5 tips for surviving an RD program

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One of the most common questions I get via email is people wondering how I can stand being in an AND-approved registered dietitian (RD) program. If it wasn’t obvious by now, I have a dietary philosophy that is pretty contrarian to the standard food pyramid recommendations that are at the foundation of most dietetics programs. One would think that I deal with an unbearable amount of cognitive dissonance on a regular basis, and some may wonder if the aggravation is worth the degree. After all, there are plenty of other nutrition programs out there, so why bother getting an RD?

Something I want to point out is that I think UNC Chapel Hill is a pretty unique program compared to a lot of the RD programs out there. While there are times where I disagree with professors and classmates on certain topics, I’ve found that the program at UNC is pretty advanced as far as science-based education goes. There are many researchers in the top of their field that work at UNC, and many of them teach as well. This keeps our curriculum pretty up-to-date in many aspects. We get to learn about some really cool ideas in the field of nutritional biochemistry, epidemiology, clinical work, and more. It’s a very comprehensive program, and I’ve learned a TON.

Another thing I love about UNC is that the professors tend to be very open to alternative views and opinions, and certain professors even encourage me to express my views, controversial as they may be. At the end of the day, most of the faculty here are more interested in our learning experience than being 100% politically correct all the time, so I do feel that I have the opportunity to share my disagreement if I think it’s something worth sharing. I’ve been getting very good grades and have good relationships with most of my professors, and none of them have ever treated me differently based on my alternative viewpoint, which is an enormous weight off my shoulders. In other words, I don’t feel like I have to hide my feelings for fear of retaliation from professors. Apparently some programs are like that, but not UNC. Thank goodness.

Even though it’s been somewhat of a struggle having opposing dietary beliefs to many of my classmates, I’m definitely glad I took the RD route. I have a feeling things are going to change in the dietetics world pretty soon, and I think its important to have RDs who represent an alternative viewpoint. Not to mention, in North Carolina, you MUST have an RD to practice individual nutrition consultation so getting the RD offers some job security as well, depending on where I end up living in the future. So if nothing else, I’ll be glad to have the degree. To me, it’s 100% worth the stress.

So if you’re thinking about going the RD route, which I think is smart (and I highly recommend applying to top-notch programs like UNC), there are five key things to remember to ‘keep calm and carry on’ in whatever dietetics program you enroll in.

1. Be respectful

This is the number one thing you need to keep in mind when trying to survive your RD program. I like bringing up controversial information in class as much as the next person, but I don’t try to shove my viewpoint down anyone’s throats. And I especially don’t get into arguments with professors. First of all, a bad attitude is a one-way ticket to a miserable experience in grad school, so don’t let your ego get the best of you. Second of all, your professors are likely highly educated, even possible “experts” in the field (I have many MPH/PhD/MD instructors), and they probably know a lot you don’t know. You may be right about a certain topic, but arguing or getting irritated won’t help you prove your point. And it certainly won’t earn you any points with your professor.

I find that the best way to address any disagreement I have with something a professor has said is to send them a few studies that support my view and ask them what their opinion is. You may be surprised about how they respond. I had one professor who constantly talked about low-fat dairy initiatives, and when I shared with her recent evidence of the health benefits of dairy fat, she actually thanked me for sharing the information and was interested to learn more. So be polite and respectful in your disagreements with professors and classmates. Kindness and pleasantness does wonders in improving relationships, especially with your superiors!

R-E-S-P-E-C-T! (Aretha would have done well in an RD program!)

2. Question what you learn

Even though I just told you to respect your professors, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t still question what they’re teaching you. Don’t let your fear overwhelm your intellectual curiosity and natural skepticism. No one ever got anywhere in science (or life for that matter) by being a sheep and not questioning the status quo. I know some people might be worried that if they disagree with popular opinion, that they’ll be ostracized or embarrassed in front of their peers. But don’t be afraid to challenge the conventional beliefs that others hold, even if you may be wrong. Sure, you might not be the most popular kid in class if you’re always raising your hand and questioning what you’re being taught, but you have a right to share your opinion and to make the most of your learning experience.

If you don’t understand or agree with something you’re learning, be bold and speak up. As long as you do it respectfully, there’s nothing to lose. Who knows… you may find that your professor actually shares the same opinion you do, or is at least willing to consider your point of view.

