One of the things about the area of nutrition and dietetics that I love (and used to hate) is the broad range of job opportunities we have to choose from! Don’t get me wrong, having such variety is fantastic, however as a student this can be particularly overwhelming. Especially as a nutrition student. Suddenly, all of those “what’s the difference between a dietitian and a nutritionist” and the “so what do nutritionists actually do?” conversations seem to haunt you as finally begin to ponder your potential career prospects. Well that was me at least, until I stumbled across the idea of nutrition research.
Even though we had spent so much time reading research articles at uni, somehow the thought of a career in research had never occurred to me until I dragged Mum along to a careers information night half way through the final year of my Human Nutrition degree. At this point in time the only thing I knew about Honours was that it was hard and scary. I’m not even sure how I knew that, but I knew. I had been mainly interested in dietetics but decided to stay and hear out this Honours thing. I’m glad I did. I have always had a passion for prevention rather than treatment of disease but at the time had been struggling to come up with career ideas that would align with this. Pursuing a career in research sounded like it would completely match up to my passions and interests and it was exciting. I loved the idea of being an “expert” – and I mean that in a nerdy way rather than an arrogant one. How cool to know all there is to know about one specific area, right?! To be constantly piecing together a giant puzzle and making new discoveries, it all sounded very cool to me!
My Honours year began and I read and read and read and then read some more! This whole “being an expert” thing was turning out to be a lot of work and very draining, who would have thought? I was fortunate to have landed a project that allowed my involvement in just about all stages of the projects life, from study design through to writing publications. Over the course of the year, I went from reading articles all day to traveling to primary schools with other research assistants and PhD students to collect data. We weighed and measured kids, did some taste testings with them, and facilitated 24-hour urine collections, and I was the lucky one to transport said collections. No two weeks were the same, that’s for sure! The constant juggling of tasks and deadlines took a while to get used to but ultimately it kept me motivated and driven as there was always something new and exciting around the corner. I learnt an incredible amount of skills throughout the year, and not just research skills. Yes I expanded my knowledge of statistical analysis, scientific writing and I (finally) learnt how to use EndNote properly (it is a lot easier than you think). Potentially even more valuable were the professional workplace communication skills that I had no choice but to develop extremely quickly. Unfortunately there’s no calling on your Mum to phone that stranger on your behalf, you’re on your own now!
From Honours student to Research Assistant
When time came to transition from being an Honours student to a Research Assistant not a whole lot changed. However, slowly, the tasks I was given differed and increased and day-to-day the work varied a lot. At the beginning of my work on this new project I was labelling materials, packaging up parcels and posting them to participants as well as completing a small amount of data entry – relatively straight forward stuff. Within a few weeks I was phoning new participants to welcome them to the study, booking interview times and even conducting 24-hr dietary recalls over the phone, I was finally feeling like a real nutritionist! There were weeks where I would fold hundreds if not thousands of invitation letters, and days where I would leave voicemails for 50+ participants who had failed to return their urine collections. And of course you get those rare few who decide they don’t want to talk to you mid-conversation. But being part of all these little odd jobs that are often forgotten about when we think of nutrition research has really helped my understanding of the whole process and if I could see this career path suiting me in the long-term.
Where to next?
The truth is, I’m really not too sure whether this academic research life suits me and where I’d like to go with my nutrition career. Don’t get me wrong, research is integral to continuing and bettering our understanding of health and the human body, and key for prevention of disease in the long-term. However, there are two key things I struggle with when it comes to research. The first being the lack of translation that takes place from nutrition research to the general population. I feel like this is a gap we all need to take more responsibility for even though we do have some tough competition (all the celebrities turned “nutritionists”). To have so much time and effort and money put into projects and not have the word spread about the findings is so disappointing to be aware of. Secondly, I struggle with the lack of contact with the general population. Especially in my role as a research assistant where most of the time I am sitting at the computer all day, I can’t help but to feel as though I’m not making much of an impact. Obviously, this is all dependent on each specific research project, and what your role is (e.g. If I were to be completing a PhD I would actually have some control over the project and choose a topic area/study design I am super passionate about); this has just been my experience to date.
If I could give any advice it would be to never rule anything out and to give everything a go. I have realized that with every new opportunity that comes my way, my thoughts of what I could do in the future are shifted again. It’s a blessing that the nutrition and dietetics area has so many avenues that we can explore if we just give it a shot. I’m not too sure what’s next for me, but I’m not worried. There’s no end-point to our careers, just more learning to be done!