Whether you have chosen a new career path or are not quite sure what path you want to take, this post dives into my personal experience going back to college as an adult. With a focus on exploring a career as a registered dietician, I also provide valuable resources you can use to help guide your decision.
“ I politely smiled at my cousin and it was then that I knew nutritional education was the space I wanted and needed to be in.”
The day I chose to go back to college
When I decided I was going back to school, I was sitting in a large room filled with the chatter of over 50 relatives conversing on New Years Day, 2018. I sat there for the first time truly accepting the fact that my life didn't seem to have a direction. I felt lost and hopeless, and worried as the fact that it was now 2018 sunk in. After unwillingly leaving my pastry career in 2014 due to health complications, I had felt like a part of me died. In denial, I hadn't let go of pastry because I didn't want to accept that it was "over". This wasn't how I had envisioned things happening after going to the leading Culinary school in America. I realized as my cousin sitting next to me proudly pointed out her vegetable on her plate, ( a big serving of mashed white potatoes loaded with butter) that I already knew what I was passionate about: Food. Now, I knew that I had disordered eating and I had been struggling with my own eating habits for some time but I thought I could either keep working low paying random soul sucking jobs or I could face my fears of going back to college and learn first hand how to navigate my own health as it related to my relationship with food. I wanted to make sure that I chose a sustainable career.
Picking a "forever" career
I still remember sitting in my high-school counselors office trying to decide what I wanted to do for "the rest of my life". I chose Baking and Pastry because 1) I could be all kinds of creative AND eat what I created and 2) I saw it as a hands on job so I wouldn't have to sit in a office from 9-5 and 3) The statistics at the time where an average pastry chef (or cake designer) would make $50,000 a year. At the time that seemed like a LOT and I knew that working in the back of house instead of one on one with people was what I wanted or rather what my anxiety told me was "safe".
I didn't know that the 2008 recession would change my college experience or that the pastry industry would change over the next decade with health trends and dietary restrictions. I had every intention of obtaining my Bachelor's degree but at $52,000+ a year, I decided that 2 more years of mostly management focused classes were not worth the debt. So, I graduated with an Associated in Baking and Pastry arts from the Culinary Institute of American in Hype Park, NY. I remember all I wanted to do after graduation was sleep in my bed back home as the last few months where some of the hardest most challenging months of my life up until that point. My graduating class was conversing over their plans after graduation going to work for top chefs, moving onto the Bachelor's program or opening their own place. I had thought about what I wanted to do after graduating but the only thing that made logical sense was to go home, find a job, and somehow figure out how to be an adult now and save for whatever was next. The thought of finding a good paying job near home intimidated me as I knew what was in the area. I felt like I was stuck and couldn't afford to do what I wanted to do even though I worked through college. This experience made me want to really research everything I could before committing to another educational endeavor.
The ah HA moment
I politely smiled at my cousin and it was then that I knew nutritional education was the space I wanted and needed to be in. A huge weight felt like it had stopped crushing my insides and I was determined to figure out what was next. As I looked around the room as my relatives started to enjoy their meals, talking about how their new diet would start AFTER this meal, I was aware of how little my family and I really knew about nutrition AND how prevelant diet culture is. I was doing a juice cleanse at the time because I was sick of feeling like crap and even if I wasn't doing a juice cleanse, there would have been very little I could have eaten due to the restrictions I had. (based on the food intolerances/autoimmune response I had developed since 2014) I wanted to help others not go through the restrictions I was seemingly stuck in and in the process, figure out how to help myself without continuing to rely soley on doctors. I wanted to learn first hand how to help myself and take that knowledge and passion and turn it into a career. I put my very green juice down, and quickly started doing research on my phone.
Nutrition Career Facts
Over the last decade nutrition has become a very in demand field. According to the Beareau of Labor Statistics, The projected percent change in employment for Dietitians and Nutritionists from 2016 to 2026 is 17%. The average growth rate for all occupations is 7 percent.
What are all these acronyms
Now, when I came back from visiting family over the Holidays I knew that my current part time job was going to be ending in a month and that scared the hell out of me. I had already spent months with a temp agency trying to find a job that would pay over $30,000 a year with my experience but there was little to no progress because I didn't have the qualifications for the kind of jobs available even though I could sculpt a 5 foot cake with fondant. I started researching in all my spare time. What is a dietitian versus a nutritionist? How is a Registered Dietitian different than a Nutritional Coach? What is a DTR or LCN? I had already met with a Registered Dietitian back when I found out I had food intolerance's in 2014 which had given me a chance to see first hand what that was like on the receiving end.
Where to start
I decided that just a coaching certificate wasn't right for me and that going for my Bachelors made more sense so that at least if I changed my mind in the process I would already be on the path towards getting another transferable degree. Since nutrition is a high demand field I know that there will be competition when it comes to finding a good job. So, I started researching about ACEND. The Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics is the accrediting agency for education programs preparing students for careers as registered dietitian nutritionists or nutrition and dietetics technicians, registered. I started looking at what my options were in Illinois and decided that I wanted to go to the University of Illinois at Chicago. UIC is one of the largest public universities in Illinois and is also ranked as one of the top national universities. They offer a coordinated program which was appealing to me because I was nervous about securing an internship. (like match day for those in the medical field) The supervised practice is already part of the coordinated program and includes a variety of environments which I knew would help the decision process of choosing a specialty.
