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Laundry On Sundaes

Every beginning is only a sequel, after all, and the book of events is always open halfway through.

Tag Archives: dental student

I haven’t written about my dental school journey in a while because honestly, I’ve experiencing a lot of doubt, disillusionment, and uncertainty again. I debated whether or not to share my thoughts, but I’ve never shied away from being completely honest about my feelings, so here goes. At the time of my last post, I was feeling pretty good about dentistry. I had gotten over the giant hurdle of transitioning to clinic, and I was looking forward to graduating. Over the past summer I was busy working on my applications to orthodontic residency programs, and in the fall I was busy interviewing. It felt good to be working towards something I really cared about. Then on December 1, match day, I found out that I had matched at Columbia. I was going to be an orthodontist! Great news, right? All my hard work over the years was all for this. So why have I been living in a constant state of existential crisis since that day?

I know how lucky I am to have gotten accepted into any ortho program. It is extremely competitive and I should feel incredibly grateful. But the truth is, I’ve been having a hard time feeling truly happy about it. I know this is what I wanted all along, and that hasn’t changed, but once it actually happened, the reality facing me finally revealed itself in its stark nakedness.

For one thing, I know before I applied that I needed to apply widely and that it was a real possibility that I could end up anywhere in the country. I ended up applying to 10 programs (a very small number compared to the average number of programs most people apply to for ortho), in California, Washington, Oregon, Boston, and the New York area. Since I consider the Bay Area home now, I had hoped that I would be able to stay at least in California. With 4 of the programs I applied to being in the state, I thought I had pretty good chances. However, with each passing interview invite that didn’t end up in my inbox, it became clear that it wasn’t going to happen. I was going to have to leave my family and boyfriend and go to a different state. With the University of Washington being the only west coast program I received an interview at (in addition to being an amazing program), I ranked it as my first choice. But you already know that this story didn’t end the way I wanted it to. I got my second choice. Even though Columbia is an excellent program (and my alma mater) and I love New York City, my heart still aches knowing that I would have to leave the city I’ve called home for the past 5 years be apart from my loved ones. It didn’t help that halfway through my interviews, when it had become clear that I had to leave California, I had a big fight with my parents, who thought I should give up on ortho and just stay in the Bay Area to practice instead. I was already disappointed in myself for not getting interviews closer to home, and I felt like I had let my parents down. And even now, sometimes I still catch myself wondering what if. What if I had tried harder? What if I had done better at my UW interview? What if I had emailed the program directors saying how much I wanted to attend their program? What if I had gotten to know the faculty better? IF ONLY I had done these things, then maybe things would have turned out differently. But I know that such thinking is futile and destructive. I try my best to push these negative thoughts out of my head when they rear their ugly heads, but they still nag me from time to time.

On a more fundamental level, I’ve also been having second thoughts about the future of dentistry and orthodontics in general. Most people don’t realize how exorbitantly expensive the training in dentistry is. And now I was about to take on yet another 3 years of schooling to become a specialist, while having to pay even more. My med school friends couldn’t believe that many dental residencies not only do not come with a salary but require high tuitions. High levels of debt coupled with increasing saturation of dentists and dental specialists in most cities does not bode well for our future. And with more and more general dentists doing ortho via Invisalign, the growth of corporate dentistry, new services like SmileDirectClub, and even people who try to DIY their ortho treatment, it seems like the slice of the pie for actual orthodontists is ever shrinking. It all leads me to ask: would this enormous investment, not just of money but my time, my energy, and the bulk of my twenties, pay off in the future? Which feeds back to my second guessing myself and wishing that I had applied to more programs that cost less or paid stipend. All of which is further complicated by the fact that as a Canadian citizen, it is extremely difficult to obtain student loans in the US (that’s a whole other can of worms).

