Siân is newly in post at the BDA, having previously worked as Assistant Professor at the University of Nottingham. She has worked in a range of clinical areas, specialising in learning disabilities, palliative care and nutritional support including HEN.

By Siân Cunningham, MSc, RD

Professional Practice Manager & Visiting Lecturer

A career in nutrition and dietetics offers many specialist areas and roles in which you can practice. With the role of the dietitian and nutrition professional continuing to evolve and develop, more opportunities than ever before are presenting themselves, offering an exciting career full of possibilities! With so many choices how do you decide on your own specialist area?

Exploring all the options open to you is a good way to get started. Publications such as NHD showcase the amazing work that dietitians are doing, as well as exciting developments in treatments and practice. Keeping up to date with your professional body can help you gain insight into developments in practice and help you to understand the direction your profession might be going in the future. Take some time to search and follow people online who are already working in areas you might be interested in, and link up with specialist groups, which will help you gain insight into different roles and research.

Try to get into the habit of taking some time out to regularly scan your horizons and do a little digging into potential areas of interest.

Whilst you might have gone into dietetics because of a particular interest, keep an open mind, placement is a fantastic opportunity to gain first-hand experience, working with a range of dietitians in a variety of settings. As well as being inspiring (in the way watching someone doing a brilliant job can be), it also affords you the opportunity to ask practicing dietitians what they love (and don’t love) about the roles that they do. Finding out about the opportunities for training, development and progression in your chosen area can also help you in making your decision.

In particular, don’t rule out working with certain client groups. Many students express some apprehension about working in areas seen as more “complex” or “challenging”, such as paediatrics, learning disabilities, mental health, or in secure or prison settings, for example. Don’t let fear of the unknown prevent you from gaining as much experience as possible to help inform your future decision-making. You might find an area that you love and in which you can make a real difference. Joining a specialist group and immersing yourself in a particular area, can help to grow your knowledge, confidence and build a network of people whose experience and knowledge you can draw on (and whose work might inspire you!).

If you have areas that you know you would like to experience, don’t be afraid to discuss this with your placement supervisors and to seek out shadowing opportunities, although they can’t always accommodate every request, it’s always worth asking. On the flip side, having to focus on an area of practice you don’t think you’ll enjoy can be a challenge.

Try to view everything as a learning opportunity, placement can help to rule out areas in which you don’t want to work based on experience rather than gut feeling.

 It is not uncommon for students to change their minds about where they would like to work upon qualifying after a surprisingly enjoyable placement!

Like a three-page menu in a restaurant, with so much choice, it can be hard to pick for fear of missing out! It's very common for students to still be unsure of their preferred specialism after graduation – again try to see this as an opportunity. Rotational, more general posts (working with a range of conditions), temporary positions in a range of settings, and combining part-time positions may all be suitable options for you to gain further experience. Don’t forget about research and teaching, you could explore opportunities within higher education. Any dietetic or nutritional professional role will allow you to develop and continue to add to your transferrable skill set.

If after working in one specialism you feel you would like to move into another, it is never too late. Many dietitians and nutritional professionals work in a range of areas throughout their careers and employers value this range of experience. Wide-ranging experience can help to develop confidence in your own abilities, supporting you in progression opportunities and to set up on your own should freelance dietetics or nutrition be in your future career plans.

Finally, don’t worry, no decision is final!