In 2012, I made the decision to move from Dubai, U.A.E. to study at Acadia University in Wolfville, Nova Scotia. I chose the Acadia nutrition program for its strong academic and practical curriculum. The flexibility and variety of courses exposed me to many aspects of dietetics and broadened my scope of interest. Prior to starting the program, I was unsure of what I wanted to do after my degree, and it wasn't until my second year that I realized my goal was to become a Registered Dietitian. I felt I had fallen behind my peers, but was determined to complete my degree on time and get into an internship program. Beyond studying hard and getting good grades (a given how competitive programs are), the following 8 strategies are what helped me ace the internship process.
1. I joined a co-op program for new experiences
Paid, nutrition-related work experience is sometimes hard to come by. There is volunteer work available, however, during the summer months I needed paid work. The answer: join a co-op program (if your university offers one).
During my second year, I attended a nutrition-focused co-operative education information session at my university, where students talked about their job experiences through the co-op program. One experience in particular, with the Alberta Canola Producers Commission (ACPC) in Edmonton, Alberta intrigued me. I instantly saw how valuable it would be, and I was convinced that moving across the country and spending the summer in Alberta would be the ideal situation for me. I went home that day, applied to the co-op program, and also emailed the coordinator (in September!) at ACPC to let her know I was interested in a summer position. Even if you get into a co-op program, it doesn’t guarantee you a job. You are expected to contact employers and convince them to take you on as a co-op student. So that is what I did. Persistence and genuine interest pays off, and I got the job.
For more information on the co-op experience, a fellow RD and Acadia Grad has written about how the program was her secret ingredient to securing a dietetic practicum program
2. I joined clubs and did work I was passionate about – even if they weren’t nutrition related
In university, I was never a part of any nutrition or food service-related clubs. However, I joined clubs I was passionate about. I was President of my university’s Pride Organization and a full-time Resident Assistant. These two roles took up a lot of my time and I knew that between them and insane amounts of studying, I could not take on anymore.
At the end of my third year at Acadia, I was ready to quit my dream of being a dietitian. I realized I had one nutrition-related experience on my resume and everything else was a passion project. I regretted not being an active member in nutrition groups.
My professor in my Professional Practice class asked us to write a letter to ourselves about our future plans and this is where I expressed these thoughts. A week later, she called me into her office to discuss this letter. I can confidently say, that conversation changed everything. She outlined the qualities I demonstrated through my non-nutrition work roles and the skills I gained, which were superior to just being a 'member' of a club. I reflected on the attributes I had developed, such as leadership, critical thinking and decision making, communication skills, organizational and time-management skills, adaptability and dependability, and many more – all essential characteristics of a dietitian.
3. Be persistent and fearless
I felt confident and motivated after a push from my professor – until NONE of the co-op and non-co-op nutrition jobs I applied to responded. It was a major setback as I had no summer plans and nowhere to go.
I packed my bags and moved to Vancouver, British Columbia. During my previous summer with ACPC, I learned about an innovative flaxseed oil that you could cook with. The company behind the creation, BG Health Group - Flaxseed Cooking Oil, was based in Richmond, BC. I had emailed the Vice President of Operations several times before the summer outlining my interest in working with them and how I would be an asset to their organization. Every attempt failed as they were unable to accommodate me for the summer. I moved there and asked for an in-person meeting so they could meet me, see my willingness to learn, and dedication to the industry. I got the job.
4. Find a program that matches your career goals and dreams. If you don’t have the necessary experiences, go and get them.
I planned to apply to the Acadia Post-Graduate Internship Program, and for my three Dietitians of Canada choices: Nova Scotia Health Authority in Halifax, NS, The Moncton Hospital, and my first-choice, St Michael's Hospital/Ryerson University Collaborative Program in Toronto. If someone tells you not to apply to a particular program 'because your chances are lower' – don't listen to it. Apply to the programs that you think would be a good fit. If you're truly interested and committed, your passion will shine through in your application and interview.
