Female Doctor Counseling male Patient

How to Become a Clinical Dietitian

If you're considering entering the health and wellness career field, there are many occupations to explore. Clinical dietitians are Registered Dietitian Nutritionists (RDNs) who specialize in healthcare settings. Becoming a clinical dietitian is a rewarding career choice, but not a path you should take lightly. The requirements for becoming a clinical dietitian entails specific higher-education programs, training, experience and often, licensure.

The University of Arizona Online has three ACEND-accredited programs that open doors to nutrition and dietetics careers and create pathways to professional licensure. Arizona Online’s Nutritional Sciences Advisors are dedicated to providing students with access to resources, planning classes and guiding them through the prerequisites, credentials and supervised practice programs required for earning professional licensure. They are here to make the process streamlined and easily navigable for students.

To understand the scope of work it takes to become an RDN, we will address essential questions that you should consider when pursuing a dietetics career, such as: What does a dietitian do exactly? What are the dietitian education requirements? How long does it take to become a dietitian? How much do dietitians make? 

Despite the time and financial investment, if you have a passion for helping others, becoming a dietitian can be a rewarding career choice.

How to become a clinical dietitian

There are several steps you must take to become a clinical dietitian:

  1. Expect to complete an ACEND Accredited undergraduate and/or graduate program from an accredited university. Keep in mind: Arizona Online’s undergraduate and graduate programs fulfill this requirement.
  2. Obtain a verification statement that stipulates that you have completed the program issuing the verification statement's required coursework. 
  3. Complete an ACEND-accredited supervised practice program/dietetic internship after completing all prerequisite dietetics coursework. 
  4. Pass the Commission on Dietetic Registration (CDR) exam. Passing this exam is your gateway to a successful career in dietetics and the only way you can earn the CDR national credential.

Even though this might sound like a lot of work, most students will be able to complete a master’s and supervised practice within 2 years. And remember, Arizona Online’s advisors will be with you every step of the way. In addition, becoming an RDN will give you a considerable advantage in a growing job market.

 

Employment of dietitians and nutritionists is projected to grow 11% by 2030, much faster than the average for all occupations.
- Bureau of Labor Statistics

 

How much do clinical dietitians make?

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual wage for dietitians and nutritionists in May 2020 was $63,090. The lowest 10% earned less than $39,840, and the highest 10% earned more than $90,000. The income range for a clinical dietitian can vary based on your state.

How long does it take to become a dietitian?

Currently, you have to hold at least a bachelor's degree and complete a supervised practice program before sitting for the RDN exam. However, beginning January 1, 2024, you must have earned a master's degree to sit for the RDN exam. 

Most individuals will be able to complete a master’s and supervised practice within 2 years. Be prepared to sit for your RDN exam within 1-2 months of completing your program.

What to study to become a clinical dietitian?

It would help if you pursue a degree in nutrition, especially those that offer ACEND accredited dietetics pathways. However, if you have earned a bachelor’s in any field, your major may be considered. Additional coursework in anatomy/physiology, biochemistry, and a senior-level nutrition and disease course will be required if you have not completed these courses already.

What is the difference between a registered dietitian and a clinical nutritionist?

“Dietitian” and “Nutritionist” do not mean the same thing. Dietitians who hold the RDN credential have to pass a national examination and rigorous academic and experiential training. The title "nutritionist" is descriptive and refers to anyone who provides nutrition information to others, but the term is not tied to any one certification or training pathway. The main difference between a dietitian vs. a nutritionist is that dietitians are also nutritionists, just more qualified ones than some others who title themselves "nutritionists."  

Is becoming a dietitian hard?

The short answer is yes. But if you enjoy the coursework and are passionate about health and wellness, becoming a dietitian can be enjoyable! 

If your ultimate goal is to promote and protect communities' health and well-being, the required coursework, certification and training will set you up to succeed.
 

What qualifications do you need to be a dietitian?

You will need to earn the following qualifications to become a certified dietitian:

  • Receive the Didactic Program in Dietetics (DPD) Verification Statement.
  • Earn a master's degree (in any field) in addition to the current requirement of a verification statement from an ACEND accredited dietetics program.
  • Complete an ACEND-accredited supervised practice program.
  • Pass the Commission on Dietetic Registration's Registration Exam for Registered Dietitian Nutritionists.
  • Gain licensure if your state requires it.
Dietitian explains food breakdowns to client

Can I become a dietitian online?

Yes! You can become a dietitian entirely through a series of online programs. For example, the University of Arizona College of Agriculture and Life Science offers a full pathway to becoming a registered dietitian through Arizona Online. However, all supervised practice programs do require students to complete 1200 hours or more of on-site experiences, but these can often be arranged in your home community. 

The Dietetics option of the Online Bachelor of Science in Nutritional Sciences is one of only 4 online ACEND accredited  DPD programs in the US. All students who graduate from UArizona with a Bachelor of Science in Nutritional Sciences and also meet the DPD requirements receive a Verification Statement. Arizona Online offers an Undergraduate Certificate in Didactic Program Dietetics in which you can receive a DPD Verification Statement if you've already completed your bachelor's in an ACEND-accredited undergraduate program. Arizona Online also offers a Professional Science Master's in Applied Nutrition (PSM), which serves students who have previously completed a bachelor's degree and necessary pre-requisite science and nutrition courses. The PSM Dietetics Option is an ACEND accredited Supervised Practice program, and completion of the program results in eligibility to sit for the CDR registration exam for RDN's.

Where do dietitians work?

Clinical dietetics is one of many practice areas that dietitians are trained to work in. Most often, clinical dietitians work in hospitals, clinics, or public and community health settings. As a clinical dietitian, you can find employment providing care to patients in hospitals, long-term care facilities and private practices. You can also focus on population-level nutrition by working with nonprofits, government entities or educational institutions. As a clinical dietitian, you are often at the center of the interactions between doctor, patient and staff.

No matter which career path you choose, becoming a clinical dietitian offers you various learning opportunities and, often, a well-respected salary. You also get to improve the lives of individuals and families.