Like many things I’ve accomplished in my career, I didn’t set out to become a preceptor. But when I was asked, I said yes, as I usually do when a fellow RD makes a request.
In 2003, Martha Rew, the dietetics internship director at Texas Woman’s University, invited me to become a community rotation preceptor for her interns in the area of nutrition communications. As a veteran media spokesperson for my state and the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, as well as an ongoing freelance contributor to three different magazines for 20 years, I could offer a unique perspective the interns might not otherwise receive. Fourteen years and more than 90 interns later, I can tell you this has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my career. In addition to the university interns, I’ve also served as a preceptor for Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital interns since 2007 as well as individual interns from other area programs.
Currently, 50% of applicants don’t match with a dietetic internship. One reason is that there aren’t enough preceptors, particularly in the hospital setting. Here’s my perspective on why each and every dietitian should consider becoming a preceptor.
Some of us may recall our internship year more fondly than others. Mine hearkens back to the days of white uniforms, white hose, sensible white shoes, and (gasp!) hairnets. And your hair couldn’t touch the top of your shoulders, so my long hair had to be pulled up in a distinctly unstylish look for that time. But along with these perceived indignities came a treasure trove of learning experiences from an array of dietitians from the hospital to WIC to school nutrition to Visiting Nurses to the Greenhouse Spa (where we got to wear street clothes). While there were some learning experiences I enjoyed more than others, all of them helped me to venture forth in the real world of dietetics practice upon graduation. What if those RDs and their facilities hadn’t been willing to teach interns? We all have a responsibility to give back for what we’ve received.
Making a Difference
The feedback I receive from interns who work with me, in the notes they send and evaluations they complete, has a common theme: passionate, enthusiastic, science-based, encouraging, positive. And after they embark in their careers, I’m so happy when they contact me to say they’ve done their first television interview, started a blog, or become a state media representative. In fact, at the Food & Nutrition Conference & Expo™ 2016 in Boston, I attended Food & Nutrition Magazine’s event for their Stone Soup bloggers and dietitians working in the media, where a former intern received a social media award. In addition, I’ve seen several former interns assume leadership positions at the district and state levels, another activity I encourage interns to pursue. As a preceptor, you not only help them learn more about your area of practice but also make a difference in their perspective on what it means to be a professional.
Taking the Plunge
If I’ve inspired you to become a preceptor, you may be wondering what are your next steps. Contact your local dietetics education programs and offer yourself as a preceptor. If you work in a hospital or other facility, approval will be required from the administration, but the internship programs provide all of the paperwork to get started. It may take some time and effort, but it will be worth it in the end as you make a difference in an intern’s education and life as an RD.
— Neva Cochran, MS, RDN, LD, FAND, is a nutrition communications consultant in Dallas working with a variety of food and nutrition organizations and companies to promote science-based nutrition information. A long-time leader, she received a 2012 Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics Medallion Award and the 2016 Texas Academy Outstanding Preceptor Award.