It’s the time of year when dietetic interns prepare to transition from students to professionals. As I reflect back on the past eight months, I can’t believe how much things have changed. At the beginning of the program, I timidly met with preceptors to learn the basics of nutrition assessment and charting, unsure how to interact with other dietitians, professionals, and patients. As time went by, I became more confident in my skills, only to be thrown into another unfamiliar area. Although more confident now than when I started, I still wonder how I will ever feel fully ready to fly. What I do know, however, is that when I make the leap, I will be okay. This is in part because of the hard work I have put into this internship, but also in part thanks to the many amazing preceptors I have come to know. Whether intern, preceptor, or a dietitian who doesn’t regularly work with students, I think we can all use a reminder of ways to help create successful nutrition professionals.
Let’s start with interns. Here are my top 6 tips for getting the most out of your internship:
- Ask questions, but be willing to do some of your own research.
The internship is a time of learning, so don’t be scared to ask if you are confused. However, if you are curious about something you could easily look up, it shows initiative to do your own research. For example, if you have already researched the physiology of bone mineral disease in kidney patients but you are still confused, don’t be shy in asking your preceptor to explain it. On the other hand, if you can’t remember which vitamin supplements are recommended for bariatric patients, try looking this up on your own because it is easily accessible on the Internet. Even better, you could say, “I want to learn more about bariatric vitamin and mineral supplementation. Do you know any good resources for finding this information?”
- Take advantage of the wealth of knowledge your program directors and preceptors have.
The internship is also a unique time where you’re surrounded by people whose job it is to help you achieve your full potential. Seek their advice and get to know them; you never know when one of them will inspire you. Ask about how they landed in the area in which they now work or talk to them about what they wish they had done differently (if anything).
- Focus on what is most useful to you from the readings and assignments.
It’s easy to get caught up in completing assignments and readings just for the sake of finishing them. However, you will learn and remember more if you focus on the things that help you better understand the subject at hand (and not what you think your preceptor wants you to know). On assignments, it may be useful to make your own note sheet separate from what you will turn in so you can add information related to the questions that will be helpful in practice.
- Instead of looking at assignments, projects, volunteer opportunities, etc. as work, look at them as opportunities to build your resume and increase your knowledge.
Again, it’s easy to get caught up in the cycle of completing assignment after assignment, but try to think about how each opportunity will impact your future. For example, while my capstone research project was difficult and time-consuming, I can now say I presented my research at the VAND annual meeting and can demonstrate to future employers that I have valuable research skills.
- Be willing to volunteer.
I know, you’re busy. But volunteering will give you a chance to put what you’re learning into practice in a non-traditional setting. Volunteering is also a great resume booster and way to meet other students and professionals.
- Find something you enjoy outside the internship.
When you just can’t look at another piece of internship-related work, it’s nice to have something else to do. Many interns have joined workout or yoga classes, made friends at church, discovered new areas to hike, or taken up new hobbies. Whatever it is you enjoy doing outside nutrition, DO IT!
Now for the preceptors. Here are my top 6 tips for being an effective teacher:
- Get to know the interns.
Most of our waking hours are spent focusing on the internship, so it’s nice for someone to make the effort to get to know us as human beings. Doing this will make us more comfortable working with you, which will make us more likely to ask questions and challenge ourselves in rotation.
- Think about the experiences your intern has and/or has not had.
Either by sitting down with your intern at the beginning of the week or by looking at the intern schedule, it’s helpful to know which rotations your intern has gone through. Acknowledging the intern’s experiences will let them know you understand for what they may or may not be ready.
- Introduce your intern to the people you work with.
Consider the fact that interns have to work on new floors/in new buildings with people they don’t know regularly. Add that to the fact that they are likely still a little unsure of what they are doing, and it can be scary to start a new rotation. Introducing the intern to your co-workers helps make them feel like part of the team and will make them more likely to get involved with interdisciplinary care.
- Try not to focus on the format/style of the note, and instead focus on the content.
Do your best to remove your own style bias from the equation. While it is helpful to get some pointers on proper wording and formatting of notes in the first few months, most interns have found their own style after a few months. Remember that everyone has their own way of writing notes (as do you!), and pointing non-content-related details of notes may take away from important discussions about note content.
- Find a balance between challenging your intern and leaving them feeling overwhelmed and/or stranded.
One of my preceptors told me on my first day of rotation that I would be leading a counseling session later that afternoon. This was about my third week of rotation, so I was terrified. However, this preceptor gave me adequate time to prepare for the session and ensured that she would jump in if I had questions. Although it was scary, she made sure I wasn’t overwhelmed and was very encouraging. Sometimes we need a little push, but make sure you offer proper support instead of leaving us feeling stranded.
- Make time for a one-on-one meeting at the end of the rotation.
Although getting feedback can be intimidating, it is also extremely useful. You might point something out that your intern had never thought of. When providing feedback about your intern’s performance, try the sandwich method: highlight something the intern did well, provide any constructive criticism, and close by providing another meaningful piece of positive feedback. Here is an example: “I was really impressed by how you took the initiative during rounds to advocate for the role of nutrition in our patient’s care. That showed a lot of confidence! For your next rotation, I might work on your understanding of lab values and ways in which dietitians can intervene. However, it was great when you were able to recommend that vitamin D supplement for Mr. Smith! Keep up the great work.”
As we all know, whether intern or preceptor, the dietetic internship experience is both challenging and rewarding. Interns are asked to work 40 hours each week learning clinical nutrition skills and attending class, while working tirelessly outside rotation on assignments. Preceptors, likewise, hold full-time jobs with full patient loads, while being required to take time out of their busy days to act as teachers and mentors. However, it is because of everyone’s hard work that dietetics is one of the fastest growing fields in America. So I guess it’s true what they say: sometimes the richest things in life are also the most challenging.
Diana Gulotta is a Dietetic Intern at the University of Virginia Health System in Charlottesville, VA. A Wisconsin native (Go Pack Go!), Diana graduated with Highest Distinction from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2015 with a degree in Dietetics. In her free time, Diana enjoys singing, hiking, cooking, and reading. She is pictured here with her internship class and Internship Directors.
As April is National Preceptor Month, stay tuned to the blog this week as interns in Virginia highlight those preceptors who have had a great impact on their learning this year!