Nearly 70 percent of NUTR students place into post-baccalaureate internships

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – When it comes to acceptance into post-baccalaureate dietetic internships, Penn State nutrition graduates are in a healthy position.

Penn State’s Department of Nutritional Sciences (NUTR) students had a 69.4 percent acceptance rate into dietetic internships for the fall 2013 and spring 2014 application periods, exceeding those terms’ goals, and marking the second time in the last five years that acceptance rates hovered around 70 percent. Out of 72 applicants, 50 were matched.

Mary Dean Coleman-Kelly, assistant professor in the department, attributes much of that success to increasing awareness earlier in the program about the competitiveness of internship placements; enhanced guidance of students through the application process; and helping students to identify their strengths and experiences when choosing internships.

“In terms of the national situation, there are twice as many graduates of dietetics programs as there are available placements in post-baccalaureate dietetic internships,” Coleman-Kelly said. “Therefore, on a national basis around 50 to 52 percent of students who apply for a dietetic internship get accepted. One of the program outcomes that is evaluated by our accreditation agency is our ability to place our students into internships.”

There are two periods each year where students can apply for internships: fall and spring. Fall 2013 and spring 2014, specifically, include the highest year in terms of the total number of students who have applied, Coleman-Kelly said, but not the highest when it comes to students matched.

“(An) item that makes this year's results impressive is the fact that this is one of the two largest classes in the history of our program,” Coleman-Kelly said.

There are several steps to applying to dietetic internships, Coleman-Kelly said: Students are encouraged to attend the open houses offered by the various programs in the country; they have to fill out a centralized online application form, which is quite extensive; and many programs will also offer interviews either by phone, Skype, or in person.

“The unique aspect of the dietetic internship application process is the fact that we use a computerized matching process,” Coleman-Kelly said. “What this means is students will go to an online program and ‘rank’ their dietetic internship selections from first choice to last choice.  Directors of the dietetic internships will enter their top applicants into the same system. A computer then sifts through all of the data and finds the ‘matches’ of students to dietetic internships.  All students in the nation will find out if they were accepted into a dietetic internship on a specified date; we call it ‘match’ day.”

The department aids students with this process in several ways, Coleman-Kelly said.

A course is offered (NUTR 371) specifically for students to be assisted with the application process.

“We have them fill out several parts of the application, teach them how to write a resume, review and offer guidance on their personal statement, teach them how to create a portfolio, and then have them participate in a mock interview at career services,” Coleman-Kelly said. “Career services allowed me to create interview questions specific to what our students would see in a real interview with a DI director.

In the fall, as part of NUTR 370, instructor Brenda Eissenstat arranges a "Dietetic Internship" fair where she invites representatives and directors from the PA-based Dietetic Internships to attend so undergraduates can talk with the directors about their internships, Coleman-Kelly said.

“As the didactic program director I meet with students individually to discuss any questions they have and to help them make decisions about their rankings,” Coleman-Kelly said. “All of the undergraduate advisers are familiar with the process and also offer guidance with the process.  I also help any of our graduates of the program who either are not accepted into a dietetic internship or choose not to apply while they are seniors. This year I assisted at about 20 of our alumni with the application process.”

Each dietetic internship requires experience in three core areas: clinical nutrition, food service management, and community nutrition/nutrition education. All students are required to complete 300 hours.

Students who don’t secure an internship have a few options, Coleman-Kelly said. Some may explore graduate school, while others may search for nutrition-related experience elsewhere. Some students apply again for a dietetic internship, she said, and some choose a different degree or different career.

Rachel Bloom, 2014 graduate in nutritional sciences with a minor in psychology and honors in nutritional sciences through the Schreyer Honors College (SHC), will begin her internship at the University of Maryland Medical Center (UMMC) in Baltimore, Maryland, on Sept. 2.

Following her internship, which will end in June 2015, Bloom hopes to become a clinical dietitian in a hospital setting for a few years, and then move into counseling patients in outpatient services.

