How to Become a Registered Dietitian (RD)

Registered dietitian (RD) is a popular career choice for individuals interested in health and wellness. RDs assume diverse responsibilities within communities. As an RD, you could work in a hospital or other medical facility, providing nutritional care to patients. Or, you could work with larger populations as part of a nonprofit, government agency or educational institution.

One of the benefits of pursuing a career as an RD is the array of professional opportunities it can offer. With an aging population and individuals at risk of diseases such as diabetes, there is a growing need for these professionals. Employment of registered dietitians and nutritionists is expected to grow 7% from 2021 to 2031. As of 2021, registered dietitians and nutritionists earned a median annual salary of $61,650.

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While there are benefits that may come with the career, dietetics is a highly regulated profession where training and higher education matter. Most states require a license/certification to practice, and in order to become licensed, a postsecondary degree is required. By 2024, a minimum of a graduate degree in a related field is required to sit for the registered dietitians examination by the Commission on Dietetic Registration (CDR) exam. If you’re interested in becoming a registered dietitian, these are five steps you’ll need to complete:

Step 1: Earn an Accredited Bachelor’s or Master’s Degree

The first step to become a registered dietitian is to earn a degree in the area of nutrition and obtain a verification statement from an Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics (ACEND) accredited program. This is required in order to sit for the CDR exam. Currently, if an individual is interested in pursuing RD licensure, they may hold either a bachelor’s or master’s degree from an ACEND-accredited school; however, it is important to note that this will change in 2024. On January 1, 2024, a graduate degree will be the minimum requirement to sit for the CDR exam instead of a baccalaureate degree.

If you graduate before 2024 you may pursue a bachelor’s degree in clinical nutrition, dietetics, public health nutrition, or foods and nutrition. Your courses will focus on evidence-based nutrition, nutritional therapy, community nutrition, applied food principles and food service systems. 

If you would like to pursue a master’s degree, you might consider an ACEND-accredited master’s in nutrition or a coordinated degree program, such as a master’s in public health/registered dietitian (MPH/RD). When completing your program application, ensure that you incorporate any necessary or potentially qualifying background information or work experience in the field of nutrition.

Step 2: Complete a Dietetic Internship

You must obtain hands-on clinical experience through an internship after completing your nutrition program to become a registered dietician. This is true for individuals who have earned a master’s degree and not only those with bachelor’s degrees. 

You can go through a traditional Dietetic Internship (DI), a Coordinated Program (CP), or an Individualized Supervised Practice Pathway (ISPP). Whatever the program, you must complete 1,200 hours under the supervision of a licensed professional.

Dietitian Internship

To apply for a Dietetic Internship, you will use the online dietetic internship centralized application services (DICAS). Almost all internships take advantage of this system, and you can use it to be matched with appropriate DI and CP placements nationwide. If you are interested in an ISPP, you must pursue it through other avenues.

Internships range in duration from eight to 24 months. You may work on a part- or full-time basis. There also are online and distance internship options if you cannot complete a traditional one in person. 

You can choose an internship based on your interests and career goals. There are many programs that focus on clinical nutrition, medical nutrition therapy, community nutrition, pediatric nutrition, geriatric nutrition, food systems management, public health nutrition education and other areas. 

Coordinated Programs

Many prospective RDs earn a degree and then pursue an internship separately. There is also the option of applying to a Coordinated Program, which provides the essential Didactic Program in Dietetics (DPD) coursework as well as supervised practice. You can use an accredited Coordinated Program to obtain the necessary education and training required for the CDR exam.

A Dietetic Internship combined with graduate coursework is not an official Coordinated Program, though Coordinated Programs can be designed at the graduate degree level. 

Individualized Supervised Practice Pathways (ISPP)

Another option is pursuing an ISPP, which is meant to provide supervised practice through ACEND-accredited dietetic programs. There are two different types of ISPPs, one for Didactic Program in Dietetics graduates and one for doctoral degree holders.

