Over the years I’ve gotten quite a few emails lately from some readers about nutrition, making a career change, and applying to graduate school.
I remember being just as confused when I first started looking into nutrition programs, so I decided to put together a FAQ post to share some of my background, experiences, and advice as it pertains to changing careers and going back to school to become a dietitian.
If you’re just beginning to research careers in dietetics and want a comprehensive overview of the journey to becoming a dietitian, I recommend checking out my friend Anne’s post, How to Become a Dietitian, too!
Frequently Asked Questions: Becoming a Dietitian & Graduate School
Did you study nutrition as an undergrad?
I did not. I majored in Communications with an emphasis on broadcasting, thinking I wanted to be a news journalist. An internship at Fox in Boston quickly changed my mind. I worked in marketing for about a year and then totally randomly moved to North Carolina and took a job in grant administration at UNC. I contemplated many career changes in my early 20s, everything from fashion design to physical therapy.
How & when did you decide to pursue a degree & career in nutrition?
I developed a personal interest in nutrition after college. After struggling with disordered eating and body image issues for years, I began eating whole foods, ditched extreme diets for good and began listening to my hunger cues. Ultimately, these changes allowed me to stop obsessing over ever little imperfection and every calorie I put in my mouth. I experienced how powerful whole foods and good nutrition are and decided to go back to school to pursue a career as a Registered Dietitian when I was 24 – so I could help others achieve the same healthy balance.
How did you decide on a Master’s Degree?
Starting in 2024, all dietitians will be required to have a Master’s degree. Currently though, you essentially need to have either a Bachelor’s or Master’s Degree in nutrition. There is a way to do it without but by the time you take all the classes and jump through all the hoops, it’s easiest and wisest to get the degree.
With almost no science background, I initially thought I’d have to get a second Bachelor’s degree in nutrition. Not true. Most, if not all, Master’s programs allow non-nutrition majors to apply as long as the required prerequisites have been completed.
Since it was going to require a lot of work and student loans either way, I ultimately chose the Master’s degree based on the quality of education and training, and higher earning potential.
Would you recommend a coordinated or uncoordinated (didactic) program?
There are a couple of different ways to becoming a RD but if you are going to pursue a degree, either a Bachelors or Masters, I’d personally recommend the coordinated programs. These programs are designed and accredited so that you meet all of the criteria to take the national R.D. exam upon graduation, coursework and internships combined. Contrastingly, RD students in didactic programs must finish their coursework and then complete their internships, which involves entering a lottery and “match” into an internship spot, just like medical students matching into residency. Students may not get their first, second or third choice…. The last I heard there are more dietetic students than internship spots which means that some students in uncoordinated programs may not get an internship the first time around. I’ve found this makes coordinated programs more desirable and ultimately, more competitive.
How did you complete all of the prerequisites for your graduate program?
At the time I decided to pursue a Master’s in nutrition, I was conveniently employed by a university. Part of the benefits of being a full-time employee at The University of North Carolina is a tuition credit. This allowed me to take up to three courses per academic year for free.
This worked out perfectly because many of the prerequisites were sequential. For example, I had to take Anatomy & Physiology before General Chemistry, General Chemistry before Organic Chemistry.
I kept my full-time job and took all seven of my prerequisites one at a time. I highly recommend getting a job with similar perks if you can swing it! A lot of my friends took their prerequisites local community colleges while also working full-time which is typically more affordable than taking classes at a university. Before enrolling in any course, it’s a good idea to check with the programs you plan to apply to to make sure they will accept the credits from whatever school you’re considering.
What resources did you find useful when deciding which programs to apply to?
The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics has a great page for aspiring RD students. It used to be really confusing but I think it’s gotten better over the years. The site lists all of the accredited programs, both undergraduate and graduate, all over the country. I recommend clicking through the ones that interest you and researching individual programs online. Emailing program coordinators with specific questions is incredibly helpful too.
Once you find a program that fits, what do you think is most critical for acceptance?
Experience. Nutrition-related experience is great but don’t discount life experience either. A lot of graduate programs take into consideration what you’ve done since undergrad and often prefer applicants with a few years of work, school & volunteer experience after college. Undergraduate GPAs & GRE scores are important but they’re not the end-all, be-all.
