Become a Registered Dietitian

Karen is a registered dietitian who works for an employee wellness program at a state university. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Dietetics, a master’s degree in Higher Education Administration and an Ed.D. in Health Promotion. Here, she shares with us some of the details of her work and advice for those seeking nutrition jobs.

What are the major responsibilities associated with your job?

I oversee all nutrition programming for university employees. This includes coordinating a weight loss program and conducting weekly meetings, and providing free, individual nutrition consults to employees. I have to be a resource to the employees of the university by giving presentations to groups on campus and directing people to relevant nutrition information as requested. I also get to coordinate other nutrition programming such as cooking classes and bus rides to the local Farmers’ Market. In addition, I assist my colleagues with their health programming as needed.

What is your favorite aspect of your job?

I love the fact that people participate in our nutrition programs on a voluntary basis. They are never required to participate for any reason. I always know that when people seek my help, they have some internal motivation to learn or improve their health. When I did my dietetic internship in a hospital, I usually worked with people who were required to see me before they were discharged. This was a highly frustrating experience because it was obvious that most folks had no interest in what you were trying to do. In my current position, I am very grateful to know that I am spending my time and energy helping people that want to help themselves!

What is your least favorite aspect of your job?

The least favorite aspect of my job is the paperwork and recordkeeping that are required. Most dietitians enter the field because they enjoy working with people, so I think it is natural to feel this way. Luckily, I do not spend too much time per week on these activities (maybe 10-15% of my time) and I understand that it is required to ensure we document the effectiveness of our programming.

What skills does one need to be a good nutritionist/dietitian?

Very good communication skills (verbal and written), outgoing personality, ability to work with a diverse population, energetic, empathetic, problem-solving skills (as they relate to helping people change behaviors), flexibility (both in dealing with people and situations), ability to multi-task, organized and detail oriented especially as it relates to program planning.

How is a dietitian different than a nutritionist and why did you choose to become a dietitian?

When I was in high school deciding what career to pursue, I am not sure I ever even knew the difference between a nutritionist and dietitian.

So, I cannot say that had any influence on my decision at the time.

Dietitians and nutritionists often have similar training and experience, but dietitians usually have greater job responsibilities and earn higher salaries than nutritionists. Dietitians must complete a program that is accredited by the American Dietetic Association and fulfills a specific set of professional standards. To become a Registered Dietitian, you must pass a national exam administered by the American Dietetic Association after you have completed your bachelor’s degree and dietetic internship.

I would recommend that someone trying to decide between these two paths look at position descriptions for jobs in which they may be interested. Look to see what certifications and requirements are necessary for the specific kind of work you wish to do.

My personal opinion is that you will limit yourself more by becoming a nutritionist – being a dietitian keeps more opportunities open for you throughout your career. However, many people find that the internship requirement to become a dietitian is challenging to fulfill (6-12 months of full-time, unpaid work). If you believe this would not be practical for you to complete, then becoming a nutritionist is certainly the next best option for a career in nutrition.

What advice would you give someone seeking a nutrition job?

I truly believe that in this line of work, the best way to learn is by doing. It is one thing to learn about clinical nutrition in a college classroom, but it is quite another thing to explain to a person with a high-school education and limited income how they can limit their sodium intake to lower their blood pressure. Working with people always presents the opportunity to improve your skills and learn about yourself, so you want to get as much experience as possible.

I have many students that work with me on a volunteer basis simply to see what “real” dietitians do and to build their resume with a variety of experiences. Dietetics, and particularly dietetic internships, can be very competitive, so you want to get whatever edge you can.

Most cities have active dietetic associations in which students can participate, so I would highly encourage people to network this way. Students can often attend the functions (dinner meetings, conferences, etc.) at a reduced cost.

What part of your job might surprise people?

I came into this field very eager to make a difference and with the mindset that I was going to help everyone! While this is a noble goal, I have had to come to grips with the fact that I cannot help everyone. As I’ve gained experience working with people, I now understand that even when people seek your services, they are not always ready or willing to make the necessary behavior changes. It is very easy to let the 10% most difficult clients drain your time and energy!

I have had to learn to “let go” of the desire to help these people and spend my time and energy on people who truly are ready and willing to take action. This is not to say you cannot make progress with those challenging clients, but you have to know when to make the call that you can’t do anymore – the rest is up to them. I used to take the fact that those folks weren’t responsive to my advice very personally – I thought I was doing something wrong. But I know better now. I always try to remember that old saying “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink!”

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