It’s hard to believe it’s already been 2 years since I moved to Ohio to begin my dietetic internship. I can still vividly remember walking into my first day of internship orientation, overwhelmed by ALL the feelings. Like most undergraduate dietetic students, I had spent the past 2+ years researching, visiting, and applying to internship programs (on top of the many years spent simultaneously studying, volunteering, and working), all so that I could eventually call myself a “dietetic intern” – and, more importantly, a “dietitian”. Finally, the time had come to put everything that I’ve learned and read in textbooks into practice.. and I couldn’t have been more excited – or more nervous.
For those of you who may not be very familiar with the field of dietetics, the dietetic internship is one of the last steps in the process of becoming a Registered Dietitian (RD). It is similar in nature to a physician’s residency program and must be completed in order for an individual to be eligible to sit for the registration exam. Each internship is unique in their own ways; however, all accredited internships consist of 1200+ hours of hands-on supervised practice in a variety of clinical, community, and food service settings.
Internship placements are granted through a (crazy and mysterious) computer-matching process. According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, there are currently just over 250 internships in the United States – a small number considering how much the field has grown over the past decade. As a result, the national match rate for dietetic internships is currently 49%, meaning that more than half of all dietetic students who apply to dietetic internships in any given year do not get matched. To call the process competitive would be an understatement.
But, you’ve done your homework. You’ve gotten an internship. So now what??
Well, first off.. CONGRATS!! Obtaining a dietetic internship is an accomplishment in and of itself. Now it’s time to make the most of this opportunity that you’ve been given.
At times, the dietetic internship may just seem like yet another hoop to jump through before you can finally get the coveted “RD” after your name. But these 9-12 months can be some of the most rewarding months of your life and can really help to set the stage for the rest of your career. At the end of the day, you will only get as much out of the internship as you put into it. That being said, I’ve teamed up with some fellow RDs from across the country who have “been there, done that” to share some tips for getting the most out of your dietetic internship.
- Make it personal. This is YOUR internship, so make it your own.“If you have a good idea of the area of dietetics you eventually want to work in, to the extent that you can, see if you can tailor your rotations to that area,” says Diana K. Rice, RD of dianakrice.com. Reach out to your internship director early on to communicate your interests and work together to identify potential rotation sites. “You’ll be able to list the facilities you worked in on your resume as past experience when applying for jobs that relate to your interests,” Diana points out.
- Be proactive. Reach out to your preceptors approximately 2 weeks prior to your start date to clarify work hours, dress code, and any other questions that you may have. Knowing these kinds of details ahead of time will make the transition to a new work environment that much easier and less stressful. And speaking of new work environments, take some time to read up on the organization that you’ll be working for.. What is their mission? Who do they serve? Review any notes from undergrad that you feel may be applicable during this rotation so that you can really hit the ground running!
- Strive to improve yourself, not prove yourself. After years of reading textbooks, completing case studies, and studying for exams, it’s only natural to want to show off how much you know (and don’t worry, there will be plenty of time for that). But if you’re unsure of what something means or why something is being done a certain way, now is the time to ask! After all, the internship is intended to be a learning experience. “Always be inquisitive. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. You’ll get a lot more out of a learning experience if you question things,” says Kate Chury, RD of Thinkybites.com.
- Act like a sponge. I know, I know, this is probably the most overused phrases when it comes to the internship process, but don’t let the cliché nature of this statement undermine its importance. Throughout your internship, you’re going to be exposed to A LOT of information – and there may be times when you feel like what you’re doing or learning will never apply to your future career. But don’t write things off prematurely. “Know that there are no limits in this career. The boundaries of being a dietitian can extend far beyond what you see in your internship, so keep an open mind and soak up as much knowledge as you can in the moment,” says Chelsey Amer, MS, RDN of CitNutritionally.com. “You learn something from every experience you have!” (you can find more of Chelsey’s tips for dietetic interns here!)
- Be self-sufficient. Keep in mind that your preceptor is taking on a huge responsibility (in addition to all of their usual day-to-day responsibilities) by hosting you. Be respectful of their time and avoid asking questions that could easily be answered through a little research. For example, if you don’t recognize the name of a medication in a patient’s chart, look it up. If you are still confused about how it applies to that particular patient, then it’s okay to ask your preceptor for further clarification. But always do your best to find out some information on your own before you reach out to your preceptor for help. There will come a time when your preceptor is not there to hold your hand.. and when that time comes, it’s important that you know where to turn for reliable and reputable information.
- Embrace constructive criticism. This one is often easier said than done.. especially in a field that’s overflowing with Type A perfectionists. But learning to accept – and embrace – constructive criticism will only help you in the long run – both on a personal and professional level. Really listen to any feedback that you receive and reflect on it (don’t simply nod your head and shrug it off). Remember that this criticism will help you to become the best dietitian that you can be. “Don’t take criticism personally, learn from it,” encourages Angelica Agami, MS, RD. “Keep in mind that every dietitian you come in contact with has their own way of doing things. It’s best to adapt to their style while working with them before developing your own.”