You may know that once again this year dental professionals made the list of 100 Best Jobs, with dentist coming in at #1 and orthodontist at #5. In previous years when dentistry made that list, I felt proud and confident that I had made the right choice for my career. But now I couldn’t help but feel cynical. A more realistic picture is painted in this article instead. I know that it was written by someone who runs a business helping people with student loans, but it makes a lot of valid points. I wish I knew all of this before deciding to go into dentistry, and I sincerely hope that every pre-dental student do as much research as they can to get a realistic picture of the future of the profession. Honestly, if I were to go back in time knowing what I do now, I’m not sure if I would choose dentistry again. Don’t get me wrong, I really love what I do and I’m passionate about orthodontics. I think it’s an incredibly rewarding job that fits well with my personality and skills. But it doesn’t change the fact that it is such an enormous investment, all the while it’s losing prestige and respect in the eye of the public due to the various recent developments I outlined in the previous paragraph.

I guess it all comes down to one question: did I make the right choices in life to take me where I want to go? It is such a big question and I don’t know if we ever find out the answer until we get there. It seems to me that the older I get, the more doubts I have about my choices (I guess it makes sense in a purely statistical sense: the further you progress the more branches there are on the decision tree of life). So far in my life, everything has pretty much gone “according to plan”. I’ve always more or less gotten what I wanted, and I believed that if you put your mind to it and work really hard, you will get what you want. But I think this whole experience of applying to residency has been a kind of wake-up call. Even if you do your best, you still might not get what you want. I’ve always lived by a personal rule: there are no such thing as regret if I’m happy with my life in the present, because everything that’s happened and every decision I’ve made had lead me to this point. Recently it’s become more and more difficult to live by that rule because I’m no longer so sure if I’m 100% happy with where I am right now.

To end this post on a somewhat positive note: there are certain truths I know. I know that I love orthodontics. I know that I’m intelligent, hardworking, and kind. I know that life is unpredictable. And there are certain hopes I have. I hope that I will become a great orthodontist because of my passion, intelligence, hard work, and kindness. I hope that I will achieve success despite life’s unpredictability. The future is still a scary and uncertain place, but armed with these truths and hopes, I approach it with a cautious optimism.

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I didn’t think anybody still read this blog, but more than once over the past year I’ve learned that some D1 at UCSF knows me from here. So I feel some kind of professional obligation to at least update it with some dental school insights. I remember as a pre-dent who used to follow several blogs by dental students, I would get frustrated that their posts would become increasingly sparse over time. Now I understand how hard it is to find the time and energy to do ANYTHING, much less keep up with a blog, when you’re in clinic.

The transition into my clinical years of dental school was not an easy one. In fact, it was probably one of the hardest times I’ve ever had to go through in life so far. I shared my thoughts about this in a lengthy Facebook post earlier this year, which was met with tremendous support. I will share it here:

“As I’m about to began my final year of dental school, I want to share something about my experience with clinic this past year. This message is especially for the incoming D3’s who are about to enter clinic. Some of you will be instantly awesome at clinic, and some of you will struggle. I was one of those who struggled last year, and I struggled hard. For the first time in my life, I felt like I was doing poorly in school. More than that, for the first time in my life, I was not enjoying school. What happened? I wondered to myself. I loved the first 2 years of dental school and felt like I was prepared, but now that I was in clinic, everything felt 100 times harder. The amount of paperwork and administrative stuff was overwhelming, and I felt like for the first time, the amount of success I was getting was not directly correlated with the amount of effort I put in. I look around and see a lot of my classmates excelling, some already doing their third crown and 7th filling when I was still struggling to get patients in my chair. I hear them tell me how much they loved clinic, how much better it was than simlab, but I could not relate at all. I wished so desperately that I felt the same way, but I didn’t. I woke up every day dreading the thought of having to get out of bed to go to clinic. I had so much anxiety about everything clinic-related. I felt overwhelmed all the time. I lost count of the number of times I cried. I began to seriously doubt my decision to go into dentistry, then felt immense guilt over the thought because I, and more importantly, my family and loved ones, have already invested so much time, energy, and money to get me this far. Just weeks ago I was presented with an award at our clinic induction ceremony, and now I felt like a fraud, like any day now they are going to realize that they’ve made a terrible mistake. Things got so bad that I even sought professional help. Over time though, things started to get better, slowly. Fall quarter was still hard, and it wasn’t really until winter that I finally started feeling more comfortable in clinic. Don’t get me wrong, there are definitely still tough days (see my post about my last day of D3 as an example), but now things are so much better than they were a year ago. And from speaking with classmates over the past year, I now know that I wasn’t the only one who had felt this way at the beginning of clinic. But we so often only share stories of our successes and don’t hear about the struggles. So I want to put this out there for all the D3’s: if you ever feel any of the feelings I described above, you’re not alone. It’s completely normal. Don’t give up. If you don’t immediately fall in love with clinic, it doesn’t make you any less of a great future dentist. The transition to clinic is not easy for everyone, and it’s ok to struggle. If you do find yourself struggling, please talk to someone, a classmate, a friend, a family member, a mental health professional. And I will be more than happy to listen too, so feel free to reach out any time. And remember, as you begin to take care of patients, to take care of yourself. We’re all in this together.”

