Forming deeper connections as a dental student

Forming deeper connections as a dental student

Umair Afzal is a fourth year dental surgery student at the University of Leeds and was the 2021-22 president of the Leeds Dental Society. Here, he offers his top three insights into dentistry so far. 

Since settling into dentistry at the University of Leeds, I have gone on a journey of reflection and learning, especially when connecting with friends and professional colleagues.

Over time, I have developed an understanding of the dental industry – one I intend to work in post-graduation and have been fortunate to work alongside.

Below are three key insights worth thinking about, all of which have applications within career development and for interpersonal connections we make daily.

Tip 1: limit your options to maximise your connections

Generally, we try to form connections with whomever we meet at social gatherings where we know no one. There is a variety of options where we may invest our time to develop these connections.

You will tend to move on if you believe you can gain more through an alternative contact. You leave behind the previous connection as a better option has come along, which could provide more value.

More people at a ‘social gathering’ leads to more options for forming connections. Below are some generic examples to illustrate this:

  • One hundred and fifty people conference – lots of options (highest options)
  • Fifteen people family dinner party – fewer options
  • One person on a desert island – one option (lowest options).

In these examples, each event has varying numbers of people at each event. Hence, we consider our options with greater focus.

You could walk away from someone at a dental conference and probably never have to see them again.

You are stuck with the people at the dinner party for the entire evening, so you will have to make conversation.

And you could remain stranded on that desert island forever.

Fewer options favour the ‘long game’, whereas having more choices of whom to talk to could result in shorter conversations and more superficial connections.

Attempting to spend all our time maintaining all 150 relationships to a full standard daily might be considered tiresome or unattainable.

Deeper connections

We could even start to neglect the more meaningful connections, such as family. Personally, situations with fewer options have helped me develop more robust connections than those with more options.

These principles worked well when I ran trade fairs and organised events. As a result, it has helped me build my professional connections to enhance our student-led dental school events.

If you decide to attend dental conferences or trade fairs, aim to develop deeper connections (rather than superficial ones) so you have longer-lasting relationships.

Having a few solid connections with key people is better than having many superficial ones with everyone there, helping you invest your time wisely.

Attending in-person events is a great start, especially those hosted by dental societies at the university if you are a student.

Tip 2: the importance of a value-driven attitude and first impressions

Everyone has an innate set of values or hobbies shaped by the experiences of the world around them. It is essential to find common ground that can be built upon when meeting someone for the first time.

When I organised two of the largest dental trade fairs at our dental school, I often met potential sponsors for the first time over Zoom.

I quietly challenged myself to find at least three attributes we had in common during the meeting to build rapport. Examples included a passion for landscape photography, interest in culture change, or being huge foodies! Finding three fundamental values is similar to developing trust with my patients and showing my human side, working well when making friendships.

I have seen first-hand how positive attitudes, careful listening, and a willingness to help others impact career development. Always consider everyone; no matter whom you reach out to, apply the mindset that they have the potential to help.

Occasionally, I have been able to draw lines between the people I have spoken to and helped them create the necessary connections. Engaging with people on a deeper level through common values shapes this social reciprocity, and sincerely caring about their endeavours and broader interests makes a huge difference.

My mum often tells my brother and me: ‘You never know whom you will bump into in life unexpectedly…’

Dismissing people when they do not give the best first impression is effortless. However, keeping an open mind with genuine relationship-building helps keep doors open. You never know when the right connection will become pivotal in your career and success.

Tip 3: applying Dunbar principles when connecting on social media

Thirty years ago, a researcher named Dunbar theorised that one person could only maintain a finite number of connections at a time, which he stated was precisely 150. This 150 includes your family, friends, colleagues, and everyone you know. Justifiably, the precise number of these connections varies.

However, I wondered about the applications of this idea as a dental student on social media.

An increasing number of Instagram accounts seem to have more than 150 followers, and it does not seem challenging to reach 150 friends on Facebook. Looking more broadly, our dental school has around 500+ students in total.

At BDSA events (such as sports day in Leeds this summer), numerous students from every dental university attend, with over 400+ students present and even more so at their trade events.

By these standards alone, 150 seems like an arbitrary value. However, it makes it seem realistic that we can only maintain a finite number of connections.

I have found myself actively aiming to provide value to my connections through social media updates and resources whilst also working to maintain deeper connections with those around me.

Varied outlook

Carving out a part of the internet has helped me maintain relationships; Instagram or LinkedIn pages are a great way to do this. We saw during the pandemic how it becomes increasingly difficult to maintain close relationships online, contrasting with in-person interactions.

For real-life experiences, you can develop longer-lasting, deeper connections. Creating them outside of dentistry provides a more varied outlook on life.

Balancing connections is easier said than done. As we accumulate a broader set of connections, I have noticed we can unintentionally dilute the strength of our relationships with each person.

Investing energy into the right friendships and professional relationships is crucial in the grand scheme of things, primarily when you can support one another.

Examples include speaking to new graduates who can provide insight into what to expect. I like to pass my knowledge to younger years by answering their questions.


Overall, there is a benefit to having fewer, more robust connections than shallow ones. It is easy to undervalue first impressions, but working to find common ground provides a solid foundation for a link to develop.

Networking is not about just knowing superficial details about a person; it is about creating genuine relationships from a long-term perspective rather than transactional ones.

Create professional contacts through dental conferences, trade fairs, and social media. Balancing this with deeper connections provides more value to both of you, especially when considering these professional contacts friends.

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