“I’m having second thoughts,” the voice on the other line stated. This is the second dental student I had talked to in the past few months who repeated the same phrase. “About what?” I asked. “About being a dentist,” she answered.
And if she were right, that daunting realization would have been an expensive mistake to make. Private dental school education can run as high as $600,000 for 4 years,1 with the midrange landing slightly below $300,000,2 though that’s not counting the average undergraduate debt to the tune of an extra $30,000.3 The weight of that kind of liability against future financial security alone puts tremendous pressure on “making the right choice.”
Fear of the Unknown
During my conversation with the dental student, we discovered that her fear stemmed from her own self-imposed expectation. When her inexperienced hands collapsed the belief that dentistry is enjoyable and rewarding, she flatlined, froze, and second guessed the litany of decisions that brought her to this point. I paused and remembered my own career-in-question moment at almost the exact same juncture 20 years prior. A giggle in my mind, I thought to myself: “This I can help her overcome.”
Neither a life coach nor a mental health professional (full disclosure announced), I offered to listen and guide her based on my own past experiences and missteps. I was confident that through our communication, she too would realize that she is at the exact right place. As we began talking, she realized that her trajectory course needed no adjustment; rather, she had just been labeling the fluid action of learning as her own inadequacy.
To the Dental Student and the New Graduate: The Fallacy of What You’re Thinking
Think about going through your entire academic career before dental school. Think about the nights of studying, the hours of volunteering, and the time spent at extracurriculars. A culmination of those formative years (4 years in high school and 4 more in college) had brought each one of you to a point where you were pretty good at hitting the high score. In those 8 years, you learned how to study, when to study, and exactly what to study. Dare I say that gathering those As and Bs became a formula that, if followed, gained tremendous results.
As you try to apply this same meticulously devised method to your hands and the learning format in dental school, it may not produce the same results, possibly making some of you feel incompetent. Teaching your hands what your brain wants them to do is far different than studying for a microbiology test; it definitely includes exercising a different part of your brain. And for some of you, myself included, it takes a while for that hand-eye coordination to solidify.
A deep-rooted feeling of imperfection can grow in that time of learning, as your brains and hands begin a dance toward being competent clinicians. This sensation of imperfection then leads to shame, which can also bring about intimidation and a misguided sense of lower self-worth. Grades that don’t fall into line with your college accolades make you wonder if your professors and colleagues regard you as worthy. To prevent self-disappointment, you begin to develop a fear of that which you do not know and have not tried.
And as you project that lack of confidence, you fulfill the self-professing destiny; you live out a newfound story of not being good enough, a truly tragic and unfair representation of what is. But that fallacy has a sprinkle of good news within it: Your self-defined imperfection and, dare I say, incompetence is nothing other than inexperience.
Even better news is that it can be overcome with time. If you are willing to stay the course through the uncharted waters of dental school, like the rest of us have, you will gain ground toward being confident and conscientious dentists quicker than predicted.
Learning From the Struggles of Others
To rid this dance of worthlessness and inexperience, a student ought to be surrounded by a community of educators and peers who are vulnerable enough to admit that we, too, have struggled. We have been inexperienced and afraid and have made mistakes. Mistakes are the world’s cruel and beautiful way of creating teaching opportunities.
At this time, however, there are additional difficulties facing a dental student, and I am not attempting to minimize those. As far as the much-needed hands-on experience goes, I’m afraid we won’t know its effects for the dental students affected by the pandemic for some time. Schools in Scotland have decided not to take any more new students into their dental programs; instead, they have extended the current dental school education by another year, making sure that those in a program leave as confident clinicians.4
That same model may be close to impossible in the United States, with steep educational costs coming out of the pockets of future dentists, further reducing their income potential. None of us who have earned our degrees prior to this have been faced with a similar circumstance. This epoch is different for new graduates, and there may be some sort of hands-on experience gap. But I wholeheartedly believe that our new grads have the thirst and the drive to close that gap.
