While we've tried to make this article as general as possible, it's important to note that certain aspects of dietetic programs may differ depending on the country and university of interest. As most of our team has been trained in British Columbia, Canada, we'll be speaking mostly on behalf of this experience The requirements, application process, and internship experiences worldwide may not be representative of our experience in Canada.
What is a dietitian and what do they do?
A dietitian is a regulated healthcare professional that specializes in evidence-based nutrition. They provide both individual and population-based advice and counselling in these areas based on nutritional requirements, preferences, food access, budget, cooking skills and so on. They can work in a variety of areas including hospitals, clinics, schools, government, public health, research, food service etc. To learn more about the profession, looking into dietetic associations, such as Dietitians of Canada, can be insightful.
Is there a difference between a dietitian and a nutritionist?
Yes. At least there's a difference in Canada. A dietitian is a regulated profession and has the "protected title" of 'registered dietitian' or 'RD'. As an RD, a university degree from an accredited dietetic program, successfully completing an internship, passing the registration exam, continuing education, and being a member of the "college of dietitians" in a given region is required. On the other hand, a nutritionist isn't regulated in this way so there are no rules, per se, as to who can hold this title and what education is needed. In many cases, well-trained nutritionists are extraordinarily knowledgable in the field of nutrition, however, it's dietitians who have a standardized education in the area of clinical nutrition and may work in hospital settings in Canada.
What are the course requirements to get in?
This varies based on location and the school. We highly suggest reviewing the admission requirements on the university's website of interest to learn more about required courses, grades, deadlines and any other information needed. These pre-requisite courses typically take about 2-3 years to complete before one can apply to the dietetics program itself. The general requirements are completion of pre-requisite courses which are typical to many other "medically related" professional programs:
- biology (micro, macro)
- chemistry (inorganic and organic)
- various nutrition courses
- food science
- sociology and/or psychology
- statistics + math (some programs)
- physics (some programs)
What is the application process like?
Every university's application process is slightly different. Our university included a package containing all sorts of documents such as a completed application form, grade transcripts, a cover letter, a resume, and two sealed reference letter forms.
Grades: there's a minimum grade average based on required courses to be considered for the program. Due to the competitive nature, averages typically need to be significantly higher for a better chance of acceptance.
Extra-curricular activities: there may also be a way to showcase non-academic experiences through some form of a cover letter and/or resume. This is where passion for the program can be demonstrated.
References: usually from a manager, supervisor, or dietitian that can speak to the applicant's skills and relevant experience.
Interview: if shortlisted based on grades, extra-curriculars, and references, an invitation to an interview is sent. This is a chance to meet the program in person and answer questions similar to a job interview. The questions are generally to assess knowledge of the field and gain insight into teamwork and leadership capabilities.
General application tips
Volunteer with a dietitian: this is an extraordinary way to learn about the profession, and to have the opportunity to shadow an RD. Volunteering not only helps improve the application, it's also is a great way to meet dietitians and reaffirm our choice on whether or not to pursue a career in dietetics.
Seek help: contact the program's student service centre for help with the requirements and applications process. They're incredibly knowledgeable about the process and are more than happy to help. Another way to seek help is to have a friend or family member proofread the cover letter and resume before submitting them. It can be a massive help to get a fresh pair of eyes on the application forms.
Do some research: because programs tend to accept so few applicants, they want to ensure applicants know exactly what they're applying for, that they understand the profession, and what being a dietitian entails. In the interview, it's common to get questions along the lines of "explain what a dietitian is, their roles, and how they differ from a nutritionist". It's important not only for the application process but for us to know what exactly we're getting into.
In the program
How long is the program?
Again, this depends on the program itself and whether or not the internship is integrated into the program. Some programs will require an application for the internship after the in-class component. For us in British Columbia, the whole degree required 2-3 years of prerequisite courses, 2 years of an in-class component, and then 10 months of an internship.
What kinds of courses are taken?
The specific courses will vary depending on the university. Here's a glimpse of some of the courses we took:
- human physiology
- food & cooking theory
- research methods
- clinical nutrition: working with specific disease states such as diabetes, cancer, liver disease etc.
- population and public health
- food service management
- nutrition counselling
- electives: from which we have the freedom to pick and choose. Some examples of courses may include medical anthropology, pharmacology, horticulture, international nutrition, and the theory of counselling, though there are many more!
Again, we can't speak for other programs, but by the end of the degree, we had ample experience working in groups and leading presentations. This is for good reason as working as a dietitian means being a part of an interdisciplinary healthcare team. These skills prove to be vital since dietitians are in constant communication with other healthcare professionals and patients/clients. Almost every nutrition-related course included some type of group project with a final presentation. Perhaps it feels nerve-wracking at the time, but it truly refines our ability to work and communicate well in team settings.