3. Immerse yourself in the science

This is another crucial component of your RD experience, especially if you’re planning on respectfully questioning your professors and classmates on certain controversial topics in nutrition. It can be scary to raise your hand and say something radical in class, or take a controversial position when writing a paper, but you’ll be much more prepared if you’ve actually looked into the science and you’re not just spouting off something you read on Paleohacks. Take the time to read articles and research beyond simply the reading assignments you get in class. I’ve learned so much more from online journals like JAMA and BMJ than most of the textbooks I’ve purchased.

It’s so important that you familiarize yourself with current research and understand the difference between a well-designed study and one that is too prone to various biases to make recommendations from. Take advantage of your school library’s journal access and READ THE DARN PAPERS.

Oh, and have fun with the research too – really dig into your passions. Fascinated by gut health? Determined to work with children in your career? Wondering what the science says about low carbohydrate diets? Use some of your study time to dive into those topics that really get your brain juices flowing. It’s easy to get bogged down by classwork, but don’t forget about why you got into the nutrition game in the first place, and stay focused on what your true interests are.

4. Pay attention to your own health

This is the one thing I’ve been struggling with as far as surviving graduate school goes. Sometimes I get so wrapped up in doing work, reading blogs, writing papers, and studying for exams, that I stay inside all day sitting on my bum slowly killing myself with inactivity. Or I go the opposite route, spending 2 hours busting my butt in the gym only to wake up the next morning in pain from overtraining. Or I get so stressed while studying that I binge-eat chocolate (washed down with red wine) as a coping mechanism. Usually I prioritize work over socialization and end up spending my Saturday night writing a paper rather than going out and enjoying the social mecca that is Chapel Hill (ha.)

All I’m saying is make sure you’re having a little fun on the side and taking care of your own health. It’s really easy to get sucked into the super-stressed canned-soup-eating going-to-bed-at-3-AM grad school lifestyle, but don’t let your dedication to your education destroy your health. Go out dancing with your friends. Take a yoga class. Get in bed before midnight every night. Get a pedicure or a massage now and then. Join a hiking group. Explore your local area, especially if its somewhere you’ve never lived. Check out your university’s recreation center for fun fitness classes or intramural teams. Go on a date to an art museum. Attend church (or any type of spiritual program). Have chocolate now and then, but don’t make it your dinner. Try not to become an alcoholic. It’s the little things that count.

5. Don’t take things too seriously

This is something that I constantly have to remind myself and my classmates, because I think we forget sometimes that it’s just grad school and we’re not saving the world or curing cancer or anything serious like that. Tests are just tests, papers are just papers, and while it’s good to work at your personal capacity, don’t overburden yourself trying to be perfect or be a shining star in your program. Use your RD program as a learning opportunity, and pick and choose the topics you want to focus on. When you’re in a challenging program like the one at UNC, you realize pretty quickly that you can’t excel in every class, so don’t try. Don’t overextend yourself – you’ll burn out very quickly.

This is especially important for those of you who strongly disagree with some of the information presented in RD programs, and get so frustrated that you’re constantly in a bad mood… to the point of not being able to pay attention to the positive stuff you’re learning. I’ve definitely been in classes before where the minute the lecturer started saying something I really disagreed with, I tuned out the rest of the lecture. That’s a really bad attitude to have, since it impairs your learning and really puts you in a negative mood. Don’t take it so seriously – just do the work, don’t freak out if you have to recommend grains and low-fat dairy on a test, and just get through the program. You’ll have plenty of time to ‘save the world’ once you’ve got a degree under your belt.

I hope that helps answer some of your questions about “how I get through my day” as an R.D. student. Sure, there are many times where I’ve wanted to quit this whole nutrition thing and just go off to join the circus… but in the end I know how much good I’ll be able to do if I can just persevere and keep my focus on why I enrolled in the first place. It also helps to remind myself how much I love living in North Carolina, and how many great friends I’ve made while going through this program. Like I said, UNC is a great program that I highly recommend, and I’m SO glad this is where I ended up.

At the end of the day, grad school is really difficult no matter what program you’re in, and you’re guaranteed to be stressed regardless of whether you are on board with everything they teach or not. So just keep your eye on the prize, and TRY to have a little fun while you’re at it!

When all else fails, just dance.

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I'm a women's health expert and a registered dietitian (RD) with a passion for helping goal-oriented people fuel their purpose.

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