Focus on current volunteer & work opportunities, networking and doing well in your perquisite courses. Here are just a few ideas & tips:
- Volunteer at a food bank or get involved with nutrition programs like Share Our Strength.
- Shadow a Registered Dietitian to get a feel for the profession. Talk about the good, the bad and the ugly parts of the job.
- Research your top 2 programs, inside and out. Visit the schools and make an appointment to chat with faculty you find interesting and/or admission committee members.
- Highlight all of your pertinent experience in your application, no matter how small it seems.
- Don’t be afraid to send an addendum with your latest activities or an additional reference letter once your application is in. I did both of these things. It lets the admissions committee know you’re dedicated and you care enough to follow up.
How difficult is it to be accepted at UNC?
Applicant pools vary and admissions committees change from year to year so it’s really tough to say. UNC has a very competitive public health program. You can look at all of the admission statistics from the previously admitted class and beat yourself up over that C in Organic Chemistry like I did but I don’t recommend it. It’s a complete waste of time. You’ll likely just end up stressed out and feeling inadequate.
My biggest bit of advice is to invest in building a strong, well-rounded application. Don’t discount experiences that may seem small or insignificant either.
I met with one of the admissions committee members before applying and asked her the top thing she recommend I do to build a stronger application. She said, “Spend a morning shadowing a clinical dietitian and add that experience to your application.” She then gave me the name and number of one of her colleagues. Simple enough!
What are your most meaningful experiences, internships, and classes since you’ve started your degree?
I’ve always seen myself working as a clinical dietitian and helping people 1-on-1 with nutrition so I naturally liked and did well in my clinical courses related to patient counseling, assessment and medical nutrition therapy. I’ve most enjoyed my and dietetic internship at UNC Hospitals. I completed 12 weeks working in adult, inpatient nutrition this summer and am now working on 10 weeks in pediatrics.
What do you see yourself doing with your degree?
I’ve been asking myself that question a lot lately! A year ago I would have said I see myself working in a hospital as a clinical dietitian. I enjoy helping patients in the hospital but as you can probably tell, I’m also a fairly creative person and there’s not much room for creativity in critically ill patients. This has me contemplating a combination of other options like building a private practice, doing freelance nutrition writingm and also growing my blog.
How are you funding your education, and what resources would you recommend?
Student loans, and lots of them. Leaving a full-time job and living on loans was hard, but worth it. UNC has one of the lowest in-state tuition rates among state schools in the country. My degree cost about half as it would if I weren’t a North Carolina resident, but it’s still a lot of money when you consider all of the income you won’t be earning while in school full-time.
I recommend looking at state school programs and establishing residency before applying. If you’ve got an impressive application, talk with schools to see what potential funding is available. Keep in mind the starting salary of a Registered Dietitian and let that help guide you in choosing what schools to apply to. A more expensive degree isn’t usually any better.
How many other schools did you apply to? Would you even recommend applying to multiple schools if you know where you want to go?
I only applied to one other school, The University of Washington in Seattle. I did this so I’d still have a chance at starting grad school in the Fall of 2010 even if I weren’t accepted to UNC.
If I had to do it over again, I would only apply to UNC. Honestly, I had almost no intention of going to U. Washington solely because I’d be paying out-of-state tuition. If you absolutely know where you want to go, commit to it. Visit the school and meet with admission committee members to talk about the program and application process. Let them know you want in. Applying to other programs will be a waste of your precious time and money.
What are some things you wish someone had told you before you applied?
- Don’t stress over that C in Organic Chemistry. It doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things.
- Don’t obsess over the previous year’s admission statistics to predict your odds of getting in. It’s a waste of time.
- Don’t freak out about having to make all new friends. Nutrition students usually have a lot of things in common. I met some incredible girls who are now some of my best friends purely because we all loved to run.
The UNC Master’s of Public Health in Nutrition) is relentless. The UNC admissions committee and faculty are now using this word to describe the MPH in Nutrition program to applicants because it’s an intensely busy 2 1/2 years. I consider myself to be pretty persevering but there were even a couple of brief moments throughout the past 2 1/2 years that I questioned my desire to complete the program.
Making a career change, especially one that involves leaving a job and going back to grad school is a huge decision! I hope I answered most of the big questions but feel free to ask additional ones in the comments below.