What I Wish I’d Known in Dental School

  • by Neil J. Gajjar, BSc, DDS, MAGD, FADI, FPFA, FICD, FACD, Cert. IV Sedation, DDS, MAGD
  • Apr 9, 2018, 15:12 PM

Going into dentistry was one of the greatest choices I’ve made. I want every dental student to know that they’ve chosen a rewarding profession — ranked one of the best in the world right now — in which they’re likely to succeed.

Dentistry had always been the plan for me. As a child, I was really interested in tools and gadgets, and I liked working with my hands. I didn’t yet understand everything being a dentist would entail, but I remember thinking, “I could be a good dentist.”

Fast-forward about 15 years, and I was in dental school — and it was hard. I knew it wasn’t going to be easy, of course, but it struck me as being harder than I’d expected.

To help aspiring students, here are some things I wish I’d known in dental school:

1. You will question whether or not you’re good enough.

The hours were exhausting. There were so many assignments and so much reading that it often felt like I’d never be able to keep up. 

What made it even more difficult was the fact that some students seemed to be breezing through. It made me second-guess my abilities and whether I was going to be a good dentist someday. It was hard to believe that the hard work was going to pay off. (Which, spoiler alert, it certainly did.)

2. Your classmates will quit — and you’ll wonder if you should, too.

It’s very competitive to get into dentistry, but that doesn’t mean that, once you’re in, you’re going to graduate and work as a dentist.

Since everyone’s coming into dental school from different backgrounds and undergraduate degrees, it makes for quite a diverse group. For some students, dental school seemed like the next logical step — or was pushed on them by well-meaning relatives — but it wasn’t a passion.

I saw many classmates think dentistry was “probably” for them, but then it became clear it simply wasn’t. They didn’t dream of being a dentist. They didn’t even particularly want to be a dentist. It was just a respectable career course that wound up not suiting them.

Of course, the lucky ones realized early in the game that it wasn’t something they could do, and they continued in a different profession.

I’ll never forget how the ones who quit seemed so relieved. It was tantalizing to think walking away — saying no to the long hours, the tedious work — could be so easy. So what about the rest of us? The ones who really were passionate about dentistry but still felt like they were struggling?

Even though it was hard, I knew quitting was never an option. I put my head down and focused on the light at the end of the tunnel.

3. Pay attention in every class, even if it doesn’t interest you.

When you’re tired from staying up all night studying, it can be tempting to slack off a little and catch up on sleep. It also can be difficult to pay attention, but it’s important, even in the classes that don’t interest you.

Learn as much as you can from your instructors. Soak it all in! Learn as many different techniques and procedures as you can. The more you know, the better you’ll be at diagnosing and delivering care to your patients someday.

4. The real world is nothing like dental school.

When you’re in dental school, it almost seems like you’re practicing. After all, you’re working on real patients — conducting real examinations, doing real restorations, etc. But the truth is that the real world is nothing like dental school, and it’s a huge shock when you graduate and start working.

Suddenly you’re expected to work year-round, with no summer holidays and very few vacation days. Instead of reporting to professors, you have employees coming to you with every question and complaint. You’re running a business as well as being a dentist. Patients aren’t just waltzing in off the street, happy to have you work on their teeth. You have to build up a patient base, especially if you’re starting a practice from scratch.

What applies in theory does not always apply in practice. In school, you're dealing with ideal situations — case studies and straightforward fixes. In real life, you can be dealing with unexpected issues and unhappy patients. It’s up to you to put out the fires, and it can be overwhelming until you get your bearings.

5. In a way, dental school lasts forever.

Even though you’ve graduated from dental school, you should never stop learning. There’s always something new to learn — or a different technique to try — and even a fresh style of managing your employees.

I really believe continuing education is the best thing you can do for yourself and for your patients. It makes your own life easier because you’re able to learn potentially easier, more effective techniques. And it improves your patients’ lives because they’re getting better, and potentially faster, treatment when they’re in your chair.

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