I’m all settled into my new home in Buffalo, New York and today marks the weekend following my first official week of supervised practice hours. I am doing my clinical rotation first and was placed at Erie County Medical Center (ECMC) here in Buffalo. It’s crazy to think that I have only been here for a month and only completed 23.5 supervised practice hours in the hospital, and yet it feels like I’ve been here for months!
My first day I was pretty nervous, not going to lie. It’s natural that you’re going to be nervous entering a brand new setting with a bunch of people who are already comfortable with the location, the staff, the policies, the culture, etc. It’s like the first day on a new job (actually, that’s basically and exactly what it is, only you don’t get paid). I had been in hospitals before, so at least it wasn’t also a place I had never had any experience in whatsoever.
Now that it’s Saturday and Week 1 is in the books, I feel the need to share my experience and offer some tips for anyone out there planning to study nutrition and become an RD. Every aspiring RD is required to complete an internship, and I know I was googling key phrases to try and find blogs of other people’s experiences during their internships so I could feel more prepared and a little less anxious. If that’s you and somehow you found my site, I am so thrilled to potentially help calm your nerves and set you up for a successful first week.
1. Check out your site BEFORE your first day
Hindsight 20/20, right? Even with my first day of classes (I’m in a combined program so I am also taking graduate classes towards my M.S.), I didn’t think to drive to campus first to get acquainted. Campuses and large institutions like hospitals can be very confusing to navigate, and it will only help to get a sneak-peak before your first day. Pop the address into your phone’s GPS and drive over there sometime before you start! Drive all around the place. Get a feel for where to park (I’d even recommend asking your preceptor where you should park). Be aware that traffic may require you to leave earlier to ensure you arrive on time. These are basic, square one tips that are easily overlooked, but no one likes to be late and running around frantically to find out where to go. Make your first day peachy and check things out in advance.
2. Email your preceptor a couple weeks before you begin
My clinical director told us all to do this. In case yours doesn’t, definitely reach out before your rotation starts! It’s common courtesy, really. Introduce yourself, thank them for taking you on as an intern (it’s a lot of work), and ask them relevant questions. You want to make the best possible first impression and that includes being prepared. Clarify what time you start, where you should park, where you should go, the dress code, if there’s a locker you can use, a fridge/microwave for lunch, etc. Anything to help you feel prepared and ready to hit the ground running when you show up bright and early day one! Just be sure to keep things professional. Yes, that means proof read the email for grammar and spelling errors before you hit send and address them formally by using Mr., Mrs. Ms., or Dr. when appropriate. Use your best judgement and don’t be too wordy. Your first impression begins here (in the email itself). You’ve got this!
3. It’s better to over-do it, than under-do it
I’m mostly talking about appearance with this one. As someone who grew up as a total misfit, wearing fishnets, miniskirts, high-top converse and crazy colors in my hair, I know first hand that dressing in formal/professional attire is absolutely “conforming to societal standards.” If you’re one of those people who is bothered by that, figure out a way to accept it as a fact of life. This is how the world works! I promise you right now, it will work out in your favor to play the game. Act the part. Dress to impress. Ladies: wear tights with skirts and dresses and be sure they go at least to the knee, closed toed shoes, no cleavage, nice quality blouses and slacks, no tank tops, and simple jewelry only (nothing that dangles or is overly flashy). Gents: wear socks with tall ankles that cover all skin, slacks, button up collared shirts, and it never hurts to throw in a tie. Think formal business wear. Use Pinterest to your advantage for outfit ideas. Shop at second hand stores and consignment to save money. And don’t forget your lab coat and/or name tag everyday if you are required to wear one!
4. Exude confidence and professionalism in every moment
Walk in with your shoulders back, head up and a warm smile on your face. Even if you are scared half to death inside, smile! Speak clearly when you talk to people. Introduce yourself to as many people in the hospital as possible. Shake their hand if appropriate (staff only — do not touch your patients unless told otherwise by your preceptor in the case of Nutrition Focused Physical Exams). When your preceptor is explaining something to you, genuinely listen and engage. You’re here to learn and learn fast. It may seem like you’re going to be at this place forever, but I assure you it will fly by. If they explain something too fast or they assume you know something, ask politely for clarification. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. They were in your position at one point too. Use your critical thinking skills and try your best to find answers on your own before you go to your preceptor. However, if you honestly can’t find the answer, it’s perfectly fine to ask. Just be sure to write down the answer so you don’t go asking the same thing twice. Take notes. Explain the choices you make in your assessments with confidence, even if you were incorrect. That’s how you’ll learn the most and gain respect for your effort and determination.
5. Start taking patients on your own as soon as you feel ready
The sooner the better. I took a patient on my own the first day. Everyone’s comfort with this is going to be different. But to be frank, it will never get easier until you jump in and try. This seriously goes for everything in life. Tag along with your preceptor for at least a couple screens and/or assessments and/or follow-ups so you get a feel for how to navigate the hospital as well as how they enter the patient’s room and initiate conversation. You’ll find out what works best for you and what feels natural. For me, I like to knock on the wall or door as I enter and say, “Hello Mr./Mrs. _________!” Before you do this, triple check that it’s the correct room and that they haven’t been discharged. Once I am in the room and can see the patient, I introduce myself by first name and let them know I am a dietetic intern there to ask them a few questions related to nutrition. It’s really not so bad and kind of the best part of the whole job. Patients in the hospital are just people too and they want to feel better and go home. You’re an integral part of that process even as an intern!
I could go on and on about my first week and tips to make yours go as smooth as possible, but I don’t want to write a novel, just a blog post. I really hope this helps you or someone you know who may be going to school for nutrition, considering going to school for nutrition (do it!), applying to dietetic internships, or already in one. Preparation is the key to being competent and feeling confident, and confidence will get you through anything. Tell yourself you’ve got this and act with a healthy sense of pride. Your internship has the possibility of being one of the best experiences of your life. Enjoy it!
Natalie, future RDN