I, for one, would like to remain hopeful that whatever mastery our new doctors graduate with is eventually going to get them to a very comfortable place. There has always been variance among new graduates in their levels of experience and proficiency.
And yet, with time, mentorship, additional continuing education, and maybe even a postgrad program, we landed on our feet, and so will they.
You Made the Right Decision
I hope you will find comfort in the following words: No matter how you’re feeling in this moment, trust me when I tell you that you have not made a mistake. It merely feels like one because you’re only considering the very moment you’re facing. You are not taking into account the years of hard work that it has taken to get where you are, you are not remembering the times you’ve been in flow learning your new craft, and you are not seeing the incredible future entirely unbeknownst to you.
You are only focusing on and considering this one interaction that has you rattled, put off, and fearful. You’re standing at the edge, facing forward, afraid you’ll fall.
You perceive that the culmination of your last few encounters is going to bring you down.
But just like there is no edge to the earth, there is no edge to your overall experience because life is a journey. It ebbs and flows and has hills and valleys. Perhaps there will be a fall, or perhaps there will be an injury; no person has ever lived life unscathed, and you are no exception. Whatever you are facing that feels detrimental or difficult, this too shall pass. And when it does, you will awaken stronger than you are in this moment. It is the true human experience to overcome life’s battles.
No matter how big or small, whatever you’re facing, you will persevere. You will gain knowledge; become masterful; find value; and, most importantly, set a different path due to the newly acquired perspective.
But until you get there, keep going because even if you are standing at this self-perceived edge, no matter how deep the fall, those around you and that which is within you will catch you.
As your tribe and your community, we offer you understanding and grace. Embrace our presence and allow us to celebrate you, the new generation of capable and excellent clinicians. Lastly, remember that there is more to life than dentistry. Despite what it may feel like at this moment, past the climax of graduation and coming up soon thereafter, life continues to unfold. And it does so beautifully if you’re paying attention.
Dentistry is our livelihood and can be our hobby, passion, and joy, but dentistry is not life. Defining the limitations and boundaries between life and work will be freeing in the moments of struggle. A healthy separation will reduce burnout, allowing you a safety net, a life’s place of retreat. Find activities or hobbies to disengage your mind from teeth. Find people who will bring you back toward what matters. Spend time with your tribe (whether it be family or friends), take a walk outside, go for a bike ride, or play with your dog.
The much-needed release will allow you to regain your footing and take a rest.
Yes, the search for Zen may take a moment following the grueling cycle of an academic career, but it’s one worth following through.
Our Turn to Give Back
The new grads and current dental students have created an opportunity for seasoned clinicians to rally our community around the shortcomings created by COVID-19 and the realities, maybe even the shortcomings, of our educational system. We owe them support as future colleagues and representatives of our craft.
If you know of a new grad in your area, reach out and offer guidance or mentorship. For me, as I continued to struggle with where I was going to find the time to follow up with the young dental student mentioned at the beginning of the article, the high I got from helping and being an anchor for an anonymous soul carried me for days.
Nothing in the world feels better than giving generously from within.
1. New York University. Tuition, fees, and expenses: 2021-2022 four-year DDS program. https://dental.nyu.edu/academicprograms/dds-
2. American Dental Education Association. Educational Debt. https://www.adea.org/godental/money_matters/educational_debt.aspx
3. U.S. News and World Report. See 10 years of average total student loan debt. September 14, 2021. https://www.usnews.com/
4. BBC News. Covid in Scotland: Dental schools unable to take on new students. February 19, 2021. https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-scotland-56112743
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dr. Augustyn earned her DDS degree from the University of Illinois Chicago. She has completed the course sequence in the Dawson Academy’s continuum in oral equilibration and cosmetic dentistry. Dr. Augustyn is a general dentist and writer in Elmhurst, Ill, and lives near Chicago with her husband and daughter. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can read more in her column, Mindful Moments, at dentistrytoday.com.
Disclosure: Dr. Augustyn reports no disclosures.