Veganism & dietetics
Given that here at PUL we specialize in plant-based nutrition and recipes, we're often asked about the extent of our training on vegetarian/vegan diets. In our experience, we learned about it a little bit, but not incredibly in-depth - though we're sure its coverage has grown considerably in the last decade. For example, the position of the American Dietetic Association says that if properly followed, a vegetarian or vegan diet can offer health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases. One of the amazing things about training as a dietitian is being taught to read and analyze literature. In so, we make sure the information on our blog is backed up by validated information. Plant-based nutrition is becoming more positively acknowledged by mainstream dietetics, which gets us excited to see more research follow accordingly!
What's a dietetic internship & is it mandatory in order to be an RD?
A dietetic internship is a hands-on practicum that can range from 8-24 months. This is where dietetic students apply their academic knowledge in a variety of practical settings. In order to be a registered dietitian, as per the definition above, we're required to complete a clinical practicum or internship.
Internship routes may vary. Depending on the university, the internship may be integrated into the degree or it may require a separate application following the in-class component. To learn more about the internship component in a Canadian context, see the Dietitians of Canada page on internship routes. Our program in British Columbia was integrated, meaning that the internship is included and guaranteed upon acceptance to the program. Having the integrated internship route has many benefits. It greatly helps to reduce the stress of students trying to secure an internship and fosters a less competitive learning environment.
Where can we intern?
Depending on the school, there's a potential to intern anywhere in the province, state, or other respective region. There's a possibility of being placed somewhere that requires moving or perhaps the purchase of a car. These are all important factors to consider.
There are a variety of "rotations" that an intern completes throughout the course of their internship. This helps provide exposure to different areas of dietetics. It's not exclusive to a hospital setting. Long-term care facilities, outpatient services, and community organizations can be expected as well. It's well varied to give a taste of the many areas of practice. Here's a general glimpse of what it may look like:
Clinical nutrition: this is typically in an inpatient setting at a hospital. This will likely make up the bulk of the internship. Some of the rotations may include general surgery, transplant, critical care, cardiac settings, pediatrics etc.
Food service management: this is where the intern will gain exposure to the areas of hospital food services, cafeteria forecasting, food production and so on.
Population and public health: this pertains to nutrition on a broader scale of large populations and public health initiatives.
Research: this component is usually ongoing throughout the entire internship. It typically involves working with a group with other interns to take on a research project. It's a fantastic way to dip our toes into the field of research in a hands-on way.
Electives: There's also the flexibility to spend a given time, generally 2-3 weeks, interning in an area of our own choosing. It can vary from inpatient, outpatient, public health, private practice, sports nutrition, and so on.
What does the average day look like for a dietetic intern?
The internship is essentially like having a full-time job. It's typically Monday-Friday, 9 am - 5 pm give or take, which amounts to about 40 hours per week. It's also typically unpaid, but this may vary by country and program.
Starting as an intern typically begins with shadowing a dietitian. This means following them, observing, and slowly learning the ropes about their respective role. This is done with various dietitians in different settings or rotations. Interacting and working closely with other healthcare professionals such as nurses, doctors, occupational therapists etc. also makes up a big portion of days. Gradually, taking on more responsibility is required and this includes one-on-one time with patients. Other rotations may entail working in different settings. Overall, schedules and duties will vary based on the rotation. All the while, there are evaluation components in which the supervising dietitian provides constructive feedback on performance.
What happens after internship?
As mentioned earlier, part of becoming registered to practice means writing and passing the registration exam. This exam is designed to test knowledge, skills, and judgement as a dietitian based on what's been learned throughout the entire program.
Once the internship is completed, it's common for interns to be hired at the health authority/location they interned at. Full-time or part-time positions may be open depending on availability and the practice setting. New graduates may initially work as a "casual" dietitian which is a part-time position that floats between many different areas in a hospital as needed to cover maternity leaves, time off, etc. One of the beautiful things about the internship is that it provides exposure to so many areas of practice. We recommend keeping an open mind throughout the process and beyond as becoming a dietitian can take us anywhere!
- A dietitian is a regulated healthcare professional. Their area of expertise is evidence-based nutrition, and they can work in countless different settings such as hospitals, outpatient clinics, or in government.
- The application is fairly competitive. Typical parts of the application include a general application form, grade transcripts, a cover letter, a resume, and references.
- There are multiple steps. To become a registered dietitian, a university degree from an accredited program, successful completion of an internship, passing a registration exam, registering with a "college of dietitians" and continuing education is typically required.
- The program itself is diverse. The courses taken while in the in-class component can range from human physiology, public health, clinical nutrition, research methods, nutrition counselling, and much more!
- Everyone's internship experience is unique. In general, the internship provides hands-on exposure to clinical nutrition, food service management, population and public health, research, and a choice of electives.