Hi everyone, Mitra here - PUL team member and dietetic intern. We get loads of questions about what it's like to become a dietitian and we decided to write an article about what it entails, what to expect, and where it will take you. Follow us as we tackle some of PUL's most frequently asked questions on this topic!
While we've tried to make this article as general as possible, it's important to note that certain aspects regarding the requirements, application process, internship etc. may differ depending on your country and your university. Both Sadia and I have been trained in British Columbia, Canada and I'll therefore be speaking on behalf of this experience.
We've organized the questions as follows:
+ Before applying
+ In the program
a. in-class component
b. internship component
+ After graduation
Let's get to it!
What is a dietitian and what do they do?
A dietitian is a regulated healthcare professional that specializes in nutrition and diet. 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 a little more about the profession, check out this resource.
Is there a difference between a dietitian and a nutritionist?
Yes. At least there is a difference in Canada. A dietitian is a regulated profession and has the "protected title" of 'registered dietitian'. As an RD, you must have a university degree from an accredited dietetic program, have successfully completed an internship, have passed the registration exam and be a member of the "college of dietitians" in a given region. A nutritionist is not regulated in this way and therefore there are no rules, per se, as to who can hold this title and what education is required. In many cases, well-trained nutritionists are extraordinarily knowledgable in the field of nutrition, however it is dietitians who have a standardized education in the area of clinical nutrition and may work in hospital settings.
What are the Course requirements to get in?
This varies based on location and school. We highly suggest reviewing the admission requirements of the university's website that you are interested in too learn more about required courses, grades, deadlines and any other information you may need. These pre-requisite courses typically take about 2-3 years to complete before you 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
+ 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.
1. Grades: there is a minimum % average (based on required courses) to be considered for the program. Because of the competitive nature, averages typically need to be significantly higher for a better chance.
2. Extra-curricular activities: there may also be a way for you to showcase your non-academic experiences through some form of cover letter and/or resume. I appreciate it when a university looks at the applicant as a whole and considers their volunteer and work experience as opposed to exclusively focusing in on grades. This is where you can showcase your passion for the program.
3. References: from a manager/supervisor or (ideally) a dietitian that you have worked or volunteered for in the past.
4. Interview: if shortlisted based on #1-3, you are invited to an interview where they have a chance to meet you in person and ask you questions that are similar to typical job interview questions to assess your knowledge of the field, and gain insight into your 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. I recall sending over 50 e-mails to a variety of dietitians just to have the chance to come in and shadow them. Volunteering not only helps improve your application, it allows you to get out there and meet dietitians and helps reaffirm your choice to pursue this field.
+ seek help: contact the program's student service centre for help with the requirements and applications process. They are INCREDIBLY knowledgable about the process and are more than happy to help. Another way to seek help is to have a friend or family member proofread your cover letter and resume - it can be a massive help to get a second pair of eyes on them.
+ do your research: because programs tend to accept so few applicants, they want to ensure you know exactly what you are applying for and that you understand the profession and what it entails. In your interview you may get a question 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 you so that you know what you are getting yourself into.
IN THE PROGRAM
a. in-class component
How long is the program?
Again, this depends on the program itself and whether or not the internship is integrated into the program or if you need to apply for internship after the in class component. For us, the whole degree looked like this:
prerequisite courses (2-3 years) »» in class component (2 years) »» internship component (10 months)
What kinds of Courses did you have to take?
The specific courses will vary depending on which university you attend, here's a glimpse of some of the courses:
a. first year (broader)
+ human physiology
+ food & cooking theory
+ research methods
+ general nutrition courses
+ electives: from which you have the freedom to pick and choose. Some of the examples I can recall are courses such as medical anthropology, pharmacology, horticulture, international nutrition, and the theory of counselling (though there are many more).
b. second year (more focused)
+ more intensive nutrition courses
+ clinical nutrition: working with specific disease states such as diabetes, cancer, liver disease etc.