I started analyzing what the program requirements were and whether I would be a good match. For St. Michael’s Hospital, a heavily clinical program, I realized not only did I have limited clinical experience, but my clinical knowledge was likely not as advanced as other applicants from other schools. Acadia’s versatile program exposed me to many aspects of dietetics, but was focused more on community and public health versus clinical.
I chose to get more experience and applied for clinical-related nutrition jobs. At the end of my summer, I moved to Cape Breton, NS to take on a 4-month co-op job as a Nutrition Assistant in a long-term care facility.
5. Find mentors outside of academia
The knowledge and skills I gained under all of my mentors’ supervision gave me a tremendous boost in my application and during the internship interviews. They helped me discover my interests and harness my potential.
These incredible people will not only be your support-system and guiding light through your application process, they can also serve as references, especially if they are not academic mentors.
In the fall before applications were due, I realized I didn’t know any RDs besides my professors. I decided to approach my supervisor at the long-term care facility who I had known for maybe a week, and asked her if she would be a reference for my internship application. I offered her time to get to know me before agreeing and promised to prove myself.
6. I started the application process early so I could get valuable feedback and references
I knew which programs I wanted to apply to and spent a lot of time researching them before I wrote my personal letters. In my personal letter I wrote about how my goal to pursue a career in dietetics began; how my experiences shaped me into the professional I am and what I was able to contribute in my work/volunteer roles; my short-term and long-term goals and how the specific internship program would play into this; why I chose that program, and why I would be the best candidate for their program.
I wrote a general draft for my resume and personal letter before personalizing each one to its specific program. I sent both these documents to friends, family members, and mentors. The feedback was brutal, but incredibly helpful. Try to keep editing and refining, and save all your drafts – you never know when you might want to include a previously deleted idea.
As previously mentioned, reach out to potential references well in advance so you can receive their sealed references in time to apply.
7. I spent time practicing for my interviews
I was scheduled for both in-person and phone interviews. For my phone interviews, I sent in a picture of myself that I requested the interviewers keep in front of them during my interview. This was probably strange to them, but I thought adding a face to my voice would help.
In your interview, they want you to feel as relaxed as possible, so just have fun with it! They want you to succeed, so even if you are confused about a question or don't know how to answer further, they will help you. They usually start with an ice breaker, such as "tell us three things about you that were not mentioned in your application" – make it fun, not school stuff. There will likely be basic questions related to dietetics and typical interview questions, such as "why do you want to be a dietitian", and "why did you choose our program". If your university has interview practice questions or mini mock interviews, make sure to participate.
8. Trust in who you are and what you have to offer
I do not really remember the questions or my answers from my interviews. I remember being honest, sharing who I was and why I wanted to be an intern in their program. A few months into my internship at St. Michael's, I had a discussion with my coordinator regarding my strengths and weaknesses. I mentioned feeling overwhelmed and undeserving to be in a clinical-focused program. I felt my knowledge was not up to par compared to the other interns. She said something that resonated with me: you will continuously learn and build on your knowledge. It's not about how much you know, it's about who you are and where you want to be. My past experiences, particularly my willingness to travel to take on new roles showed qualities they appreciated. They understood my personality and goals fairly well during the interview, and felt they could help me become the dietitian I aspired to be.
St. Michael's Hospital Dietetic Students 2016-2017
For more information on the St. Michael’s program, two of my colleagues have written about their experiences, here and here.
I hope this blog has been helpful in your path to choosing and applying to a dietetic internship/practicum. If you have any questions, or would like further guidance, feel free to connect with me and we can chat!
Editor’s Note: The new school year starts in just a few short weeks and no doubt, nutrition students will be brushing up their resumes and looking for new experiences. It is always invaluable to hear about a new grad's recent experience - thank you for sharing, Evita. There is something unique about each of our learning journeys. Please share below.
Disclaimer: The opinions of the bloggers are their own. Dietitians of Canada encourages submissions and provides publishing support but does not guarantee the accuracy of the information provided. Please contact the writer directly for concerns or questions about the content.