How to become a nutritionist or dietitian: My career journey and honest advice
So you want to become a nutritionist or a dietitian? How exciting!
Being a nutritionist/dietitian is a wonderful career. I love it. But I don't think it's quite what I expected it to be... Some things were harder than I expected and some things exceeded my expectations. If you're wanting to a study or start a career as a nutritionist or dietitian, here is some my honest advice.
MY CAREER SO FAR...
Where did I study, my qualifications and how I started my nutrition career
High School subjects: I didn't study chemistry for HSC but I did do PDHPE, which was a big help. My university allowed me to do a bridging course before I started my bachelor degree. Not every school lets you do this though so do some research. Do you need to study science at school to study nutrition or become a dietitian? No, but it does help.
My qualifications: I studied at the University of Newcastle and received a bachelor of Nutrition and Dietetics (graduated in 2011). This means I'm an Accredited Practising Dietitian (APD) and an Accredited Nutritionist.
Being an APD: I'm a member of the Dietitians Association of Australia (DAA) and have been since I graduated. To keep up my status as an APD, I have to continue to develop my skill set and adhere to a strict set of ethical guidelines. As an APD, I always need to stay committed to scientific evidence and best practice.
My first job out of University Since graduating in 2011, I've gained experience in lots of different areas of nutrition. My first job was a part-time role with a small start-up food company. I found out about the role through my uncle's friend. I was employed part-time as a marketing/communications role (not as a dietitian or nutritionist) but as jobs were scarce, I wasn't picky and took what I could get!
Getting a leg in the door: In this role, I worked 2-3 days a week earning $30/hour. I had to deal with customer complaints (not fun), send the mail, photocopy things, create flyers, organise meetings, take notes, write copy for marketing, run social media... I didn't realise how much these skills would be crucial to running my own business. While it wasn't a nutrition role, I learnt what happens behind the scenes in the food industry and new product recipe. Crucial.
Starting my own nutrition business: By 2013 I had worked my way to being the company dietitian and worked on more 'nutrition' jobs like reviewing nutrition information panels, reviewing nutrient and health claims etc. When I wasn't at this job, I'd spend the other 2-3 days, volunteering with Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution, Cancer Council's nutrition division and the Dietitians Association of Australia's Mental Health/nutrition advocacy group. I got lots of experience from volunteer work. In 2013, I also started building my business.
Starting media work: I built my own website, registered my business name, bought a URL, started social media channels and began doing local media interviews. With media, I started by doing guest posts on friends blogs and grew my confidence and skills moving to bigger and bigger publications. No publication was too insignificant for me! If a nutrition student asked for an interview or someone at a party asked me a nutrition question, I'd use it as an opportunity to practice my media skills.
- Private practice: Around this time, I also started seeing private clients in my 'clinic'. By 'clinic' I mean that I drove to clients homes, carrying all my notes and the nutrition resources I had created. I tried hiring a room in an office but it was too expensive for my new business to manage so I ended it after 3 months. Eventually (by 2015), clients would come meet me in my home office as I kept expenses low. Thankfully, I was building business sense.
How I built up my private practice and got new clients: I started small by helping family friends and friends of friends. When they had a good experience, they told their friends and it grew and grew by word of mouth. I also started writing for the local paper. My website helped me get more clients and I refined my skills, found my speciality and grew confidence. My website started to bring in clients, and so did my social media. By 2015, I was full time in private practic seeing clients 6 days a week.
- Building my business: At some point, I got too busy to keep up and wanted to reach more people, around the world - not just those who could make appointments! That's why I do what I do now. I run Keep It Real Program which has been so successful and allows me to help hundreds of people around the world. I guess, I started small... and learned a lot, worked very, very hard and grew my business.
- Now and onwards: These days, no day is the same for me. I might be doing a segment on TV for Channel 9's TODAY show in the morning, coming back home to write a blog post, filming a recipe at lunch, doing consulting work for a client or helping Keep It Real participants by afternoon and creating another recipe at dinner time. I'm also so excited because my first book is coming out January 2019!
If you don't already, let's hang out on social media! I'm on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and I'm slowly getting involved on YouTube.
Should I study nutrition at a college or university?
This is really up to you. Obviously, I chose to study at a University but a lot has changed in the seven years since I graduated. If you do study at a college, make sure it's a serious degree that you'll learn a lot from.