- Stay positive. Chances are, you’re probably not going to love every single rotation that you find yourself in – and that’s okay. But no matter what situation you find yourself in, always do your best to keep an open mind and maintain a positive attitude. “Treat a negative situation as a learning experience. There’s a lot to be said about your character in a bad situation,” says Samara Abbott, RD of ggnutritionco.com. “Dietetic interns will complete several different rotations and work with more than one preceptor. In a perfect world, you will have a fulfilling experience where you meet amazing people and learn new things. But the reality is that you may be in a situation where you ultimately don’t have the best experience (I once hid in the bathroom and cried during one of my dietetic internship rotations). Remember that tough situations build your character and only make you stronger. If you encounter this kind of scenario (and I hope you don’t!), keep a positive attitude, use it as a learning experience and continue on in your professional journey.” (you can find more of Samara’s tips for dietetic interns here!)
Make every minute count. As an intern, there is really no such thing as “downtime”. Sure, some days will be busier than others; but regardless of what the schedule says, there is always learning to be done. Instead of sitting around twiddling your thumbs and waiting for the next assignment to be placed in your lap, take the initiative to ask your preceptor for additional tasks or projects. In the off chance that your preceptor does not have anything for you to work on at the moment, fill your time by reading journal articles, browsing through patient education materials, and so forth… basically, anything that will expand your knowledge and enhance your experience as a dietetic intern. But please, for the love of all that is holy, do not use a lack of assignments as an invitation to check your social media or personal email during work hours; save that for your lunch break.
- Be a (interdisciplinary) team player. Sure, you are technically a “dietetic intern”, but that doesn’t mean you have to live in a dietetic bubble. “Talk to everyone in your rotation, not just your preceptor,” says Susan Stalte, RD, LDN, MBA-Candidate at b2brd.com. “Remember that the facility as a whole is welcoming you as an intern. Have respect for all and always be willing to help out when needed. There were tons of times where I helped staff in the office next to my preceptor with unrelated tasks, but I formed connections and was better able to understand how all processes fit together.” Working alongside other healthcare professionals now will also prepare you to function as a contributing member of an interdisciplinary team later in your career. “[Dietitians] have to work as a team with everyone from colleagues and physicians to nurses and food service staff,” says Brynn McDowell, RD of thedomesticdietitian.com. “Your preceptor will LOVE it if you can work well with all these people. It came up again and again on my final internship reviews that I was able to work so well with others. Plus it’s a great way to make connections for future jobs.”
- Keep an open mind. Even if you think you know which area of dietetics you want to go into, you may find that your interests change as you move through rotations. Use the dietetic internship as an opportunity to explore a variety of different career options. “Seek out as many learning and observational opportunities as possible- these are experiences that most dietitians do not get after they become credentialed,” says Jennifer Hunt, RDN, LD of healthy-inspiration.com. “Assess what you think works well and compile a notebook of tips, tricks, and effective strategies that you will want to implement as a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist.” Angela Cuddy of rdcareerlaunch.com agrees and encourages interns to think of themselves as a “tourist” of the profession. “Make the most of the unique opportunities you weren’t sure you would like and keep your mind open to new experiences that could be the door to something awesome in the future.”
- Don’t be afraid to stray off the beaten path. In today’s day and age, there really is no limit as to where the RD credential can take you. “Think outside the box of what a ‘traditional dietitian’ may do & don’t be afraid to bring ideas to the table! Preceptors love to see interns coming up with fun ideas to keep nutrition interesting & relatable,” says Emily Holdorf, MS, RD at empowerednutrition.org. “And be open to projects that may not always seem like something a dietitian would do. I learned so much from projects & people I never thought would relate to nutrition, but really helped me be a better dietitian today!”
- It’s not only what you know, but also who you know. Nearly every dietitian that I spoke with emphasized the importance of networking and building long-term professional relationships throughout the dietetic internship. “The connections you make in your internship are likely going to be invaluable down the road as your career develops,” says Stacey Mattinson, MS, RDN, LD of staceymattinson.com. “All of my biggest clients have come from connections I made as an intern because they vouched for my quality of work and ability to follow through.” Go out of your way to get to know as many people as possible at each rotation site and do your best to keep in touch with some of your preceptors after you finish your internship. “You never know what you may be getting into in your career 10 years down the road and the connections you make in your internship are priceless,” says Claudia T. Felty, PhD, RD at claudiatfelty.com.
- Reflect on your experiences. Don’t just move from one rotation to the next on autopilot. Take time to reflect on each rotation while the experience is still fresh in your mind.. What did you like? What didn’t you like? What did you learn? Record your answers in a journal – over time, you’ll start to notice patterns in your responses that will help to guide you toward your ideal job. And speaking of jobs, I recommend keeping a log of projects, assignments or daily tasks that you complete at each rotation – these will likely serve as talking points for future job interviews. Obtain hard copies of projects or assignments whenever possible for future reference.
- Show ‘em what you’ve got. It’s normal to be nervous, and maybe even a bit anxious, when you’re starting a new job (or in this case, a lot of new jobs!) But don’t let your nerves get the best of you.. “Be confident,” says Bracha Kopstick, RD of beekaynutrition.com. “You have so much knowledge plus skills from schooling, volunteer/work and life experience. You’re not a complete newbie, so let it show even when you’re just starting a new rotation/placement.”
- Last, but not least.. HAVE FUN. The dietetic internship is literally a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, so enjoy it! You’ve worked hard to get to where you are today, so embrace each new opportunity and challenge that comes your way. Bond with the other interns and spend time doing non-internship related things – explore the city, hit up a group fitness class, head out to a happy hour. You’re only a dietetic intern once, so make the most of this exciting time in your life!