Saint Louis University

Author: Joel Cook
Published: Wednesday, October 17, 2012

I recently spent four days at the annual Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics’ (AND) Food & Nutrition Conference & Expo in Philadelphia. There were times that I felt the conference had more hype than substance, but overall, I would categorize it as a good experience. I learned a fair amount about recent developments in the field of dietetics, the break from rotation duties was nice, and I came home armed with enough SoyJoy bars to feed a small African nation for months. An early difficulty was attempting to put together a lecture schedule that would allow me to maximize the didactic portion of the conference. With most time blocks containing fourteen sessions, this was somewhat of a daunting task. For the purposes of this blog, I am going to focus on one session that I found particularly interesting.

I started the second block of the first day of sessions at a lecture called“Achieving Six-Figure Careers in Dietetics: How Confident Conversations and Taking Risks Will Get You There”. I had been skeptical of this session for a number of reasons. A cursory glance of the session details earlier in the week revealed that the primary speaker, Jean Caton, runs a business called “The Profitable Woman Business Coaching’. The prominent display of Caton’s business in the FNCE information led me to believe that this would be a lecture about the role of women in the workplace, with an emphasis on dietetics. Not to say it isn’t an important topic, it’s just not one that, as a male, I wanted to spend an hour and a half listening to. However, as one of three males in a 34 person internship class, a similar proportion in my undergraduate dietetics program at Marshall University, and a similar proportion when I was in Grand Valley State University’s College of Education in 2005, training to be an English teacher, I have gotten used to listening to speeches that are largely directed towards females. Heck, when we initially checked in at FNCE, we were given purple name badges and purple carrying bags with a light purple plaid pattern on the sides (not that purple can’t be unisex, but there was an overwhelming amount of it), and this was from an organization that takes great pride in recently electing their first male president. Despite the low expectations I had of this session, I thought that maybe the principles would be transferable across gender lines. Almost instantly, I was pleasantly surprised, yet another reminder that a book shouldn’t be judged by its cover.

Saint Louis University Dietetic Internship Food and Nutrition Conference and Expo

The obvious main draw of this session was the mention of six-figure salaries. This possibility raised a few eyebrows among those I mentioned this session to beforehand. Dietetics is frequently on top ten lists of lowest-paid college majors. Recently in our clinical systems management graduate course, our professor displayed a list of the highest paid jobs in dietetics management, which I’ve been led to believe is the highest paid segment of the field, and the #1 salary on that list was the $75,000 for “Director of Nutrition”, a prestigious-sounding position that likely requires a plethora of experience. Most of the information I have seen over the years has nutrition professionals capped out in the $45,000 - $50,000 range. According to the speakers of this session, the six-figure jobs are primarily associated with the self-employed and corporate dietitians. There was also some mention of higher salaries in association with public policy jobs.

In a sense, the overall salary is not especially important. Dietitians go into the field not expecting to make great amounts of money. For most of us, the appeal of dietetics is in having a career doing something we enjoy in a field that we are passionate about. That being said, if there are ways to explore that passion AND make more money in the process, those jobs are certainly worth considering, especially for people like me, who have racked up embarrassing amounts of student loan debt (an unfortunate consequence of having attended four universities as part of a dream career-searching process). I want to be careful to not sound like I am equating money with success. Money often follows success, but it’s not required to be considered successful. For example, Tiger Woods is not the most successful golfer of all time because he has made more than $100 million during his career (in addition to all his endorsement deals). He is the most successful golfer of all time because he has won 74 professional tournaments, 14 majors, and has mastered his craft so completely that it has changed the game of golf. If there were a list of the most successful dietitians in the world, it wouldn’t simply be ranked by salary.

The speakers of this session touched on a number of important points for those who want to maximize their earnings in dietetics. I am going to highlight a few of them:

  1. Be visible – One of the main points brought about by this session is the idea that those who “get ahead” are not always the ones who do the best work. This is somewhat heterodox to a principle that is ingrained into us as children: the idea that anyone can get where they want with hard work. That is not to say that hard work is not important; those who excel at what they do are difficult to ignore, but it is important to reconcile visibility and high-quality work. Being visible means being engaging with clients, bosses, and co-workers. It means not avoiding the water cooler chatter. It means speaking up when you have something to say. A visible employee stays in the minds of management when it’s time for promotions and raises, even when there are other candidates who do their jobs better.
  2. Volunteer – Take advantage of opportunities to show what you know and what you are capable of. Does your employer need a presence at a health fair? Is one of the doctors at your hospital looking for somebody to lead a class on healthy eating? Are there any mentorship or sponsoring programs you can take part in? Volunteering makes an employee look like a team player, increases their presence/visibility, and allows them to further hone their professional skills.
  3. Saint Louis University Dietetic Internship Food and Nutrition Conference and Expo
  4. Appear to love what you do – This was a point that was hammered into me during my cardiovascular rotation. My preceptor was an intelligent young woman (four years younger than me, which felt a little strange at times) with an almost intimating knowledge of nutrition. What stands out about her most, however, is how much she loves what she does. Her passion for the field is extremely palpable. She is very enthusiastic in patient encounters, and as a result, she has enormous credibility with her patients. Enthusiasm is something I struggle with, and was something I was graded down slightly for on that cardiovascular rotation. I am generally very stoic in nature. People can rarely tell whether I am happy, as my “happy” reactions do not differ much from any other reactions I have. This is something that I need to change, as I get further into my career. Enthusiasm makes a positive impression on others, and that impression can have positive career benefits. Enthusiasm is contagious.
  5. Get a mentor – Most of what is done in the workplace is not groundbreaking. In most cases, other people have been there before and have learned what works and what does not work. Learning from the successes and failures of others can cut out a lot of unnecessary trial and error. Getting a mentor in the organization can also lead to some valuable networking, which is key to a higher salary.

Some of these may seem like common sense, but what they come down to is that a greater presence is positively correlated with a higher salary. Confidence is critical, self-doubt and fear need to be eradicated, and anyone looking to maximize tangible earnings needs to have the ability to network and negotiate. Some dietetics settings may seem like they lack opportunities for advancement, but there are always ways to be irreplaceable to employers.

Money is not a driving force of my dietetics career, but more money is preferable to less money. A number of the principles I learned in this session are ones I hope I am able to prioritize once I finally am a member of the dietetics workforce.