Dietetics

So this year (well back in January) I went back to college to study Dietetics. I’ve gotten so many questions from people asking me about the course, what’s involved, how to apply and what we do so I thought I’d write a blog post to explain! If you’re thinking of going back to college or making a career change then I can give you a little insight into my experience. It’s a long enough post but hopefully if you are interested in a career in dietetics it will be useful!

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What is Dietetics:

So first of all, what even is dietetics? When I tell people what I’m doing in college, about 50% of the time I get a blank expression looking back at me. A lot of people actually have no idea what it is. In a nutshell, it’s how to apply the knowledge of nutrition to health and disease. It’s like a Nutritionist in that we can give out healthy eating advice and advise people how to improve their diet. However, Dietitians can also work in hospitals or in the community as part of the HSE, or in private practice or even industry. They  often work with people who are nutritionally at risk in hospital (about 1/3 of patients who are admitted to hospital are malnourished and if they are not meeting their energy and protein requirements through food or prescribed supplements then their recovery time and length of stay in hospital are greatly increased as there body is not able to heal itself  as well as it would if the person was meeting their requirements – that is a very basic description but these are a large proportion of the patients that you would be dealing with in a hospital setting). They also work with people who have medical conditions such as diabetes, Crohns disease, Coeliac disease, metabolic disorders etc.). Basically Dietitians work with many different types of people – not just overweight people which is what the common perception appears to be!

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I feel like I spend most of time using this to work out equations and requirements so I felt it was a pretty apt picture to use…

The title “Dietitian” is now a protected term in Ireland. This means that only people who have done a four year undergraduate university degree or a two year postgraduate degree can call themselves a Dietitian and practice as one. There is so much more to nutrition than just weight management and general healthy eating advice and the courses cover everything from biochemistry, physiology, behaviour change and not to mention 28 weeks of placement in a hospital or community setting before you are qualified. The term “Nutritionist” is unfortunately not yet a protected title – even though many Nutritionists have done four year university degrees. The difference between Dietitians and Nutritionists is that Nutritionists do not have the clinical training and education needed to work in a hospital or with people with medical conditions who need nutrition advice – however they are more than capable of giving general advice, weight management advice, public health advice etc. and many people set up private practices or go into industry. Where the confusion comes in here is that anyone can call themselves a “Nutritionist” at the moment, even if they have only done an online 4 week course – while these courses are probably fine if you are just looking to boost your own knowledge of food and nutrition, it’s just not enough if you want to give advice to other people. There’s no way you can fit four years of lectures and exams into four weeks, unfortunately. Click here for an explanation of the differences between the various titles.

My background:

I’ve always loved science and initially I wanted to go into research. For my undergraduate degree I studied Biomedical Science in NUIG. The reason I chose this over general science is because I already knew that I wanted to take the health science subjects (biochemistry, physiology, pharmacology and anatomy). I majored in biochemistry because I loved how much detail it went into about genetics and cellular and molecular  pathways and I thought it would be the best option if I wanted to go do a PhD.

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The first glitch in my life plan was when I did my final year lab project and hated every minute of it. I found it really stressful and didn’t enjoy being in the lab at all – even though I always thought that that’ s what I wanted to do. Anyways, I graduated and over the summer panicked about what I was going to do next. I figured that I probably shouldn’t completely right off research after one bad experience but I didn’t want to go into a four year PhD without knowing I’d love it! I decided to do a Masters in Regenerative Medicine in NUIG. The course was fascinating and I loved it – it was all about stem cells, tissue engineering, genetic engineering and stuff like that. I did my thesis on DNA repair mechanisms in breast cancer cells and while it was interesting and I liked the lab work more this time, I started to realise how lonely working in a lab can be and how much pressure there is to constantly obtain funding and research posts. (And also not to mess up experiments which can take days or weeks to repeat – learnt that one the hard way…).

