One of the most frequently asked questions I get from people emailing via the blog and from acquaintances going through the dietetic internship application process is, “How did you find your preceptors?”
First of all, if you’re not too familiar with dietetic internships, you don’t need to worry about finding your own preceptors for the majority of internships out there. Most internships create your schedule for you, and they tell you where to go and who to report to. This post is mainly for those considering distance internships where you need to source your preceptors and facilities, like the one I’m enrolled in – Utah State University Dietetic Internship. With my internship, I had to find all of my preceptors and have paperwork for everyone submitted by the February 15th application deadline. While it definitely was an additional aspect of something else I had to do on top of the application form, personal statements, resume refining, and more, to me it was worth it and really wasn’t that arduous of a process. So, here are my tips!
- Start early (if possible). Long story short, I actually didn’t consider applying to distance internships and didn’t begin looking for preceptors until the December before applications were due – and then because of holidays, I really didn’t get to speak to many people until January. While it was definitely a whirlwind, I managed it, but I would definitely advise starting as early as you can!
- Network at your local dietetic association. If you’re currently living in the city you want to do your internship in, or if you’re able to visit, I recommend going in person to network with local dietitians at your local dietetic association meeting. As I was on a short time frame, I wasn’t able to do this. However, at the meeting I went to last month, there were a couple students who were looking for either preceptors for an elective rotation or students looking for preceptors for their whole internship. Being able to network with a room full of dietitians wanting to help you seemed invaluable to them! Plus, as I’m in a distance internship now and having a great experience, I was able to give several of the students the contact information for my preceptors.
- Set up meetings with potential preceptors. Again, if you’re able to do this in person, do it!I know other interns that had great experience scheduling meetings with potential preceptors so they could go over the facility, expectations, and more.
- If out of town, make your initial contact via telephone. This is something that our generation can sometimes have a problem with – most of us are connected to the Internet all the time, and it becomes really easy to just shoot a quick email to someone. Don’t do it! Always, always, always call first, even if you have the person’s email. To be honest, most of the time I just got a voicemail. But, if I happened to have the person’s telephone number and their email, I would leave a voicemail introducing myself, saying that I would also email them my resume for their perusal, and would follow up with them in a week. To me, this worked well. Calling people, especially if it’s requesting an in-person meeting, shows more initiative to your potential preceptors, and that’s what they like to see. In my experience, they want to help you become an RD, but they also don’t want to have to baby you along the way.
- Email as a follow-up to voicemails. You won’t always have an email address for someone, but if you do, send an email briefly reiterating your voicemail and attaching a copy of your resume. I also tried to include a quick one-liner why I wanted to work there/ with that preceptor when possible (i.e. “I lived in Sarasota when this facility was being built, and I’ve been so impressed to see how the services and reputation have advanced over the years, and would love to learn in such a forward-thinking environment,”). Still – don’t let this be the end-all, be-all. If you’ve left an initial voicemail and email but haven’t heard anything back, follow up a week later (via phone), and just keep trying.
- Unless you’ve received a, “No,” keep trying. We’re busy. Preceptors are busy. Everyone’s busy. Sometimes you’ll leave dozens of voicemails and messages with people and you won’t hear anything back. Don’t become disheartened and don’t take it personally. Just keep trying. There was one facility that I all but discounted, but over a month later, I finally got a call back from their RD and she was super excited about working with me, but had just gotten tied up with a crazy season at work and kept forgetting to return my calls. So keep trying and don’t give up! (At the same time, don’t be obnoxious. It may be all you can think about, but give at least a week between phone calls, in my opinion.)
- Ask for help. If you’ve gotten ahold of someone who can’t work with you, ask if they know of any dietitians in the area who may be interested or have worked with interns in the past. I found several of my preceptors this way. One RD wouldn’t be able to accommodate me, but they would know of someone else who had interns the past, and then that RD was able to work with me.
- Check out email blasts. Ask the president of your local dietetic association if they can send an email blast to all the members on your behalf. This doesn’t always work (it didn’t for me), but I’ve seen it done in other local dietetic associations I’ve been part of in the past. If they agree, keep your email to be forwarded brief, include what you’re looking for (i.e. an 8-week inpatient rotation), and your contact information. I would also attach your resume.
- Talk with your professors. While this is especially helpful if you’re trying to do your internship in the same city as your university, you never know who your professors know. They may know colleagues or past alumni from the school if the city you’re looking at interning in, and may be able to help you bridge a connection. Any small connection helps tremendously!
- Social networking. I initially didn’t use this, but I have seen other interns post to discussion boards on LinkedIn looking for any dietitians in their area who could work with them for x-number of weeks. This seems to be especially useful in larger metropolitan areas. I used my social media networks a little bit a month ago, when I found out last minute that a rotation fell through. While it wasn’t the only thing I did, I put a request out on Twitter and Facebook for any suggestions for community nutrition facilities in my county/ surrounding counties. I didn’t get an offer of preceptorship right then and there, but it at least gave me a few more ideas of other places I could call.
While I am sure there are many other things you can do when looking for preceptors, these are the main ones I focused on, and it seemed to work for me – I think I found all of my rotations in less than two months, and that included time off around the holidays when people weren’t around, school, work, volunteering, normal DICAS time-consuming application stuff, etc.
Now, specific places you can contact, if you’re looking for more ideas:
- Inpatient: hospitals, medical centers, and possibly even rehabilitation centers if they have an inpatient component
- Outpatient: programs at hospitals (i.e. an outpatient diabetic program), dialysis centers (i.e. Fresenius, DaVita, or any small local companies); outpatient weight loss facilities (MUST have a Registered Dietitian on staff – be careful about these facilities, as not all are medical/ true outpatient facilities)
- Long-term care: assisted living facilities, skilled nursing facilities, nursing homes, etc. I think the criteria for my internship was that the facility had to have a skilled nursing unit and an Alzheimer’s/ dementia unit.
- This is the hardest to locate, in my opinion, because so many long-term care facilities only have part-time dietitians. Just keep searching!
- Community: WIC (try your county and any surrounding counties), Head Start, Meals on Wheels, food banks, senior congregate meal sites, Dairy Council, Beef Council, and extension agencies, or any community/ nutrition programs specific to your state or county.
- Foodservice Management: school districts participating in the National School Lunch Program, foodservice departments in hospitals, long-term care facilities, etc.
- Make sure you clarify if your internship requires a specific facility. For my internship, as it has a Child Nutrition focus, I have to do my FSSM rotation at a school district in the NSLP.
- Elective rotations: research facilities, dietitians in any unique area (i.e. working with a physical therapist), private practice RDs, sports nutrition, etc.
- Not all internships require/ allow for an elective rotation: see what yours requires!
I apologize for the verbose nature of this post, but hopefully it will be helpful for those of you who are in the shoes I was in one year ago! I promise that no matter how stressful the application process seems, everything will work out, one way or another! Please let me know if you have any other questions! Also – if you’re currently an intern or dietitian and you have any suggestions that I didn’t touch on, please leave them in the comments below!