How to Become a Registered Dietitian (RD)

Registered dietitian (RD) is a popular career choice for many people interested in health and wellness. An RD can serve many roles in a community. You could work in a hospital or other medical facility and provide nutritional care to patients. Or, you could focus on population-level nutrition and work with nonprofits, government entities or educational institutions. 

Professional variety is only one benefit of becoming an RD. The career path of an RD offers livable wages with a median salary of $63,090 and has an expected job growth of 11% from 2020 to 2030. However, becoming a registered dietitian isn’t as easy as knowing about a healthy diet. Dietetics is a highly regulated profession where training and higher education matter, especially since most states require a license/certification to practice, and in order to become licensed, a secondary degree is required. By 2024, a minimum of a graduate degree in a related field is required to sit for the Registration Examination for Dietitians Test 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 their RD, 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). In your program application, be sure to include any specific background information or work history in nutrition that is required or that may qualify you for the next steps to become an RD.

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

According to ACEND, 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, according to ACEND, 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 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 attend 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 Commission on Dietetic Registration (CDR) exam is the most crucial step to earn the RD credential and become a registered dietitian. Once you have completed your degree and internship requirements, you can become validated by the CDR and should then take the registered dietitian exam. Rules are very strict regarding RD exam eligibility requirements. Remember to take a close look at the student options scenarios with different backgrounds, and make sure you are qualified to sit for the exam.

There are more than 250 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, 258 KB), which are valid through December 31, 2021, the test consists of:

  • 25% principles of dietetics
  • 40% nutrition care for individuals and groups
  • 21% management of food and nutrition programs and services
  • 14% foodservice systems

Step 4: Obtain a State License

The state where you wish to practice may require you to obtain a state license or certification before you can be employed. The CDR provides information on which states require additional licensure for registered dietitians. In some circumstances, you may be eligible for a license based on your degree, internship and exam result. Most states have their own state licenses, so it’s better to check and prepare in advance for the specific requirements of where you want to live and work. 

Step 5: Maintain State License and Registration

To maintain your credentials as an RD, you must complete 75 continuing education credits every five years, and one credit must be in ethics.

You are required to submit a learning plan and activity log within 120 days of completing your first activity. CDR offers a 120-day calculator to determine the deadline to submit your learning plan. You must pay an annual registration maintenance fee and maintain your MyCDR Page. This is your personal landing page, and your information should be up to date. 

Time to Complete Educational Requirements

It takes four to eight years or more to become a registered dietitian, depending on your career path and your 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 completing 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

It depends on if it’s a bachelor’s or master’s degree you are holding. 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 strong path if you wish to enter or remain in the public health field and focus on population-level nutrition and health. 

Is Becoming a Dietitian Worth It?

Becoming a registered dietitian is not a career path you should take lightly. Compared with nutritionists, it is a highly regulated industry that requires specific education, training, experience and licensure. However, it can be well worth it, considering the wages and your passion for helping others.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported that the 2020 national median pay for dietitians and nutritionists was $63,090 per year. The highest 10% of earners made more than $90,000 per year. The highest median salary was $69,660 in outpatient care centers, followed by $64,010 in government, $63,380 in hospitals and $60,330 in nursing and residential care facilities. 

The job growth of the dietitian and nutritionist profession is also promising: In 2020, there were 73,000 jobs, and the BLS expects this number to increase 11% by 2030.

According to the BLS, 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 create customized nutritional programs based on the health needs of patients.
  • Community dietitians develop programs and counsel the public on topics related to food, health and nutrition. 
  • Management dietitians work in food service settings such as cafeterias, hospitals, prisons and schools where they manage food programs. 

No matter which career path you choose, this is a great field to specialize in. The ability for RDs to work in private, nonprofit and government sectors allows for various learning opportunities and provides a well-respected salary. Registered dietitians also have the benefit of bettering the lives of individuals and families through nutrition and dietetics.

Information updated as of September 2021