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Once again I graduated and contemplated what to do with my life. I assumed I’d easily get a job in one of the many medical science companies in Galway as I had two degrees with very good results, however I couldn’t even get an interview which I found extremely frustrating and disheartening after years of hard work. After five years in college I decided I just wanted a break and some time to figure out what I really wanted to do. I honestly think it was the best decision I made – if you’re finishing up college now and are trying to decide what you want to do then I highly recommend taking a year out, working, gaining some life experience and saving up! It was over these two years that I started getting interested in nutrition and started the blog as a hobby while I was working. Even though I didn’t know at the time that I was going to go back to college (and had no intentions of going through all that stress again) I saved up because I knew I’d want the money for something some day. To be honest, if I hadn’t it would have been very difficult to pay for this course and live up in Dublin – not to mention having money to actually do things – which at 25 is very difficult when all your friends are working, socializing, going on holidays and expensive nights out.

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Where did the interest in nutrition come from?

I’ve always had an interest in science and how the body works and in particular, why disease and illness occurs. I find it fascinating and for a while considered going down the drug development route. However, there is so much research out there to show that good nutrition and an active lifestyle  is better than any drug for preventing most major disease nowadays. There is so much money to be made in the drug industry but most drugs just manage symptoms rather than cure diseases while diet and lifestyle can prevent diseases, manage symptoms and cure conditions!

pexels-photo-143654pexels-photo-128402-copy Why go back?

I spent two years working as a Secretary in a law firm and got so much experience dealing with clients and working with people and realised that I preferred this to working in a lab on my own. I started to get interested in nutrition (mainly as it was such a popular topic at the time, and still is) but also because it related so much to my first degree in biochemistry.

My blog started to grow and I wanted to get some actual education in nutrition science so I initially decided to do a Masters in Human Nutrition in Chester University in England in September 2015. This would have qualified me as a Nutritionist and the course was very good – so if you are looking to do a reputable course in Nutrition then I would highly recommend this one. You can do the full Masters (two semesters of lectures and a thesis), Postgraduate Diploma (two semesters of lectures) or the Certificate (one semester of lectures). At the end you can join the Voluntary Register of Nutritionists.

I started off doing the Masters however, while doing it I found out about the new M.Sc. in Clinical Nutrition and Dietetics in University College Dublin. I applied and thankfully got a place on the course which starts in January. This meant that I was able to do one semester in Chester and then leave with a Certificate. The course is very good and is actually delivered in 3-4 day blocks every 6 weeks so I managed to work full time, fly over for lectures and do assignments in between, although it was difficult! If you are considering doing dietetics but don’t have any nutrition background or biochemistry then this course would be great to build your knowledge and to have on your application.

The reason I decided to do the Dietetics course was because I felt that there were more job opportunities with this qualification. Dietitians can work in hospitals or the community setting all over the world, as well as in private practice, industry or research so I just felt like there would be more opportunities with this degree.

What is the dietetics course like?

So the course itself is a 2 year full time programme. The first semester, which starts in January is made up of lectures (Monday to Friday), assignments and exams. Some of the modules include clinical nutrition, medicine for nutrition, dietetics throughout the lifecycle, nutrition communication, sports nutrition, health economics. The lecturers are all very good and there are lots of guest lecturers that come in too. The facilities in UCD are brilliant – I won’t go into too much detail as you can get all that from the website but it really is a great university (although one of the main perks is the free gym membership!).

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The Health Sciences library – where all my snapchats from semester one were from – it’s such a nice building…

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Another perk of the course is that we get summers off – which is great as it means that you can work during the summer and earn a bit of money.

The second semester starts in September. This is the first placement block and it’s the stage I’m at now. We go out on placement for 14 weeks to a community setting or a hospital. Everyone is paired up and you go on the full placement as a pair which is great as you always have someone else in the same boat to ask for advice or reassurance! Placement hours are generally Monday to Thursday 8.30-4.30 or 9-5. However travelling around Dublin to your placement location can take a while and there are lots of forms to fill out at home so realistically you are working well into the evenings. We go back to UCD on a Friday for a day of tutorials which I like as it breaks up the week and means that you get to see the class again.