“Penn State definitely prepared me for the internship. Not only did it provide me with a solid foundation in nutritional sciences, but it also gave me the experiences.”

-- Rachel Bloom, 2014 Penn State graduate in nutritional sciences

Bloom worked in a number of research laboratories, including A. Catharine Ross’s biochemical lab that focuses on Vitamin A, and Kathleen Keller’s applied lab that focuses on obesity in children in terms of ingestive behavior. Ross is a professor and occupant of the Dorothy Foehr Huck Chair in the department of nutritional sciences, and Keller is an assistant professor in the department of nutritional sciences.

“The research at Penn State is incredible, and it’s a great way to get involved and learn more about the field from a different perspective,” Bloom said.

Bloom also took NUTR 371, which helped her learn, step-by-step, how to prepare for the internship. Some assignments, she said, included learning about different programs and options, creating a portfolio, and even practicing for the interview.

“When I visited programs, I could tell that the directors liked to hear I was from Penn State because of the renowned program,” she said.

Bloom has some key advice for nutrition students applying to dietetic internships: “It is tedious and can be very stressful, but just remember what your end goal is, to be an RD. I used getting accepted to UMMC as motivation to try my best when applying, and ultimately it paid off. Having that end goal in mind was helpful in completing the necessary steps, and playing the waiting game until Match Day, April 6th, arrived.”

Given that nationally, around 50 percent of nutrition students are placed into dietetic internships, Coleman-Kelly said she is content with Penn State’s acceptance rate.

“While I’m very pleased with 69.4 percent, I want to do better,” she said.

To get the acceptance rates even higher, Coleman-Kelly plans to focus on improving students’ field experience and hosting an information session in the fall to meet with incoming dietetic options students.

Emma Gregory, 2014 Penn State graduate in nutritional sciences with a global health minor from the Department of Biobehavioral Health, said her internship at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts. is really “hands-on” and includes a combination of class days, projects, rotation preparation and evaluation by preceptors.

Her 11-month internship started in early August.

“(I’m) constantly balancing assignments, readings, rotations and evaluations,” she said. “If you pick the right internship it’s really challenging.”

Gregory said the Department of Nutritional Sciences not only helped guide her through the internship application process, it helped her appreciate all aspects of nutrition, including the scientific component.

“I still feel like the luckiest person in the world,” she said. “The prep work is amazing.”

Like Bloom, Gregory highlights NUTR 371 as a key factor to her success.

“That really kept everybody on track,” she said about the course. “I definitely felt like there was a huge drive for completing the … process.”

Some companies and health care providers nutrition students currently hold internships include the National Institutes of Health (NIH), John’s Hopkins University, Florida State University, Penn State University, Aramark and many Pennsylvania-based companies, Coleman-Kelly said.

The majority of these dietetic internship directors have positive reports about Penn State nutrition students, she said.

“We have some very talented students and they’re doing some amazing things,” Coleman-Kelly said. “We have a very good reputation.”

Nathan Franks, 2014 nutritional sciences graduate, who has been placed at the Cleveland Clinic in Cleveland, OH, said he is most looking forward to the real-life application of what he’s learned at the Department of Nutritional Sciences.

“It is one thing to learn about nutrition and health for four years via books, lectures, and case studies, but it is another thing entirely to get to work with real people with real medical conditions,” he said. “I have had some brief shadowing and volunteer experience in my past which helped me get into this DI. I only saw a few patients during that work, but I loved every minute of it. It puts much more meaning behind your work when you are able to relate a case to a face. I cannot wait to get back to that atmosphere.”

“From pediatrics to geriatrics or from oncology to endocrinology I will be able to learn more this year than any year of my life prior,” Franks continued. “This next year will be the spring board for my career and I intend to take every opportunity I can to get the most from it.”

For more information about the Department of Nutritional Sciences, visit nutrition.hhd.psu.edu.

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Last Updated August 18, 2014