Although I love being a dental student, I would be lying if I said it was easy. So in no particular order here are 10 things you will hear me, and other dental students, complain about:

1) Professionalism – is doing the right thing even when no one is watching.

The purpose of undergraduate training is not only to prepare you academically and technically, but also to give you the chance to gain the right attitudes required by a professional. Although this is a great concept, it means you have less freedom than the average university student. This means no crazy pictures on social media, no missing lectures or clinic and absolutely no discussing patients. You are being watched by the GDC, anything you do or say will be held against you!

2) Lack of free time

Speaking of the average university student, here is another reason dental students do not fall into this category…

In first year, living with 8 people that did not study dentistry confirmed for me that I did have it a lot harder. Being a dental student means having a 9-to-5 kind of lifestyle, but taking your job home with you. Your week is jam-packed with lectures, EBL (enquiry based learning) sessions, clinic and more – in addition, you are expected to do a minimum of 15 hours self-directed learning every week. So while my flatmates would be getting ready to go out on a weeknight, I would be in bed tired from the long day I’d had, and preparing for the next. At times it took all of the strength in me not to text my flat group chat at 10pm saying ‘please can you keep it down? I have a 9am tomorrow!!!’

3) First year is not a breeze.

It is an urban myth that A-levels are the hardest qualification you will attempt as a student. I’m sure you all remember doing your A levels, your older friends have started university and they seem to be loving life. You are told that first year is easier than A-levels, and that it doesn’t count towards anything. So when it’s time to start university, the bright-eyed, bushy-tailed freshers are ready for that easy first year they were promised. But no… You soon realise that first year is just as stressful as A levels, or even more stressful if you’re a dental student.

4) Why are you so stressed, all you do is learn about teeth right?

We get this all the time.

It may be surprising to some, but dentistry isn’t just about teeth. Dentists are expected to know about the human body, about the diseases that can affect the human body, about the materials that are used in dentistry and more. It gets a bit tiring having to explain this to people, so sometimes if I am asked this question by someone, I like to look at them blankly until they have got the message.

5) Separating the big print from the small print

Yes, A-levels were tough, but we had all the resources in front of us to enable us to get those top marks. Past papers, a clear syllabus and textbooks such as the legendary CGP guides were all you really needed. At university, you are expected to become an adult learner. This means doing independent research, adjusting to different teaching styles and a lot of self-motivation. What you need to know is no longer black and white, you can do as much or as little as you want but remember the wording of the questions is not as straightforward as you would like, so it is harder to get away with doing very little. Exams are no longer about exam technique but more about how well you know the subject.

6) Going from genius to average

Throughout my school life, I was pretty certain I was a genius. I was in the top set for everything and was always aiming for those A’s. I remember my frustration when I got a B for my French GCSE’s, how could I ruin my streak? Well, this was just the beginning…

At university, everyone is as smart as each other. We all got in with the same grades, we are all just as motivated and hardworking as everyone around us, which means the course is noticeably much more challenging than anything we have been a part of in the past. Gone are the days when getting under 80% was an outrage. You will get the feeling that you are just average, but that feeling passes when you realise this is because you are studying a very demanding course.

7) Teeth are attached to humans

Seems pretty obvious right? Learning skills on a phantom head is quite mechanical, follow the steps and you’ll do a good job. Replicating these steps on a real person with feelings, expectations, lots of saliva and the ability to close their mouth when they please is when it gets difficult. There is a lot of trust and teamwork required between yourself, the patient and your nurse. This comes with practice and experience, but at first it is very scary!

The first time I gave local anaesthetic to a patient all I could think was ‘thank God I’m wearing a mask’, it helped hide the fear on my face (I think).

8) Dentistry is constantly evolving

Although this is very exciting and shows that people have a lot of input, it can also be quite overwhelming if you’re a newbie.

When training to be a dentist you are taught certain skills and techniques, but a lot of these are subjected to personal preference and opinion. Something like the order in which you wear PPE or etch, prime and bond are straightforward. There is no other way to do it, everyone has agreed on this.

But some things are up for debate… Do you squeeze the socket after extracting the tooth? Traditional pulp testing techniques such as Endo Ice or electric pulp testing? Charting first or BPE first? GIC or IRM for temporary restorations? Which is the best angle to place your light? Which instruments are best for carving amalgam?

It is inevitable that each dentist will have their own way of doing things, especially when it comes to older generation dentists vs. younger generation dentists.

Practice, listen to your supervisors and don’t be scared to ask questions.

9) Putting patients first

Generally, being a healthcare professional can be very difficult at times. This is where ethics comes into the equation. You have to be selfless; this sometimes means missing lunch, working overtime and making no profit in the treatment you provide your patient (luckily money is not yet an issue as all treatment provided by the dental school is free). Although I am only a second-year student, I have already experienced that selflessness is key to being a good dentist. When your break is at 12pm and you are still with your patient at 12.15pm, you just have to accept that you’re not getting a lunch.

I have quickly realised that if you put yourself before your patients you will not get far.

10) Standing up for Dentistry

Throughout time, dentists have had a bad reputation in the public eye. Remember the Charlie and the Chocolate Factory movie, or Finding Nemo?

Although dentistry is one of the most trusted professions, it is seldom portrayed in a positive light. Maybe it is because people associate dentistry with pain, or feel that it is unfair to have to pay for dental treatment, or simply because one bad experience in the past has ruined it for them.

On discovering that I study dentistry, people have told me ‘I hate the dentist’ or ‘what made you choose that?’ It is challenging to change someone’s views when they have been brought up to believe a certain thing, but it is great to see people appreciate the hard work dentists do and even more motivating to see dentists take pride in their job!

So yes, being a dental student is pretty challenging and not for the light-hearted. But if you are studying dentistry for the right reasons it is definitely worth it!

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