  • ISPP for Didactic Program in Dietetics graduates (DPD)
    This option is for graduates who did not match with a dietetic internship but have a DPD verification statement. The DPD provides the required dietetics coursework leading to a bachelor’s or graduate degree. Graduates of the programs who are verified by the program director may apply for Dietetic Internships or ISPPs  to receive the supervised practice that is needed to be eligible to sit for the RD exam. 
  • ISPP for doctoral degree graduates
    You also can apply for an ISPP without a DPD verification statement if you have a doctoral degree. However, those students must pursue an ISPP that is approved to offer a track for individuals with a doctoral degree.

You can look for ISPPs by reviewing accredited education programs through ACEND, but please note that eligibility for specific ISPPs will vary by program. 

Step 3: Pass the Commission on Dietetic Registration (CDR) Exam

Passing the CDR exam is the most crucial step to earning the RD credential and becoming a registered dietitian. Upon completing your degree and fulfilling internship requirements, you can become validated by the CDR and then take the registered dietitian exam. Remember to take a close look at the exam eligibility requirements for candidates with different backgrounds, and make sure you are qualified to sit for the exam.

There are numerous testing locations. The exam is two and a half hours long and consists of up to 145 questions. Under the current Registered Dietitian Exam specifications (PDF, 164 KB), which are valid through December 31, 2026, the test consists of:

  • 21% Principles of dietetics
  • 45% Nutrition care for individuals and groups
  • 21% Management of food and nutrition programs and services
  • 13% Foodservice systems

Step 4: Obtain a State License

Before seeking employment in your desired state of practice, you may need to obtain a state license or certification. The CDR provides information on which states require additional licensure for registered dietitians. In some cases, you may be eligible for a license based on your degree, internship and exam result. Since many states have licenses of their own, it’s advisable to check and make plans to meet the specific licensing requirements of the location in which you intend to live and practice.

Step 5: Maintain State License and Registration

To maintain your registration with CDR, you must complete 75 continuing education credits every five years, and one credit must be in ethics.

Time to Complete Educational Requirements

It takes four to eight years or more to become a registered dietitian, depending on your career path and state. It may include four years of undergraduate work, two years for a master’s degree program, one-plus year of an internship, months of preparing for and taking the CDR exam, and extra time on the Coordinated Program and obtaining a license in your state if applicable.

How to Become a Registered Dietitian if You Already Have a Degree

The path to becoming an RD, in large part, depends on if you hold or plan to earn a bachelor’s or master’s degree. If you have a bachelor’s degree in required fields, you can complete a DPD program, receive a verification statement and move on to the next steps. If you are considering a master’s program, a Master of Public Health in nutrition is a viable option that can allow you to enter or remain in the public health field and focus on population-level nutrition and health.

Is Becoming a Dietitian Worth It?

Compared to nutritionists, dietitians function within a highly regulated industry that requires specific education, training, experience and licensure. However, the profession may prove rewarding, affording you the opportunity to pursue your passion for helping others. Earning potential may be another attractive aspect of the job.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median annual salary for dietitians and nutritionists was $66,450 in 2022. The highest 10% of earners made more than $95,130 per year. Dietitians and nutritionists working in outpatient care centers earned a median annual wage of $75,860, followed by those working for the government with $66,370, those employed by hospitals with $66,170 and those at nursing and residential care facilities with $64,310. 
Employment of dietitians and nutritionists is expected to grow 7% from 2022 to 2032. The BLS notes that most RDs work full time, but working hours are flexible. You may choose to meet with patients outside of normal business hours.

The BLS lists a number of different career paths for registered dietitians. Some options include:

  • Clinical dietitians provide medical nutrition therapy and design customized nutritional programs that address the health needs of patients.
  • Community dietitians create programs and provide guidance to the public on food, health and nutrition. 
  • Management dietitians work in food service settings such as cafeterias, hospitals, prisons and schools where they oversee food programs.

Last updated September 2023.