The aim of this first placement is to build up your core skills such as talking to patients/clients, taking diet histories, interpreting medical notes and patient histories, working as part of a team, getting comfortable being in a hospital etc. You are always supervised by a Dietitian and it is the part of the whole two year course where you learn the most!

While placement is a great experience, it is very tiring. If you’re planning on holding down a part-time or weekend job just know that it will be difficult, not impossible but you’ll want some time on the weekends to recover and get ready for the next week!

 Also, placement site allocation is random so you could end up being placed outside of Dublin for part of or even the full 14 weeks – so factor in the cost of travel, renting or even double renting if you don’t want to give up your Dublin accommodation.

I’ve just done my first two 3 week blocks in Dublin and Wexford. One was in an organisation for people with intellectual disabilities and the other in general hospital and I absolutely loved them both. Before this I had never done any sort of work in a hospital and was really worried that I’d get in not like it or that I wouldn’t be able to deal with everything going on but so far it has been a good experience and I’m enjoying it. I’m currently on a 4 week block in a general hospital in Kildare and my last 4 week block will be in a maternity hospital and weight management clinic in Dublin. I like how the placement types are so varied as you get to see so many different patient types and styles of working.

*Just to say as well that the placement locations are spread throughout Leinster and are randomly allocated. You could be based outside of Dublin for the full 14 weeks or part of it (same for the next 14 week placement). You may have to rent accommodation and if you want to hold onto your Dublin accommodation too you might end up double renting so just bear this in mind when planning your finances- however this is the situation for all dietetics courses as there are obviously only a certain number of placement locations!

After Christmas we come back for another 9 weeks of lectures, then another 14 weeks of placement and then for the final semester we do a thesis. So hopefully I should be finished and qualified by December 2017! It’s a long road and there’s a lot to learn but I’m enjoying the process and if you want to do postgraduate dietetics then I would highly recommend this course!

Finances

This is probably the biggest issue and the main reason why I think that taking a year or two out to work and save money (and figure out what you really want to do) is a good option. The course fees work out at over €20k for the two years (I know…). This doesn’t cover the extortionate rental prices in Dublin (if you can find somewhere to rent that accepts students…). It also doesn’t cover the cost of renting a second accommodation if you are out on placement outside of Dublin for any of the 28 weeks of placement or transport to and from your placement location. So overall it’s not cheap! However, it is an investment and from what I’ve experienced so far, dietetics looks like a really satisfying career.

I had worked before going into the course, as had a lot of my class (the average age starting the course ranged from about 21-27). So it was difficult going from working and having your own disposable income and being able to go out, go shopping and go on holidays to having to scrimp and budget again! However it will be worth it in the end…I hope…

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What helped me get in?

If you’re thinking about doing this course, or any other graduate dietetics course then there are a few things that might help. It’s a competitive course to get into and one of the big things many colleges look for is shadowing experience which can actually be really hard to get. When I was in Chester I saw the hospital oraganise an open day for students to get shadowing experience but I’m not sure where else does that. A lot of people in my class didn’t have shadowing experience (I only got a few hours) so it is not essential. However, I think it is a requirement for a lot of the UK courses.

Some people get experience by working as a Dietetic Assistant in the UK – however Ireland doesn’t have these. Volunteering with a programme such as Plate Pals or volunteering as a feeding assistant in a hospital would look great on  C.V. too. Basically something to show that you have an interest in dietetics and you know what it is about! But this is where writing a good personal statement that conveys your passion and interest in invaluable.

For more information on the course or dietetics in general check out these links:

I hope this blog post was useful if you are looking at starting a course in dietetics! I tried to include everything I thought was relevant but if you have any other questions then just leave a comment, tweet me (@aisling_harris) or send me a Snapchat (superfitfoodie) and I’ll add it in!