So many of my classmates told me that they felt the same emotions and went through the same struggles as me. So many of the incoming D3’s told me how thankful they were for publicly sharing my thoughts. The truth is, dental school is really, really hard. Caring for patients is an enormous responsibility. It’s completely okay, even normal, to struggle through this transition. But it is also true that I sometimes felt very alone in my struggles last year. That’s part of why I shared my experience, so that others can feel less alone. Mental health is so important, especially for health professional students, and the more candid conversations we can have about it, the better things will be for everyone.

Despite my initial struggles in clinic, third year of dental school was also full of rewards. So moving on to happier things, here are some of the highlights of D3 year in photos!

My clinic partner Kathleen and I at our clinic induction ceremony! We might be smiling but I was definitely internally panicking about actually having to treat patients. It’s so important to have a good support system in dental school and I’m so fortunate to have an amazing clinic partner by my side!

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My big and beautiful Delta Sigma Delta family at the initiation dinner last year:

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Once again, support system!

Me and my wonderful D2 assistant Wendy at Give Kids a Smile Day this year:

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Joining ADEA (American Dental Education Association) at UCSF and exploring my interest in academia is one of the best decisions I made in dental school. This year, I went to the ADEA Annual Session in Denver with a large group of UCSF students and faculty. Here are some lovely members of the UCSF student delegation:

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I also participated in the ADEA Academic Dental Careers Fellowship Program this past year, and as a part of it I conducted a research project on dental students’ perceptions of and satisfaction with faculty diversity. Here I am presenting my research poster with my incredible mentor, Dr. Gwen Essex:

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I was also honored to receive one of two ADEA/Crest Oral-B Laboratories Scholarship for Predoctoral Dental Students Pursuing Academic Careers:

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I’m so glad for the opportunity to attend the conference this year, which left me feeling inspired and grateful and made me realize 2 things: 1) that dentistry is so much bigger than what you experience at your dental school, and 2) we truly are surrounded by the most brilliant and supportive faculty and students at UCSF. A word of advice to all dental students out there, if you ever have the chance to attend meetings and conferences on a national/international level, do it. There are so many opportunities out there: ADEA, ASDA, AADR/IADR, etc. Don’t worry about missing classes or clinic or exams, those things will seem so inconsequential in the future. But the experiences you gain, the people you meet, and the things you learn at these meetings will stay with you for far longer.

Here’s a photo of some of my wonderful classmates in my clinic coaching group, with our coach Dr. Shek:

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I feel so lucky to be in my coaching group. Everyone in my group is so nice and helpful and supportive and funny that it’s one of the things that make me look forward to coming to clinic every day.

I had the privilege to attend the annual UCSF Omicron Kappa Upsilon (OKU) convocation dinner again this year as a scholarship recipient. Here I am with my Delts big sib Jenny, who has been a role model and inspiration for me since day 1:

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And with my amazing classmates/fellow scholarship recipients:

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And lastly, I volunteered for and attended the class of 2016 graduation this past June. It was my first time attending dental school graduation, and I got strangely emotional (right when pomp and circumstance started playing and the grads walked in). I think was partly because I got to see that all the hard work finally paying off, and also because – gasp – this will be me next year. Here I am with Matt, Delts fam and maker of the most wonderful review notes that I would not have been able to survive dental school without, and his adorable baby daughter.

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As I’m writing this, there are 266 days left until my own graduation. Still a lot to accomplish before the big day, but onward and upward!

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