How to make the most of your time at dental school

How to make the most of your time at dental school

To celebrate the DDU’s new student hub, Professor Ewen McColl and Amy Sharp discuss the realities of dental school life and advice for making the best of your studies.

Professor Ewen McColl is the head of University of Plymouth’s Peninsula Dental School. Amy Sharp is a Peninsula dental student in her fourth year and editor of the Dentsoc magazine, On the Cusp.

What advice would you give students to help them make the most of their time at dental school?

Ewen McColl (EM): There are so many learning opportunities at dental school, so in my opinion the most important thing is to seize these while you can as they can be much more challenging to access once qualified. Always have a question for staff as it shows you’re engaged and able to make the most of their experience. 

Amy Sharp (AS): Initially it was quite nerve-wracking because it felt we were still quite young when we started at dental school and we began by doing simple procedures on patients, but it was really important to get out of our comfort zone and make the most of it.

How do students learn about professionalism and the ethical aspects of dental practice?

AS: Being professional is so important and it’s something we cover a lot in lectures, group sessions and clinic itself, so we learn what that means as a dentist.

EM: Learning about the professional responsibilities that come with looking after patients starts on day one of first year for therapy and dental students. After every patient contact, students are assessed on their professional interaction with patients and colleagues, as well as their clinical knowledge and performance.

What attributes does a dental student need?

EM: To be successful at dental school, students need to be well organised, motivated, enthusiastic, and willing to work hard on developing communication and clinical skills, while maintaining focus on professionalism and patient safety. It’s a very busy curriculum with a lot of different types of assessments and the pressure can be significant.

AS: One of the biggest parts of professionalism is being prepared. In year four, we’re in control of our diaries. If we have a denture patient, for example, we need to ensure their appointment fits with lab timings. If it’s a procedure we haven’t done in a while, read up on the theory and guidelines. The staff are great in helping us if we’re unsure, but we’re still expected to prepare.

Would you encourage dental students to explore different opportunities outside the general practice setting?

AS: Before I got into dental school, I just assumed I’d go into a practice and do the things you’d expect. But even in the first and second year there’s so much you can discover.  

For example, we’re encouraged to do dental core training after our FT year, which involves hospital night shifts and working with ENT – I would not have considered that before.

It’s also been good to learn about different specialties. We have specialist care visits where we go into hospital to learn about a speciality, which is so interesting. I don’t know many people who just want to go into practice full-time. I’m sure they will do that for some of the time, but they want to get different experiences. 

EM: We absolutely want our students to think broadly about their career options beyond dental school. We highlight the wide range of opportunities available to them. We encourage students to get involved. Staff at the dental school have a very wide range of professional contacts and are always keen to support students’ career aspirations. 

What should dental students do if they are struggling?

EM: The first thing is to speak to someone if they feel something isn’t going so well professionally or personally. We all want students to enjoy their time at dental school and we appreciate the pressures students may be under. So don’t hesitate to ask for support. 

It’s important within our community of practice to support each other. Being kind to others can help manage day to day problems we all inevitably face in a demanding profession.

AS: The first thing is to talk to other students because everyone goes through it at some point. If you have a couple of bad days in clinic or at uni it can feel like you’re dissolving a little bit. But if you find out how other students feel – half the time it will be the same and you encourage each other. 

If it’s a recurring problem and affecting work, it’s important to speak with a member of staff. That can feel like quite a big step, but they are willing to help. Most have been to dental school themselves so they know it can be hard.

What do you enjoy most about being in dental education?

AS: Dental school is really fulfilling and it’s nice knowing that your future career is going to be so rewarding. We see six or seven new patients each year. A lot have not been to a dentist in a really long time so we just know that treatment is really going to make a difference, even simple things. That’s the biggest thing for me and why I wanted to be a dentist in the first place.

I also feel I’m challenging myself. There are times when it feels very difficult – like when there’s a hundred lectures to get through. But knowing you will get it and hopefully be really good at it is another reason why dentistry is fulfilling for me.

EM: I’ve always enjoyed learning and for me personally every day is a learning day, be it from staff members or from the students themselves who always seem to have good questions to push my own knowledge. 

I really enjoy witnessing the students’ professional journey. Particularly at graduation where all the hard work has paid off and the graduates take their next step. I keep in touch with many former students and it’s great hearing how their careers progress.

This interview has been edited for length. Visit the DDU’s student hub to read the full interview and discover other exclusive content:

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