9 Lessons Learned from My Dietetic Internship

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Last week, I completed my 11-month dietetic internship to complete the required supervision hours to become a Registered Dietitian. Next step is mustering up the motivation to study in this beautiful summer weather to take the Registered Dietitian exam. Of course, getting a job is on the top of the list as well. Now, after 15 rotations, my favorites being pediatrics, oncology, and outpatient counseling, I have officially retired my Brigham & Women's lab coat. For all those interested in becoming a Registered Dietitian or those who are starting their internship, I wanted to share a few lessons I learned during the year.

Last day as an intern.

1.) Be open to learning.

Each rotation is a learning experience. I truly didn't believe that I could learn as much as I did this year. Just off the top of my head, I have learned to perform nutritional assessments on patients, lead educational classes, use various counseling techniques, calculate and monitor tube feeds and parenteral nutrition (IV nutrition), and how to communicate with the residents and medical team who may or may not be on board with nutrition.

Regardless of your career goals, keep your mind open. My long-term career goals are to work in an out-patient setting rather than an acute in-patient setting, but in-patient has helped me establish a clinical background in disease processes, medical therapies, and nutritional therapies. I know that many of the patients I see will have multiple co-morbidities and be on several medications, so it is essential for me to understand the medical background to provide the best recommendations and care I can.

2.) Pick your preceptor's brain.

Your preceptors have a wealth of knowledge that they are usually more than willing to share - if you ask them. Start each rotation with an open mind. Ask questions. Take notes. Get to know the preceptor, how they got interested in nutrition, and their career path. They may be your preceptor this year, but they will be your colleague next year. At the end of the rotation, send them a personalized thank-you note to them know how much you appreciate the time and energy they spent with you. Start building these relationships now, which brings me to my next point...

3.) Networking is key.

As an intern, you have SO many opportunities to network. You  have the chance to learn from and network with preceptors. One of the best parts of Boston internships were class days and the chance to get to know interns in other programs and RDs who spoke at the class days. We also had networking events, such as the state dietetic conference, an alumni event, and the chance to plan our own special rotations. Strike up a conversation with a dietitian you're impressed with in-person or via email. From what I've experienced, most dietitians are happy to share their wisdom and offer some advice. The people you network can act as colleagues, mentors, job references, friends, and may even let you know of a potential job.

4.) It's not just about nutrition.

Many of the patients coming in already know what they have to do - they know they should limit sugar, eat more fruits and veggies, etc. People DO know the basic nutrition information. They just need practical tips on HOW to implement it. Nutrition counseling involves learning about the patient, including their cooking skills, how they get their food (grocery store, restaurants, food bank, federal assistance), their motivation, and more. It's also important to ask questions about their activity level, job, stress, sleep, and their health goals. Counseling is more about guiding a patient to develop their own goals and plans. A dietitian isn't there to be the food police but is there to encourage, motivate, educate, brainstorm, and work collaboratively with the patient. Show compassion to all of your patients. If they are upset, maybe you just sit there in silence and be there with the patient. It makes a difference. Don't forget to refer out to other professionals (therapist, eating disorder specialist, etc.) as necessary.

5.) Practice what you preach.

An internship is stressful! Throughout the year, I always had extensive projects to complete, articles to read, notes to review, presentations to prepare for, on top of a full day of rotations. However, I still made time to make healthy meals, stay active, and get enough sleep to function. It's much easier to come straight home and lounge on the couch watching TV (and I did this some nights), but after a long day of calculating tube feeds, I needed a run or some yoga to clear my head. Since you'll likely be an intern on a budget, look up free or discounted exercise activities near where you live. I made full use of free Lululemon classes or $5 community hip hop yoga classes (Side note: if you're in Boston, get to Back Bay Yoga hip hop yoga ASAP). Also, don't forget your daily dose of chocolate - it's good for you both physically and mentally.

Find a free rooftop yoga class.

6.) Get to know your fellow interns.

I would have never gotten through this year without Wine Friday with my intern roomies. It was the perfect tradition to wind down from the week and catch up. Our intern class also planned potlucks, and there was always a group eating lunch together in the cafeteria. Run a race together. Explore your city. Be foodies and go out to dinner somewhere interesting. Your fellow interns will be your colleagues in the future, and hopefully, you'll leave the internship with a group of close friends.

7.) Pay attention to your passions.

Throughout the year, pay attention to the rotations you LOVE. I know I'm good at in-patient clinical, but it's not what I am passionate about. At the end of the day in my outpatient rotations, especially oncology, I was smiling and felt like I had made a real connection and a difference to patients. Working one-on-one or in small groups with patients inspires and motivates me to learn more and go above and beyond. The internship gives you the opportunity to learn what rotations gets your nutrition heart pumping. You'll know when you feel it. You'll want to learn as much as you can, and your passion will show.

8.) Don't limit yourself.

The world of nutrition is huge and always growing. Don't feel like you NEED to work in a clinical setting or follow a typical career path for a few years before starting your own private practice. If you have a dream, go for it. Write down your goals and start with small actions, such as offering to speak at a library or starting a blog. Email your favorite RD crushes and ask for advice. Set up a special rotation in an interesting area of nutrition, such as corporate wellness or a chef RD.

Think outside the box, and come up with your own idea. Start today by writing down a list of at least 5 career goals and a few action goals for each one. You have to know what you want before you can reach your goals. Jenny Westerkamp, RD and owner of All Access Internships (a GREAT resource for those applying for internships) spoke at one of our class days about How to Love your Career Every Single Day Right Away. Check out her post compiling these lessons. My favorite one: Do what you love. You'll be better at it.

9.) Get a labcoat with pockets

Now, for a little practical advice. Make sure the labcoat you buy has multiple pockets, and stuff them full of tube feed cheat sheets, pens, post-it notes, paperclips, a calculator, your phone, and more. Your labcoat and the folders/notebooks you carry will become your walking office. Actually, the most important point of the pockets is to carry snacks and water. You're going to be on the go all day long, so make sure you pack some brain fuel and stay hydrated.

If you have any questions about dietetic internships, leave a comment below. I'd be happy to speak with future interns & RDs!

What lessons have you learned in your career?