December 2008 Issue

Profitable Predictions — Brighten Your Future With Salary-Boosting Opportunities
By Sharon Palmer, RD
Today’s Dietitian
Vol. 10 No. 12 P. 32

According to the latest ADA survey, by furthering your education, attending workshops to expand your skill set, considering a career move to a higher paying area, and thinking big, you can maximize your earnings potential.
Dietitians have been complaining for years that their pay rates just don’t measure up. Marianne Patino, MS, RD, CDN, reports that numerous dietitians post negative comments about professional salaries on the message board of, a New York-based interactive Web site community that Patino and her husband created. One dietitian recently posted, “[Dietetics] is not an area where you will get rich. The schooling required to become a dietitian is extensive, [and] the pay and the jobs themselves aren’t always there.” Another dietitian wrote, “I do not believe the profession is worth all the amount of education (hundreds of THOUSANDS of dollars) that some RDs go through to only make pennies in the end. You can have an RD and a Master’s and still not be making what you’re worth.”

By the Numbers
If you’re lamenting the low pay rate in dietetics, as well as today’s struggling economy, there’s some good news: RD salaries appear to be on the upswing. “Dietitian salaries have improved in the last couple of years,” says Lona Sandon, MEd, RD, LD, an assistant professor at the University of Texas Southwestern and an American Dietetic Association (ADA) national spokesperson. “We have made inroads with dietitians’ salaries through better reimbursement for services and improvements in what we get paid for. It is opening up opportunities for dietitians to make more money.”

According to the third edition of the ADA Compensation & Benefits Survey of the Dietetics Profession 2007, the most comprehensive dietetic compensation survey available, RD salaries showed a gain greater than inflation and registered dietetic technicians (DTRs) saw salary gains that nearly kept up with inflation since the last survey was conducted in 2005. RD median annual wages are now at $53,000 compared with $49,500 in 2005. The 2007 median hourly wage of $25.48 represents a 7.1% increase from the median hourly wage of $23.80 in 2005. And DTR median salaries are now $36,000, up from $34,000 in 2005. The 2007 survey drew on a sample of the population of all domestic active and active-eligible ADA members and domestic nonmembers maintaining current registration as an RD or DTR. Readex Research collected the data through a mail survey in 2007, in which 11,861 usable responses were received, representing a 40% response rate to the survey.

Other salary surveys show less encouraging numbers for dietitians. lists the median expected salary for a typical U.S. nutritionist at $48,877, based on survey data collected from thousands of human resources departments at employers of all sizes, industries, and geographies. According to, the average income for full-time RDs with five to nine years of experience is $44,928.  The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ median wage estimate for dietitians and nutritionists was $22.59 per hour ($46,980 per year) in May 2006. But the ADA salary survey is probably more reliable than these surveys, as it is more current, includes a more comprehensive population, and defines its salary ranges by RDs rather than nutritionists.

Dietetic career service businesses are also offering a glimpse into the salary picture. has revealed its 2008 online survey results for full-time dietitians, listing the average salary at $53,612, which closely mirrors the 2007 ADA survey results. Jobs In Dietetics, a nationwide career opportunity service that lists an average of 2,500 dietetic jobs per day in 22 different categories, collected six months worth of data from dietetic job listings in California to generate salary information. Tina Kerrigan, MS, RD, owner of Jobs In Dietetics, reports that the average annual dietitian salary in southern California is $50,000 to $60,000 and in northern California, $55,000 to $70,000. Clinical nutrition managers in northern California are making $76,000 to $110,000 and consulting and per diem dietitians in California are earning an average of $30 to $38 per hour. In public health, the average salary is $44,000 to $55,000 in southern California and $44,000 to $60,000 in northern California. Foodservice directors are making $50,000 to $100,000, depending on experience, facility size, annual budget, and the number of full-time employees managed. In sales positions, California dietitians are averaging $60,000 to $80,000 in base salaries, with additional bonus and mileage benefits.

“In general, people have not been satisfied with their compensation,” says Kerrigan. “But a couple of things have helped. The shortage, especially in clinical dietetics, that started about 15 years ago in California has helped drive up wages. And the younger generation is more aggressive. They are researching companies and salaries and asserting themselves about what they will accept.”

A Picture of the Work Field
The 2007 ADA compensation survey confirmed what you probably already know about the demographics of the dietetic workforce. Ninety-seven percent of dietetic professionals are female, with a median age of 46, and only 10% indicate a race other than white. Virtually all RDs hold at least a bachelor’s degree, 45% possess master’s degrees, and 3% hold doctoral degrees. RDs’ median work experience is 16 years. The most common job setting for RDs and DTRs is a hospital, with 33% and 39% working in that setting, respectively. Only 9% of RDs are self-employed, and the most commonly held positions are in clinical and outpatient settings. While 71% of dietitians work full time, a significant number of dietitians work part time.

