10 things to know if you’re thinking of training to be a dietitian

Wondering what to do after your A-levels? Thinking of a career change? Have you thought about training to be a dietitian (or nutritionist)?

This week is Dietitians Weeks and I’ve been posting about what dietitians do and why I love being a dietitian. I’ve been involved in training students for most of my 15 year career as a dietitian- in NHS posts and now as a lecturer. Here are 10 things that might help you decide whether this is the career route for you. I’ve tried to be brutally honest about what training involves so you can make an informed choice! 

  1. It is full time degree or postgraduate study. There are no part time or distance learning options at present. You can either study for a BSc over 4 years fulltime, or a PGDip over 2 years fulltime. With the PGDips you then usually have an option to do a dissertation module within a few years of completing your PGDip to convert to an MSc (that’s the route I took at Leeds Met Uni – graduating first in 2001 then converting to an MSc in 2004). A list of courses is here. (NB: this may change and unis may offer more flexible study on request).
  2. The academic requirements are high. Dietetics requires a good standard of maths, English and science. Entry requirements in the UK vary but generally you will need the equivalent of: at least five GCSEs at grade C or above, including Maths and English plus A-levels in at least two science subjects (including chemistry or biology). Some unis run access courses so you can complete the equivalent of your science A-levels in a fulltime one year course. For entry to the PGDip you normally need to have a 2.1 in a science degree that contains some nutrition, human physiology and biochemistry.
  3. You need a clean criminal record.  All applicants are DBS checked and if you have unspent convictions that would prevent you from being eligible to register with the Health and Care Professions Council you are not likely to get onto a course – see here. (For minor offences this probably won’t be the case – you can check with the university or HCPC).
  4. It’s really competitive to get a place. For many years the government has called the number of places unis can offer to study dietetics – in order to ensure that the supply doesn’t outstrip the demand and leave out graduates with no jobs. As a result unis may get hundreds of applicants that meet the academic entry criteria but only have 10 spaces. Some unis interview applicants and may focus on qualities that make students most suitable eg the NHS values of compassion and respect, others may focus on academic problem solving ability.
  5. You need to be medically fit to practice. Many dietitians are drawn to the profession having had personal experience of overcoming illness via nutrition. Many students have recovered from eating disorders and bring that great insight into their practice – however for obvious reasons being in a profession with a focus on food can be triggering for unresolved eating disorders and so if that applies to you consult with your medical and psychology team before considering applying. You are asked to disclose medical issues on application and may need to allow the university to contact your team to get an assessment of whether you would be fit to practise. People with disabilities are woefully underrepresented in health professions – the HCPC has recently looked at this to try to ensure fairness in judging fitness to practice. See here for more info – don’t be put off applying if you have a disability or learning difficulty – it may not be a barrier to applying.
  6. You need to be an EU citizen to apply for a UK course at present – this has historically been the case due to the course being NHS commissioned. This may well change over the next year or two as the HEA finding has been withdrawn.
  7. It’s hard work. Expect to be in uni for 3-5 days a week and expect to be challenged academically. It’s difficult to work alongside studying.
  8. It’s emotional. Your training will involve 3 placements of a total of 28 X 37 hour weeks in practice in the NHS or a partner organisation being trained on the job with qualified dietitians. This is an intensive, challenging, emotional and essential aspect of the course which some student fail. A GP once said to me that she only refers the most ill to a dietitian. You will work with some well people but often they will be patients who are very ill, some with life limiting illnesses and some who will die. Sometimes you might be with them when they die. This may be your first exposure to this or it might bring back memories of family members. You will be supported through emotional times but it is usual to find it hard. Once qualified you can choose to never work with the very ill but it is likely that you can’t avoid it during your training – as it is an important role dietitians fill. Empowering those who are nearing the end of their life to help themselves via diet is a privilege but can take its toll emotionally.
  9. You need to believe in science! As a dietitian you will be practising evidence based nutrition and toeing the government policy line regarding current healthy eating guidance (unless you are able to convincingly challenge otherwise). If you prefer alternative medicine philosophies and reject evidence based medicine this probably isn’t the profession for you.
  10. It is only the beginning of a lifetime of learning! Your course will cover aspects of nutrition, food science, psychology, sociology, behaviour change, communication skills, medicine, pharmacology, biochemistry and much more. You will end up probably with more unanswered than answered questions – there’s lots we still don’t know about nutrition and eating habits. On successful completion of the course you qualify for registration with the HCPC as a registered dietitian – your license to practice if you like. To pass the course you have to learn various core skills and demonstrate your competency.  You keep learning after graduation – as a newly qualified dietitian you rely on the support of colleagues and your skills in critically appraising new research to grow your expertise and maintain your competency to practice.

Hopefully this helps you to decide if this is the career path for you. If some of the clinical aspects sound too much for you then you could consider training as a registered nutritionist via taking a nutrition degree (look for one accredited by the Associtaion for Nutrition (AfN). The main difference between a dietitian and a nutritionist is that you won’t be qualified to treat people via diet but can work as part of an equally respected profession in research, industry and advising healthy people.  The nutrition and dietetic courses at London Metropolitan University are here.

I’m so pleased I chose to train as a dietitian – I found the placements particularly challenging but I’ve never regretted it. Good luck with your choices!