to answer.

Should you become a registered dietitian?

Maybe.

All of the above is relevant (I promise) to your RD question in that I decided M and D were not my letters. They were appealing on many levels (Know all the things! Diagnose the things! Learn all about the human body!), and not appealing on many more. (In no particular order: money, time in school, and cannot with gruesome wounds or sutures, fainting-at-sight-of-blood.) Maybe clinical nutrition wasn’t going to be my jam, but it taught me a lot about nutrition and myself and what I want in a daily work routine. Clinical was the thing I feared most about the internship, and one of the experiences I liked the best. It still didn’t have to be my dietetic career of choice. And it wasn’t.

OK, but I hate the idea of clinical nutrition. Will I survive?

This specific question about whether to become a registered dietitian, with more background about the asker’s education and current career path, came to my podcast inbox last week. I received it an hour before recording an episode with Emily Wetzel; she works as a clinical dietitian. I’m paraphrasing the entire question, because it’s essentially what many nutrition students have asked me (and many other RDs).

Should I become a registered dietitian? Even if I hate (the idea of) clinical nutrition?

Emily is little closer to her internship experience, and does some contract work in clinical nutrition. The asker seems sure that she would like to skip the clinical internship rotation altogether. It makes the entire becoming-a-registered-dietitian process less appealing to her. So, is it the right path? I can’t answer that question for her or you (nobody can), but Emily and I had a good conversation about why you might choose to become a registered dietitian, or anything else.

Let’s acknowledge something, first.

This phase of self exploration requires acknowledging at least one uncomfortable truth: In any job, you will do (a lot of) things you don’t enjoy. Had I chosen medical school, that list of “things I don’t enjoy” would have been VERY long. It was shorter with nutrition, and I was more excited about the other things I do enjoy. Clinical may not be your jam. But, how do you know that now? I didn’t love my summer hospital internship, but it wasn’t terrible. I didn’t come out of it excited for my clinical rotation. Yet, I happened to enjoy my clinical rotations—maybe because I got to do way more than ask, “Have you lost weight recently? Is your appetite normal?”—even though clinical didn’t feel like the right career move for me.

become a registered dietitian clinical nutrition

Once you’ve accepted the uncomfortable truth about doing things you don’t love (hi, welcome to adulting), then think about what jobs you’re interested in. Might they require the RD certification? If that’s even a hesitant yes, it may be worth it to go for it now. Don’t let not having the certification hold you back. If you want to work with people one-on-one, or be a spokesperson, or write and educate the masses (or small specific groups of interest to you) about nutrition, please become a registered dietitian and be an advocate for the process and our profession, not an online nutrition certification. If you’re more interested in policy, communications with companies, or marketing, a master’s degree may be a better fit. Even then, the registered dietitian certification may benefit you. (The person who wrote in with this question is currently getting a master’s degree. I know a lot of RDs who work in PR, marketing, and communications.)

Let’s also acknowledge that the dietetic internship is an unpaid internship.

You will have to complete a dietetic internship program if you choose to become a registered dietitian. You, question-asker, with your forthcoming graduation and MS letters, may not want to spend yet another year not working full time. I get that. We all have adulting to do. But in the grand scheme of life, it is one year. If you are privileged enough to survive this financial position, or could get help from family or a scholarship or a part-time job, it might be best to do the dietetic internship now versus later. I did some freelance writing during my internship, for a site that helped college students find and apply for jobs and internships. I have clients who worked at a fitness studio (bonus: free classes!). I know other people who had a blog set up and did some sponsored posts or had ads running to generate a small income.

Get creative, literally. Know your financial limits. Consider applying for programs that cost less, or are close to family you could stay with. Explore programs that allow for part-time work. There are options.

What you plan to do with your RD certification?

When you think “become a registered dietitian and join the ranks!” does it feel exciting? Do you have dreams about how you’ll influence the profession, people you’ll network or partner with, companies you want to work for? Does it feel exciting? Is it more exciting than something else? I am not offended if you say no. These are your life decisions. These are a few of many big considerations.

Talk to other RDs. Keep asking if you should become a registered dietitian.

Listen to what Emily and I had to say on the podcast about our own experiences. If you’re still on the fence, look up a few dietetic internship options in locations that work for you. Find a graduate to speak with, ask your questions. Keep exploring this. Keep the option to become a registered dietitian open if it feels important to you. Don’t be ashamed to say, “This is not for me.” We’ve all been there with something else. You can’t make the wrong choice.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be made public.