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Tips for a First-Time Preceptor

By Matt Knight, RDN, LDN

Have you ever thought about becoming a preceptor to help educate the next generation of dietitians?

A preceptor is a skilled expert who offers instruction, training, and supervision to students. Dietitians who act as preceptors assist dietetics interns in the development of professional skills by providing access to practical clinical experience. Indeed, preceptors play an essential role in training future dietetics colleagues. All RDs are eligible to fulfill this role.

It’s rewarding for an RD to give back and support the profession. However, playing the role of preceptor comes with its share of challenges. Teaching and mentoring a dietetics intern involves a significant time commitment. RDs must remember to account for this time and continue to manage day-to-day responsibilities. Good organization and time management skills are a must.

It’s well worth the effort, however, as becoming a preceptor is an experience unlike any other. This article will help you get started.

The Preliminaries
The following are some tips to help you prepare to successfully work with dietetics interns.

Start early and get organized. Well before your first intern arrives, think about what they will need to know to work with you. The following are some questions to consider:

  • Do you need to work with your information technology department to obtain an extra computer as well as software or system access?
  • Where will interns park?
  • Should they bring meals each day or can they easily purchase food nearby?

Create structure. Dietetics interns thrive in an environment where they know what to expect each day. Create written documents and list everything that’s expected during your time together. You also may find it helpful to develop a detailed daily schedule. The following are other useful documents you may want to create:

  • Rotation guidelines. List rotation objectives and required activities. In addition, include a description of each activity and expected assignment due dates.
  • Assignment checklist. Write down each competency you will meet and what activities will accomplish it. Be sure to include a space to date and initial when complete.
  • Required readings. Gather three to four recent, relevant journal articles that contribute to a baseline knowledge of your area of expertise. It’s also important to consider how material will be shared (eg, PDF files, website links, or printed documents).

Schedule a brief orientation. Once you’ve been assigned to work with one or more dietetics interns, schedule a short phone or video call one to two weeks before the start of their rotation. During this meeting, cover any necessities such as required readings, assignment due dates, parking, expected hours, and anything else you feel would be pertinent to their success.

Plan for your first day together. On the first day of your scheduled rotation, give your intern a tour of your work area. Introduce him or her by name to other RDs and members of the care team with whom he or she will interact.

Be sure to allocate time for the team to ask questions to learn about your intern’s background. Try to explore areas where your intern hopes to enhance his or her skills and discuss the challenges he or she has encountered. Also consider asking about your intern’s learning style to help you tailor your instruction to best suit his or her needs.

Prepare for personal growth. One of the greatest rewards of working with a dietetics intern is the personal growth you as an RD experience. Over time you’ll find yourself better equipped to deal with challenging technical questions and more comfortable serving as a professional role model. You also will feel more confident providing constructive criticism in a way that helps your intern develop into a competent professional.

How the Industry Is Taking Notice
According to data published by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (the Academy), there’s a considerable gap between the number of dietetics internship applicants and the number of applicants matched to an internship program. To help eliminate this gap, the Academy has created a sign-up page where RDs can add themselves to the find-a-preceptor database. This listing is searchable by both dietetics interns and dietetics internship directors.

In addition, to encourage RDs to act as preceptors, the Commission on Dietetic Registration now allows dietetics internship program directors to award CPEUs. RDs can earn up to three CPEUs per year and up to 15 CPEUs per five-year cycle to record in their professional development log.

Moving Forward
Being a preceptor is a professional challenge that can be incredibly fulfilling for RDs. This experience offers the unique opportunity to act as a mentor and influence the growth and development of dietetics students. Not only will you see your intern’s skills grow during your time together, you also will grow as you learn how to better share your expert knowledge. Use these tips and visit the Nutrition and Dietetic Educators and Preceptors’ free preceptor resources page to be well prepared when your first intern arrives.

— Matt Knight, RDN, LDN, is a clinical outpatient dietitian with five years of experience as a preceptor, and a freelance writer based in Naperville, Illinois.