Career Path of a Performance Nutritionist


Career Path of a Nutritionist.

How it all started

I grew up on a small farm in Chaffpool, Sligo, which is in the West of Ireland. It wasn’t until I reached my late twenties that I realised the lasting impact of my upbringing on the way I view food and my philosophy throughout my career. My profound interest in farming, animals and caring for the land in a sustainable manner sparked an interest in food in me from a young age. This was the very beginning of my career path as a performance nutritionist.

‘Ag head’

This interest in agriculture led me to study Agricultural Science in UCD. The range of modules available on this course opened my eyes to different aspects of food and food production. It gave me a detailed understanding of  the journey of food from ‘farm to fork’. It was during these studies that I not only made life long friends but I also decided that I wanted to pursue a career in nutrition.

When I realised this was what I wanted to do, I then chose modules which would allow me to pursue a Masters in nutrition. There were no nutrition courses available in Ireland at that time, so I applied to a number of universities in Scotland and England. 

A year across the pond

Fortunately, I got accepted into a Masters in Nutrition, Physical Activity & Public Health in the University of Bristol. This is where I realised that I was much more interested in Performance Nutrition than Public Health. I started working with the London Senior Football team as their Sports Nutritionist while completing my degree. After gaining experience and working in sports nutrition I went on to complete the IOC postgraduate diploma in sports nutrition. As part of my final year thesis I completed a Case Study: Transition to a Vegan Diet in an Elite Male Gaelic Football Player

This road map makes it look quite straightforward, but I assure you, it was far from it. It didn’t happen overnight. To develop my practical experience I regularly provided health and nutrition talks in schools, to various teams and in workplaces. Most of this work was voluntary or a low fee. 

 

The pressure pot

My first major job was working with a marketing company on a campaign for Lucozade Sport. This was an extremely challenging and intense year, mainly because the success of the campaign depended heavily on me and my management of the campaign. It opened my eyes to just how pressurised the marketing world is and the competition that companies are up against to gain exposure for their brand or products. Whilst working with this company, I was involved in managing events around the country. We gathered data on athletes such as their aerobic fitness, speed, strength and agility. The purpose was to allow the public to compare their own data to that of high performing athletes. 

Great friends matter most

In addition to this, I continued my own reading, playing football and trying to build my business. Conversations with my good friend Brendan Egan were ongoing. He has always been my go-to for information, challenged my understanding, lead by example and helped with all my academic work. As long as we have known each other, we continue to share our interests and knowledge with each other. I have learnt a lot from him and from conversations with other professionals in the field. If you haven’t seen his TEDx video on why muscle matters then I suggest you do as it is a must watch!

All of these experiences and collaborations with peers have given me insights and have  taught me invaluable lessons as well as helping to build up my portfolio, develop my vision and establish my position in the industry as a Performance Nutritionist. 

Supplements have their place

I had never intended to work in the supplement industry and only now realise how fortunate I was when an opportunity arose with a start-up company at a time when I was looking for work in the nutrition area. Through this role, I gained invaluable insight into the supplement industry in terms of both business and sports supplements development. This became very useful to me as my career evolved, particularly because it is such a topical conversation with athletes and you need to know what works and what doesn’t. 

A Sligo man working in hurling?!

In 2011, I was very fortunate to get the opportunity to join the Dublin Senior Hurling Team as their Performance Nutritionist. My very good friend Martin Kennedy, who I owe so much to, asked me to be part of his performance team. Martin is an exceptional coach and a fantastic man who supported me when I was just starting out, he encouraged me and believed in me when I needed it most. We all need an MK in our lives and I do my best to help others the way Martin helped me. Working with the Dublin hurling team was my first real experience of high performance sport and I loved every minute of it. They were committed, motivated and had an incredible work ethic which was really inspiring. I continued to work full-time in the supplement industry during this time. This involved many early mornings, including being in the gym at 5 am with the team some mornings, before going to work with the supplement company and meeting clients in the evenings. During this year I gained a lot of great experience as well as new friendships within the team. 

The dream come true

At the end of that year, a position came up with the Dublin Senior Football team, which I applied for. Following many reviews and meetings with Jim Gavin, I managed to obtain my position as their Performance Nutritionist from 2012 until the present day. Soon after this in 2013, a job opportunity also became available with Leinster Rugby and following a lot of preparation and an extensive interview process, I was successful in my application for the role. It was my dream to work in elite sport and in the space of two months I was working with the two teams I admired most. There were many pinch-me moments over the past eight years but plenty of tough ones too. You need to continue to add value and evolve every season which is one of the great things about the roles but also the main challenge.

This was my path

My career as a Performance Nutritionist has evolved hugely and I have gained experience in many different areas of the industry, most of which I continue to apply in my work today. My route is just one path however and there are many different avenues available to aspiring nutritionists today. I have included in this graphic a list of some Bachelor of Science in relevant disciplines:

I often get asked what the difference is between a Nutritionist and a Dietitian and where to look for evidence based information. If you would like to know more on this, take a look at this blog

 

Things are different now but the main factors for success still apply 

When I was applying for my Masters degree, there was nothing of its kind in Ireland at the time. Things are very different now and there are so many more options to choose from that will allow you to specialise in different areas of nutrition. However, it doesn’t stop with education. To become a fully competent practitioner we must continue learning, gaining experience and keeping up to date with new research in our field. 

This involves: 

  • Reading
  • Learning
  • Networking 
  • Conversation & sharing information
  • Voluntary work
  • Reflection
  • Mentorship 
  • Further education
  • Keeping up with new research

Thrive Festival, Dublin Convention Centre, 2019

Qualifications are only the starting point – focus on your knowledge and skills 

Being successful in the industry is not only about getting the necessary qualifications and ticking the boxes on your CV. It is about so much more than that and it requires continuous growth, learning and reflection to be successful.  

If you are truly committed to working in this space, I recommend you focus on building your knowledge, gaining experience, networking, becoming familiar with well-respected individuals in the field, making contacts, reading and being proactive in your learning. Prioritise these things over building an online profile in the early days of your career. I understand it is very easy for young practitioners to get side tracked in the world of social media. Instagram, Tiktok, Twitter, etc. have all become saturated with ‘nutrition experts’ and it is very tempting to become part of that world, but in doing this, you may miss out on the fundamentals such as gaining experience. building your knowledge and making real life connections. 

Although not the most straightforward route I could have taken, I would not change it. Everything I have experienced along the way, every unpaid job and challenging obstacle I have overcome has taught me something valuable. It is all of these things that we pick up along the way that accumulate and shape us into the person and in this case, practitioner, that we aspire to become. 

In conclusion, there are many different paths that you can follow as a Nutritionist, mine is just one example. However, take my example as evidence that you do not have to go in straight lines to get where you want to go. 

“Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire” – WB Yeats. The fire is only getting stronger and my learning continues from books, journals, podcasts and  those around me, daily! 

Don’t forget to check out our blog on Who to trust (and who to avoid!) when it comes to nutrition!

Useful websites to visit when considering your future career: 

https://careersportal.ie/courses/simple_search.php?default=1&txt=nutrition&cols_in=#results

https://www.mastersportal.com/study-options/268664963/nutrition-dietetics-ireland.html

https://www.associationfornutrition.org/

https://www.indi.ie/ 

https://careersportal.ie/careerplanning/self_assessment.php

https://gradireland.com/careers-advice