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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: orthodontics

I really should be studying for a final next week but I really don’t want to so I’m writing this instead. Thanks to the magic of social media I’m reminded that 9 years ago I was also at Columbia studying for finals of my first semester in college. I don’t think my 19-year-self would be too impressed to know that this is still happening almost a decade later.

As the end of the year approaches, I’ve been looking back and reflecting on everything that’s happened in the last year. More specifically, everything that’s happened since the start of the residency application cycle last year. Having just experienced the interview and match process on the other side has brought back a lot of memories, and honestly not very good ones.

When I applied to ortho last year, the hope was to stay in SF, or at least California, since both my parents and Yufei are pretty established in the Bay Area and it would be nice to stay somewhere for longer than 5 years for once in my life. I worked really hard in dental school and naively thought that I had a pretty good chance of achieving this. However, it soon became apparent that life had other plans. With each passing interview notice received by classmates and strangers on the internet but not me, my heart sank a little. No SF interviews. No California interviews. Only 1 west coast interview. It was like watching your dream fade away piece by piece yet there’s nothing you can do about it. I was watching my future slowly diverge from my carefully planned tracks. When match day came and I matched at Columbia, I it wasn’t unexpected but it still stung. I knew I should feel happy that I matched at all but I wasn’t. I tried my best to come to terms with it but the following weeks and and months weren’t any easier. First I find out that I would be going to NYC by myself and have to be a long distance relationship for at least a year. Then I find out that my housing application for a studio didn’t pan out and that I would instead be living with 2 randomly assigned roommates. Then 2 days after moving in I find out that housing made a mistake and gave me the wrong room and I had to move everything again by myself. It felt like every little concession I was willing to make in my plans was still not enough and life was just playing a cruel joke on me.

I remember sitting in the theater watching La La Land, a couple of weeks after match day, and sobbing uncontrollably at the epilogue where Mia imagines what her life would have been like had she stayed with Sebastian instead of going to Paris to pursue her acting career. I felt like I was at a similar crossroads in life, where I was forced to choose my career over love. While I knew that my relationship would be fine in the end, having to live on opposite coasts for a year was still a daunting prospect. Was it going to be worth it? Would I regret my decision down the road? There were so many regrets and doubts in my head. What if. If only. Maybe things would have turned out differently.

(At this point in my writing this, I went back and checked my past post almost a year ago and realized that I had already shared much of the same sentiment back then. I guess I’m still processing everything.)

As for how I’m doing now, well, I have good days and bad days. On the good days I’m happy; happy with my residency program, happy to be back in NYC, happy to have friends old and new in the city. On the bad days, sometimes bad in the way that only NYC bad days can be, I’m reminded again and again of everything that had led me here, so far away from where I thought I would be today, and my old wounds would be opened again. But the wound is getting smaller, and the good days outnumber the bad. I hope to one day look back and say to myself, everything happened for a reason, and things turned out the way they were meant to. I don’t feel remotely close to reaching that point yet, but one day, one day.

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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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