Choosing a school
I contacted UIC shortly after I got back from my new years travels and asked a ridiculous amount of questions ( all of which they were happy to answer). Since I had been out of school for over 10 years there were some prerequisite classes I would need to take. So, I literally just typed in community college and came across the City Colleges of Chicago. I thought at first that I would just take the few classes I needed and apply but decided to pursue my Associates in Science at City Colleges and then transfer to UIC mainly because it is about $15,000-$20,000 cheaper a year. I was elated to find out that Truman College (science based campus) was walking distance from our apartment! Everything started to feel like it was falling together and I was relieved and anxious all at the same time for this opportunity.
Sign me up
Upon contacting Truman college, I found out that the Spring semester was to start the following week! So, I scrambled to get my application together, placement tests done, and register for classes. True story: I forgot my State ID in my scanner at home on the last day to sign up for classes and cried in the office as the thought of not having a job and not being able to start til the next semester seemed unbearable because I didnt have a plan B. Now, the lady could have told me that I just needed to go get my id and come back but after waiting in line until there was only about 30 more minutes to register, I didn't have enough time to go get it. I had a picture of my id but not my actual id. She told me I would have to wait til next semester even though I had finished my placement test on time. I was so mad at myself for not having my id. I went home devestated, and emotional. Looking back, I can laugh at it now because I was called shortly after and told by another staff member that I was all set and I just needed to come in on Monday to get my school id before my first class. So, it is possible to get everything done within a week, but I don't recommend it. Everything started to fall into place.
Help! What do I do first?!
If you already know you want to obtain a undergraduates degree in Nutrition Science, then I would suggest taking most of (if not all) your prerequistes and/or Freshman and Sophmore year at a community college. I have found rate my professors to be a very valuable resource in making sure I am getting the education I need. This website allows one to look up professors ratings before registering to get a general idea of how they teach based on former students experiences. Along with doing all the things that come with registering for classes, this was one of the biggest things I wish I would have known about earlier on.
After 1 year and 6 months in, these are some of the things I wish I would have known at the beginning and a few things I have found very helpful.
Don't be afraid to talk with the faculty at your school in depth with any questions you have even if it seems insignificant. If you are not vibing with an advisor, request another one. Email your professors beforehand if you are not sure about a class. Do what YOU need to have the best experience.
Rent the books! Most of the books are expensive and renting allows you to get your books at a fraction of the going price with an option to purchase. I personally have found Chegg to be my go-to but always look on Textbooks for College">Amazon, Barnes and Noble (they have rentals too!) and your schools bookstore or any other online sources as not everything is cheaper from one source. It really depends on the book. Sometimes buying is cheaper then renting, so do your research. And, look for your required books as early as possible to get the best deals. Sometimes classmates have the books you need too. I even borrowed one book from the Chicago public library and kept checking it out during the sememster because there were several copies.
Ask other students what teachers they had and what their experience was. Sometimes your classmates have books you can use, notes, or suggestions that you just don't get from google.
Join a club!-I was skeptical to do this at first, because I was overwhelmed with school in the beginning, and to be honest still am at times but, I wish I would have joined a club back in Culinary school. It gives me the chance to do something I am passionate about that is still school related but looks good on my college application. After one semester of being in the Environmental Club, I am already looking at moving from Vice President to President. Leadership positions open up every semester as students graduate. Although I have a large fear of public speaking, this opportunity has given me a chance to continue challenging that doing something I love.
Study beforehand -if you have been out of school for ahwile, just do it. Take the chemistry classes early on. I will repeat that. Take Chemistry ASAP. Most of the classes you take as time progresses are in a sequential order. As tempting as it is, don't take all your electives at the beginning. I didn't have a clue as to what order to take certain classes in and since I was signing up right before the deadline, I didnt have many options left. Now, with all my electives taken already, I am finding myself in a position where I am not able to register for full time classes (cheaper in the long run) because the classes I have left, I can not register for at the same time.
Don't take out another loan! I am blessed to have a husband who can financially support me during this time and a few part-time jobs myself to make this education thing happen but being in MORE debt is not something I am interested in. It might be difficult to adjust financially at first, but do what you gotta do and keep the end goal in mind.
Fill out as many scholarships and grants as you can! Ask your transfer advisors, professors, etc. Look online. There are so many out there.
An important factor to consider:
After January 1, 2024, All individuals looking to sit for the National registered dietician exam will be required to have their Graduates degree as per the new graduate degree eligibility requirment. (not just Bachelors)
So depending on where you are starting from, this is a very important date to keep in mind as you pursue what is next for you.
Here are a few other helpful resources:
from a few of my favorite bloggers
May Zhu, MBA, RD, LDN - Non traditional career paths for registered dieticians: Do I need a MBA as a RDN?
Katie Lemons, Masters in Functional Medicine, PA Student - Integrative, Functional, and Holistic Nutrition
A day in the life of a local registered dietician, Jessica Foust RDN with Farmers Fridge
A local pumpkin loving RDN, Maggie has a full health philosophy.
I hope you have found this helpful and are able to navigate your educational goals with a little more peace of mind. Also, congratulations on taking the next step, even if it scares you. Please, reach out if you have any questions and I would be happy to help with any further insights I may have. If you are not looking to go back to school, I hope you have found this post helpful in terms of going for what you want even if it doesn't make sense at first.