+ population and public health
+ food service management
+ nutrition counselling
& get ready for group work and presentations!
Again, we can't speak for other programs, but by the end of your degree, you will have ample experience in these two areas. And for a good reason: working as a dietitian means being a part of an interdisciplinary healthcare team where these two skills will prove to be vital since you will be in constant communication with other healthcare professionals and patients/clients. Almost every nutrition-related course included some type of group project wherein a final presentation was required. Perhaps it feels nerve-wracking at the time, but it truly refines your ability to work and communicate well in team settings.
Veganism & Dietetics
Given that we specialize in plant-based nutrition and recipes, we are 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 I'm 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 and 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!
IN THE PROGRAM
b. Internship component
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 wherein dietetics students apply their academic knowledge in a variety of practice settings. In order to be a registered dietitian (as per the definition above) you are required to complete a clinical practicum or internship.
Internship routes vary; depending on your university, the internship may be integrated into your degree or you may have to separately apply for internship after your in-class component. This resource does a great job explaining it (within a Canadian context). Our program was integrated in that the internship is included and guaranteed upon acceptance. Personally, I preferred the integrated internship route since I felt more secure knowing internship was guaranteed and my fellow classmates were less likely to become overly competitive as a result.
Where can you intern?
Depending on the school, you may intern anywhere in your province or state or other respective region. There is a possibility you may be placed somewhere that requires you to move or perhaps purchase 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 where you are exposed to different areas in dietetics. It is not exclusive to a hospital setting - long term care facilities and outpatient services, and community organizations can be expected as well. It's well varied to give you a taste of the MANY areas of practice. Here is a general glimpse of what it may look like:
+ Clinical Nutrition: typically in an inpatient setting at a hospital. This makes up the bulk of the internship. Some of the rotations include general surgery, oncology (cancer), transplant, critical care, cardiac, pediatrics etc.
+ Food Service Management: this is where the intern will have exposure into the areas of patient food services, cafeteria, food production and so on.
+ Population & 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 wherein you work with a group of other interns to take on practice based research projects. It is a fantastic way to dip your toes into the field of research in a hands-on way.
+ Electives: you also have the flexibility to spend a given time (generally 2-3 weeks) interning in an area of your own choosing. It can vary from inpatient, outpatient, public health, private practice and so on.
What does the average day look like for a dietetic intern?
Internship is essentially like having a full time job. It's typically a Monday-Friday, 9 am - 5 pm (give or take) which amounts to about 40 hours per week. It is typically unpaid (as was in our case, but my vary in other countries.)
For example, as an intern, you will typically shadow a dietitian - which means following them, observing and slowly learning the ropes about their respective roles. This is done with various dietitians in different settings or rotations. Throughout a given day you will also interact and work closely with other healthcare professionals such as nurses, doctors, occupational therapists etc. Gradually, you will begin to take on more responsibility after learning the ropes which includes one-on-one time with patients. Other rotations may have you working in different settings; schedules and duties will vary based on your rotations. All the while, there are evaluation components wherein your supervising dietitian provides constructive feedback on your 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 your knowledge, skills, and judgement as a dietitian based on what you've learned throughout the entire program.
Once internship is completed, it's common for interns to be hired on at the health authority/location they interned at. You may get a full-time or part-time position depending on where you apply and the availability. 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 internship is that it exposes you to so many areas of practice, which is why keeping an open mind about where you want to work from the beginning is so crucial since your work as a dietitian can really take you anywhere.
We hope this article has helped answer any questions you may have about dietetics and has encouraged you to go out into your own community and learn more through volunteering, shadowing or a simple conversation with a dietitian.
Want To Learn More?
Read this previous nutrition article called GROCERY SHOPPING LIKE A PRO » 10 useful tips
What About You?
Are you interested in pursuing dietetics? Did we answer your main questions? If you have any more, feel free to ask them below!
❤ Written by: Mitra (PUL Executive Assistant and Dietetics Student) & Sadia