Dietitian Dollar Signs
Here’s a surprising factoid unique to dietetics: Did you know that the range of RD salaries is so wide that the top 10% of RDs earn more than twice as much per hour as those in the bottom 10%? With such a wide range of pay, what makes the difference between being on the bottom and the top of the paying field? The 2007 ADA compensation survey points out a few factors that appear to sway income.

Qualifications: Education beyond a bachelor’s degree continues to be a wage booster. Based on median wages, dietitians with a master’s degree earn $2.88 more per hour than those with a bachelor’s degree, and RDs with a doctoral degree earn more than $13 per hour more than those with a bachelor’s degree. Obtaining a specialty certification also raises the median hourly rate by $1.92 per hour more than those without certifications.
ADA membership: Dietitians with ADA memberships make $1.03 more per hour than dietitians who are not ADA members.

Experience and responsibility: Years of experience definitely count for something. Those who have at least 20 years of experience earn about $8 per hour more than dietitians who have worked five years or less. Taking on responsibility also has an impact on wages. Those reporting direct and/or indirect supervision of 100 or more employees report a median wage of nearly 50% more than the typical dietitian. Dietitians responsible for budgets of $1 million or more earn a median wage nearly 50% more than dietitians with less responsibility.
Work setting: Where you clock in for work each day also makes a big difference in the numbers. RDs working in areas such as food and nutrition management, consultation and business, and education and research tend to score the highest wages, while RDs working in acute care/inpatient, outpatient, and community care positions tend to earn less money. Self-employed dietitians make significantly more than others, to the tune of a median of $30 per hour. Specific work settings that bring in better bucks include consultation or contract services to organizations (median $28.85 per hour), school foodservice (median $30.05 per hour), food manufacturers/distributors/retailers (median $28.85 per hour), pharmaceutical or nutrition products companies (median $33.65 per hour), and college or university faculty (median $32.69 per hour). Geographic location also plays a part in earnings. RDs in the central United States earn below-average wages, those living in New England and Pacific states earn above-average wages, and Californians enjoy the honor of being the highest wage earners among U.S. dietitians.
Fringe Benefits
Some dietitians who grumble about the low digits on their paychecks may lose sight of their benefits. The 2007 ADA compensation survey found that even though many dietetics professionals are employed part time, they are still offered bountiful on-the-job benefits. Overall, 80% get paid vacation or personal time, 72% get paid holidays, and 70% get paid sick days. Eighty percent have access to medical coverage compared with 77% of a reference group of U.S. white collar workers in private industry. Seventy-five percent have access to dental coverage, and 63% have access to vision coverage, above the reference group values of 53% and 32%, respectively, and 67% get a prescription drug benefit.

Sixty-nine percent of dietitians receive life insurance and 61% receive disability insurance, which is above the average for the reference group. Sixty-five percent get defined contribution retirement programs such as 401(k) plans, matching the reference group, and 42% have access to a defined benefit retirement program compared with 23% in the reference group. Fifty-four percent have access to funding for professional development such as conferences, and 26% may get their professional society dues paid. Thirty-eight percent are offered assistance with college tuition. Forty-four percent have access to an employee assistance or wellness program. Thirty-two percent get comp or flex time. Thirty-five percent can take advantage of a fitness benefit such as a discounted health club membership or an on-site facility. Twenty-four percent are eligible for extended and/or paid maternity leave, and 11% have on-site child care or a child care allowance.

Kerrigan observes that some dietitians are offered additional unique incentives, including sign-on bonuses, additional wage differentials for the ability to speak other languages, mileage for consulting and per-diem jobs, loyalty bonuses, payment for CPEs, telecommuting, and bonuses for management and business/industry positions. She has even heard of employers who offer pet insurance.

Stacking Up With Other Professionals
One of the biggest grudges dietitians have harbored is that they generally receive less pay than other healthcare professionals with similar educational backgrounds. “Dietitians often feel that compared with other professions, particularly nursing, they’re not getting paid as well. Unless the salaries become more equal across the healthcare professions, the grumbling will not go away,” says Sandon, who notes that it doesn’t help that dietitians are predominantly female and face the gender gap for salaries.

Indeed, dietitians do earn less than most healthcare professionals with comparable educational backgrounds. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, for May 2006, the average annual income of dietitians/nutritionists was $46,980, registered nurses was $57,280, physical therapists was $66,200, occupational therapists was $60,570, and clinical laboratory technologists was $49,700.

Even outside of healthcare, dietitians seem low on the salary totem pole. “I just recently received a raise at a current position, but I still am not getting paid that much and I have a master’s. I know that in my state, school teachers were complaining about their salaries, and the averages they were showing on the news were at least $10,000 more than what I make,” posted one dietitian on the message board.