Do your research. Who are the lecturers? What are the subjects? Does it make sense logistically? Based on the curriculum, will you feel confident once you graduate? Can you afford it? Decide if you want to be a dietitian or nutritionist and then work from there.
Should I become a nutritionist or a dietitian?
It was really important for me to become a dietitian so that's why I did the degree. Dietitians have the opportunity to work in hospitals and help give people complex dietary advice. They get medicare rebates, which is really important when you work in private practice is less affluent areas. Dietitians also tend to be ferociously evidence-based so they won't tell people to cut out gluten for no reason or avoid lactose for fun. I think that's a really good thing.
That said, there are some great dietitians, and then there are some that are stuck in the dark ages, giving out-dated advice. And there are some brilliant, balanced nutritionists and then there are those who ignore science completely and are just trying to make money.
Whether you do become a nutritionist or a dietitian, become a professional with integrity. Become a great practitioner and don't just follow what everyone else. That's how misinformation spreads. Check the nutrition evidence. Keep up to date with the science as it changes. Stay true to your philosophy and never work with a brand who doesn't 100% align with you.
Studying nutrition and dietetics (it's REALLY hard...)
It's an incredibly hard, and science-based degree. You have to work hard to get through it as you can't fake it. If you're not good at science or maths, be prepared to get a tutor to help you.
Nutrition has a really high drop out rate because it's so hard. Many people transfer halfway. In my cohort, 120 started the course and only 45 of us graduated four years later. I think you need grit to study nutrition. And you need even more grit once you graduate.
It takes about 3 years to become a nutritionist. And it takes about 4-5 years to become a dietitian. Expect to be at university every day of the week. The final year/semester tends to included practicals in clinic and it's pretty intense (and physically and emotionally exhausting).
How to find a job as a nutritionist or dietitian
- 'What' you know really does matter when you're a nutrition professional. But WHO you know is crucial when it comes to getting a job as a nutritionist. Ask your friends and family if they know anyone who works in the food/health industry. Try to get an introduction. That first job I got wasn't even advertised. Most jobs aren't. Network like crazy.
- There are NOT MANY JOBS in nutrition! But, there is a lot of work. Do not go into nutrition if you want to be employed. That is a recipe for unemployment. Hundreds of new nutritionists and dietitians graduate and there are only around ten 'employee' roles that everyone competes for.
- If you want to start a career as a nutritionist or dietitian, be prepared to be your own boss and run a business. This means you have to be really self-motivated, passionate AND you need to learn how to run a business. About 75% of my working hours is spent running a business. The rest I get to do nutrition.
How to get work as a nutritionist or dietitian
Introduce yourself: If I want to work with someone, I reach out to them directly and let them know I think they're great. I will send them an email and tell them why I love them! Even if they aren't ready to have me work with them yet, when they are, I'll probably come to mind.
Send an email or call: Don't send people messages on social media. Take the time to find their email and send them a well thought out message. It's much more professional. Follow up if they don't respond. Be polite, be lovely but be assertive.
Get a foot in the door. You don't need to get your dream job. You need to get a foot in the door. So if that means you are photocopying and running to get coffees, then become really good at it and work your way up. Do what is expected of you, and then do a little more. In such a competitive industry, you really have to take every opportunity and then steer yourself toward your goal.
How to get work experience with a dietitian or nutritionist
First up, it's really hard to get work experience. Especially in private practice. In 10 years, I have never really heard of people being successful. When I had my clients, I never felt comfortable having someone sit in.
You can hire a dietitian or nutritionist to mentor you and give you practice in doing consultations if you don't have the confidence. Ideally, your education institute will set you up without needing this.
You'll see that I did a lot of volunteers experience once I'd graduated. It's much easier to get experience at charities (they'd love to have you). Also, food industry, nutrition consulting groups, industry bodies and nutrition businesses are doable too.
How to pitch yourself to get work experience with a nutritionist or dietitian
I get an email or message every day from someone asking for work experience with a nutritionist or dietitian. So I've seen a lot of 'pitch' emails.
This is what you need to include when you send a pitch email looking for work experience or work with a dietitian or nutritionist:
- Spell their name correctly! This is essential. It shows that you pay attention to detail and are a good communicator.
- Start by acknowledging that they're busy. Keep the email short and concise as a sign of respect for their time. In other words, "think long, write short".
- Briefly explain who you are.
