Things I would tell my first year student dietitian self - by Alison Booker

Published 20 August 2019

As September and a new academic year draws close, many prospective dietetics and healthcare students will be preparing to start university with great trepidation. As I approach my fourth year as an NHS student dietitian, I remember the first year feeling as vividly as ever. For me, I was embarking on a whole new career change from Police Officer to Allied Healthcare Professional so I understand the mixed set of feelings and emotions you may be feeling.

I was honoured when Nualtra contacted me, offering an opportunity to share my insights regarding what to expect in the first year as a student dietitian. As a student, it is a privilege to share my experiences, and whileeach university, placement provider, trust, and student is very different… I hope this article gives you a flavour of what to expect.

  1. The P Word

Placements are integral to the course; dietetics is a graduate career. Most dietitians will work within the NHS with other Allied Healthcare Professionals, medical and nursing teams to apply clinical nutrition knowledge as practical dietary interventions for patients, clients and service users.

To complete your training as a student dietitian in the UK you will undertake three clinical placements; the first of which you complete as the finale to your first year of study. This is known as A Placement (Also known as Placement 1 in some other universities).

‘A,’ is for Awareness, and a three-week clinical placement designed to introduce you to the world of dietetics in the NHS. I completed my A Placement during the summer after my first year of study; it was an amazing opportunity to learn about the profession and observe registered dietitians in action. The A Placement is nothing to worry about; it is designed to provide context to your academic studies and prepare you for the next phase of your training. Remember, you are being assessed at all times, so ensure you have a good personal turnout, you are punctual, and you radiate a positive can-do attitude.

  1. Immerse yourself

Dietetics really is a full time course and, even as a mature student, I chose to relocate. I lived away from home from Monday to Friday so I was not at the mercy of public transport and commuter delays. Some of my student-colleagues did commute, allowing them to read on the trains and be at home with their loved ones. Work out the approach that best suits you, so you can fully immerse yourself into the commitment of your studies. Each university will run its timetable differently but expect to be in lectures Monday to Friday, with group projects and assignments to fill a ½ day for study per week.

  1. Seize Opportunities

The very nature of your degree and the sheer competitiveness of gaining your place already speaks volumes about your passion for pursuing a career in dietetics. So if you are like me, you will want to make the most of every opportunity to learn, develop and to shine when it comes to securing your dream job. In my first year of study I attended a wide variety of additional nutrition seminars (all free through university) and made the most of the library workshops to enhance my academic skills (such as critical thinking, essay writing and reflective practice). I stood as a student rep for my cohort and I enjoyed a variety of voluntary work.

Pursuing extra-curricular opportunities has opened doors, taught me valuable skills and enabled me to connect with likeminded healthcare professionals and students. Most dietetic programmes in the UK include a Professional Development module, in which you evidence your own professional development through reflection in your professional portfolio. Here, you can earn academic credit too. Prospective employers value employees that go above and beyond – and who knows where opportunities can present and where they can take you!

  1. Make Connections

Connecting with likeminded and equally passionate healthcare students, professionals and leaders has been invaluable. I highly recommend creating a professional account on Twitter and connecting with fellow students, qualified professionals and colleagues from the wider MDT. Being involved in professional discussions is a great way to develop and promote your work as a student. Twitter has also signposted me to up and coming new research, enabled me to get involved in relevant upcoming events and developed my understanding of the wider workings of the NHS, healthcare and the Dietetic world.

I also joined the professional body that governs our profession; the British Dietetic Association (BDA). The BDA is free for the first year of your studies and subsidised for the remainder of your training. Being a student member grants you access to resources that will support you in your upcoming placements and provides regular updates on the latest evidence base and research. There are also opportunities to volunteer at BDA events and study days, allowing you to network and learn for free.

  1. Be Proud

Dietetics is a noble career; you will draw on academic and scientific knowledge to care for others. You will support patients to manage their medical conditions and empower  them to improve their health; all thanks to your dietary intervention.

When your studies begin to feel overwhelming and you start to wonder whether you will ever understand the ‘electron-transport-chain,’ (possibly not!) it will be important to take a moment to remember your ‘why,’ and appreciate what an honour it is to be pursuing such an exciting path. You will get there.

Good luck!