Indeed, dietitians don’t seem to be paid much differently than teachers, a field famous for being undervalued. According to the American Federation of Teachers, the estimated average salary of all public elementary and secondary school teachers during the 2004-2005 school year was $47,602.

Opportunities on the Horizon
Before you lose hope, remember that dietetics is a unique field full of possibilities. The sky is the limit; you can do anything, from writing a New York Times best seller to starting your own online nutrition business. Sandon points out that there is a huge range in dietitian salaries, illustrating the potential for increasing salary by exploring different career paths. She adds, “Opportunities are out there. Prevention is becoming more and more important. Employers and insurance companies are perking up to the possibilities of prevention in the workplace and in wellness services. Employers are looking at the burden of costs, and data shows that they can save money in healthcare costs for the employer through wellness programs. You need to go after the clients that can afford to pay higher salaries, such as corporate wellness clients. There are a ton of dietitians going into that area.”

According to Sandon, business and industry commands higher salaries than the typical clinical position, but you need more experience in communication and business skills, which many dietitians don’t have. Other high-paying possibilities exist in private practice and on the speaker circuit, where dietitians can take in $1,000 to $3,000 per event. “We are not thinking big enough. We need to go after things that aren’t just typical dietitian jobs. Learn things, go to conferences and workshops, advance your leadership and business skills,” suggests Sandon.

“This is a great field to be in. There are definitely jobs out there. The launch pad is still the traditional route that is mostly clinical or WIC [Women, Infants, and Children] positions. Once you get your feet on the ground, there are lots of opportunities,” says Kerrigan, who notes that recent Jobs In Dietetics postings include managers of health and communications for large food companies, fitness and wellness managers, private practice opportunities with physicians, foodservice jobs combining the RD with culinary experience, and home healthcare consultants—a growing market for dietitians. She adds, “There are daily opportunities for dietitians to apply for jobs on dietetic specialties, such as wellness coordinator. I see that when people are looking for an RN or RD in a position, you need to get those jobs. In these nonspecific jobs, you need to be assertive.”

The State of the Economy
Of course, all the salary surveys in the world may not matter if the country plunges into an economic depression. At press time, the U.S. unemployment rate had risen to 6.5%. And who knows the future for healthcare in a country that lays claim to the most expensive healthcare system in the world and is discussing the possibility of universal healthcare.
“It does depend on the work environment in terms of what the salaries will be. It’s hard to know what direction it will go in. The current events are going to be a huge issue in our field. In the past five years, we’ve seen good increases in dietitian salaries, but with the recent financial crisis, it can’t continue much longer. But there is no shortage of jobs out there. The jobs are there, and dietitians are not going to have a problem getting employed,” says Sandon.

“Right now, I am not seeing a slow down in job postings. If we do see it go down, it will probably be in the areas of government and foodservice. If we do get universal healthcare, I think it will take a long time before we know how it will affect our jobs,” says Kerrigan.

Satisfaction Over Dollars
One element missing from the salary dialogue is job satisfaction, which may trump the almighty dollar for many dietitians. Most dietitians get into the field to help people live healthier lives; thus, they find the work immensely rewarding. In a recent message board post, a dietitian reported, “The pay isn’t fantastic, but it’s certainly decent and adequate ... And the profession has such wonderfully intelligent people in it. I love being in a world where people are truly in tune with health and wellness.”

Sandon notes, “There is some trade off when you work in healthcare. There are good benefits and probably more job security. Money motivates dietitians, but the satisfaction of helping someone’s health is a big motivator. People stay in a job environment that they have overall satisfaction in; it’s a big factor.”

— Sharon Palmer, RD, is a contributing editor at Today’s Dietitian and a freelance food and nutrition writer in southern California.


Make More Money Now
Pat Katepoo, RD, salary coach and owner of Career Coach RD, offers these suggestions for earning a higher salary:

1. Determine the market value of your current position. Be aware of how close (or far) your current salary is to similar positions in your area, taking into account your experience and level of responsibility. Knowing this baseline sets the direction of your pay increase strategy.

2. A performance review may be only once a year, but you must demonstrate and communicate your value as an employee throughout the year, thereby positioning yourself to ask for and receive the deserved increase when your review rolls around.

3. Before making your pay increase request, know the difference between a competitive pay raise, a merit raise, and pay-for-performance compensation and which one best suits your situation.

4. Time your raise request to match your employer’s policies and fiscal realities. Know the exceptions to this rule. For example, when you’re given significant added job responsibilities, you can make a case for an immediate increase. If necessary, have them create a new job title or category so you can break the pay barrier of your former position.

5. Know and apply negotiating basics to your raise request. Be familiar with techniques to overcome nervousness when asking for a pay increase, such as rehearsing.