- Don't tell them what they can do for you e.g. "I'm looking for experience and I'd love to specialise in your field therefore, I would like to learn from you". This can easily make someone feel threatened and it doesn't actually 'sell you'.
- Do explain what YOU can do for them. Consider what keeps them up at night and work with that. Are they busy? Time-poor? Struggling to keep up with admin? Then explain how you can help them solve their concerns. See example below.
- As it relates to their work, mention skills that you're good at. Do you write well or are you good at photography? Are you good with graphics? Do you love recipe development, can you code, use photoshop or understand SEO? Include what's relevant to their work so they can imagine how you'd add value.
- Explain why you especially want to work for them.
- Do a thorough spell check before sending it. I couldn't live without Grammarly.
- If they ask you to follow up at a later date, ALWAYS follow up. It shows grit.
- Even if they say no, respond politely and with real gratitude. You never know when you'll meet them again. The industry is small. Make a good impression.
- Do your research before emailing them. Read their blog, check out their social media channels, google them... Learn as much about them as possible. They'll be impressed when they feel you're already a self-starter and engaged.
Here is an example I made up:
"Hi Nellie, I love your blog and website especially the fact that.... I’d love to help you create even more great content for your website as I know that can be time-consuming. From what I can see from your social media, you seem really busy. I love writing, have a great talent for photography and recipe development. I can edit videos using iMovie. I’d love to help you with any tasks you need doing. It helps that I studied nutrition and dietetics at etc …. and had work experience here and here. I’m super self-motivated and organised so I can help you with admin tasks that you don’t have time for. In a nutshell, I’ll help you get more done! I learn quickly and as I really want to work with you, I'm happy to fit in where you need me. Here is an example of some of my work (attached). This is my best contact number. I'd love to help you. All the best, Angela".
How much do nutritionists get paid in Australia? What is a nutritionist or dietitians salary in Australia?
How much dietitians or nutrition earn differs depending on your level of experience and your skill set and where you work (e.g rural or urban). Here are some ball-park figures for how much Australian dietitians and nutritionist earn.
Hospital work: If you're a dietitian working in a hospital, you'll earn around $60,000-$110,000 (before tax) depending on what 'level' you are at. As you progress year by year, you can earn a little more. Note: The average income in Australia is about $75,000.
Private practice: When I ran a private practice, I charged per client. You can google nutritionists near you to get an idea of current price per session. Consultations generally range from $100-200 for an initial consultation (45 min -1 hour) and $50-100 for a follow-up (about 20-30 mins).
Consulting: When you're a consultant nutritionist, you typically charge per hour (but I also do packages depending on the job). When you start out, you might start with a free around $30-50/hour and work up from there. Many top nutritionists charge $250+/hour. When quoting, keep in mind that you'll have to pay GST, tax and your own super.
Media: It seems glam but you rarely get paid to do media work so it's really got to be something you're passionate about. That's why you need a strong business model if you want to be a media nutritionist. You will need to stay up-to-date with all the latest research papers and be very good with deadlines.
Nutrition writing: Publications typically commission work and pay per word around 0.70c/word (I think?). Some places will only pay $100-200 for a short article. Some pay twice that amount. Many publications run on tight budgets so don't have a money but it's always a good idea to ask 'what is the budget?' before offering your writing for free. Practice writing daily. Read books and magazines.
Business: Like all business, there is no 'normal' salary for working as a nutritionist or dietitian in business. Unlike hospital work, the sky is the limit...!
Take home message: How to become a nutritionist or dietitian
If you're considering becoming a nutritionist or dietitian, I can confirm that it's great degree and career. If you're self-employed like me, it's really flexible so great for mums and people who travel loads. There are so many different areas to go in so find a speciality that speaks to you (and makes you unique).
If you are thinking of studying nutrition or starting a nutrition career, be prepared to run a business. I do business stuff 75% of the time and nutrition work 25% of the time.
Regardless whether you become a nutritionist or a dietitian, always refer to the science and don't follow the crowd. Just because someone else does it doesn't mean it's right. There are so many people out there who need help to eat healthily and be inspired toward balance. So if you're innovative, independent, empathetic, a good communicator, a hard worker and got stack loads of grit, you'll make a great nutritionist or dietitian.
Got a question or comment? Leave me a comment below! I'll do my best to help.
You might also love this blog post: 10 Things I've Learned as a Dietitian and Nutritionist.