Have you thought about doing Honours? Whether you are a nutrition student or a dietitian, the option to do Honours in Nutrition is available to anyone who has done undergraduate or post-graduate studies in this field. I completed my Honours year in 2016 at La Trobe University and I ended the year with First Class Honours. My thesis was titled, ‘The Effect of the Mediterranean Diet on Visceral Fat in Australian Patients Post-Cardiac Event’, we aimed to explore whether the Mediterranean diet could reduce visceral fat at 3-months and whether this effect was sustained or larger at 6 months in a non-Mediterranean population group.
I was fortunate enough to be a part of the AusMed research team, which is led by Professor. Catherine Itsiopoulos, A/Prof Audrey Tierney, A/Prof Mike Kingsley and Dr. Colleen Thomas. For me, working with Catherine was a dream of mine, her work and research on the Mediterranean diet is astounding and I had a bit of a ‘fangirl’ moment when I got to meet her – it was definitely one of the highlights of my year. I also worked with PhD students on the trial as well and I learnt a lot from this experience, which I will discuss later on.
What is Honours?
An Honours Degree is an extra year of study on top of a three-year Bachelor course, designed to qualify a student for higher degree (PhD or research masters) study. Honours at La Trobe begun in February and finished in October. It was a total of 9 months straight with no break in between semesters.
Why do Honours?
There were a few reasons I decided to do Honours, 1) I knew it would allow me to “grow” (if you will) as a person and 2) I didn’t know specifically what field of dietetics I was interested in. So I used to the Honours experience to allow me to develop as a person as well as trying to determine what field of dietetics I wanted to pursue.
Honours is a wonderful opportunity to develop your research and writing skills. It also gives you an opportunity to work with a small or large research team. This allows you to deal with a wide variety of personalities and people, and you learn how to adapt to that sort of fast-paced research environment. It also gave me the chance to further develop my critical thinking skills, which I believe is invaluable nowadays, as there is a range of pseudo-science being put out there by celebrities. The ability to critically think and appraise scientific literature is a key skill for any nutritionist and dietitian – and the opportunity to work with the best of the best and fine-tuning that skill is an absolutely advantage.
Honours has also given me two fantastic opportunities to put my name out there, the first being, being able to submit an abstract into the Dietitians Association of Australia conference and working on a publication, which I am intending to submit at the end of the year (hopefully!)
The number of doors that have been opened during my Honours year – make all that hard work worthwhile and it is something you should consider if you’re looking to further your career and open a world of new doors.
What I have learnt?
I have learnt so much in such a short amount of time. I learnt that when I had my back up against the wall, I kept persevering and didn’t give up. I further developed my critical thinking skills through constantly appraising nutritional research and contributing to the Mediterranean Diet research team at La Trobe University. It is such a bizarre experience Honours and it is so hard to convey to you what I have learnt – but I feel like a new person (it is really odd). I feel like any challenge given to me, any assignment or any placement I get, I will be able to take on and embrace that experience. It is something that I will be forever grateful for.
Based on everything I have told you, here is some of my top tricks and tips on how to survive the Honours year:
1) Slow and steady wins the race: Do not go all out in the first few months because when you need the energy at the end. By far, the hardest part was completing the last 2 months of my Honours degree, so make sure you don’t burn out early on! Sleep when you can and slow and steady!
2) You have to make sacrifices to achieve high marks: I made a lot of sacrifices towards the end of my Honours year. I missed out on a lot of dinners with my friends, nights out and sacrificed nearly every weekend doing homework (particularly towards the end). It sucked at the time, but I kept reminding myself it will all be worth it in the end and the H1 felt good when I got the mark back.
3) Time management is key: Similar to your final year of undergraduate studies or Masters, time managing is the key to staying on top of everything. Keep yourself organised by using a diary and creating to-do lists.
4) Preparation, preparation, preparation: Similar to time management, make sure you are prepared. Oral presentation rehearsals, thesis drafts, and meetings become a part of your daily routine. Make sure you’re prepared as some of your marks come from your supervisor (well at La Trobe at least)! If you manage to keep on top of everything and don’t let things spiral out of control – you will be fine!
5) Coffee may become your life: I certainly am not a huge coffee drinker, but in the last few months, I become dependent on the stuff (not healthy). Early starts and late nights were a killer but I always knew my daily coffee would keep me awake. My supervisor told me to limit myself to one coffee a day, which was my rule of thumb… short black anyone?
6) Choose your project and supervisor wisely: There is nothing worse than doing a full year of research on a topic you can’t stand! Make sure you choose something you can enjoy, and when writing your application to do Honours, make sure you make that clear! At La Trobe, we had the co-ordinator allocate us projects that they thought were suitable based on an interview – this may be different at every University. I was very passionate about cardiovascular disease, as it prevalent in my family – and I made sure the selectors knew this. Second, make sure you go and meet with your potential supervisors. This is important, you need to be able to get a feel for your supervisor and whether you two are going to clash or whether you can work with that supervisor etc. As well, you may not be assigned to that project unless that supervisor meets with you – I know this was the case for my primary supervisor. The supervisor/s are looking for someone motivated and willing, plus, it gives you a great opportunity to find out more about the project as well!
It’s a tough and challenging year, but it was the most rewarding one for me. I learnt so much academically and personally, which will help prepare me for future studies – I highly recommend Honours for anyone! People have this common misconception that Honours is for “smart” people or people who can “write well” – it’s not. I work by the motto, “It is not how smart you are, it is about how hard you work.”
Cassandra completed her Bachelor of Human Nutrition in 2015 at La Trobe University. Upon completion, Cassandra undertook her Honours year at La Trobe University the following year and ended the year with First Class Honours. Cassandra had the opportunity to work on the AusMed Heart Trial, which aims to prevent 12-month cardiac re-event rate using a Mediterranean diet intervention in a multi-ethnic cohort. Her Honours research focussed on the Effect of Mediterranean Diet on Visceral Fat in Australian Patients Post-Cardiac Event. Since cessation of her Honours year, Cassandra has been accepted into the Masters of Dietetic Practice at La Trobe University in 2017, which will allow her to fulfil her goal of becoming a clinical dietitian. At present, Cassandra is in the final stages of preparing to submit her systematic review for publication.
Cassandra’s areas of interest include: Mediterranean diet, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and obesity.