Choose Your Adventure: Making The Most Of Dental School Opportunities

Last Updated on June 24, 2022 by Laura Turner

Dental school is a dream, even though some days can be a nightmare. Whether you’re trudging through your pre-dental years or you’re deep into the trenches of dental school, the daily grind can easily cause you to lose sight of your dream: becoming a dentist.

Remember the days when you fought hard to achieve this dream? The dream that fueled you to persist through your prerequisite classes, pile on extra shadowing hours, and cram for your DAT? The dream that inspired you to scrap your third, fourth, and fifth personal statement drafts before finding the perfect prose to make your application pop? Do you still feel that drive, or have you flipped on cruise control?

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The stress and monotony of school can make you complacent. If you hit your required assignments spot-on and never go beyond what is asked of you, you will graduate as a licensed dentist, but dental school can be so much more than the bare minimum if you dare to make it so. Dental school is an incubator for trying new things, for taking risks, for pushing toward goals you’re not quite sure you can reach. If you feel like you’ve settled for what is expected of you, it’s time to dream of more. Read on for a few ideas to help kick-start your dental school bucket list, and get ready to build your own dental school adventure.

1) Ditch School for a Conference

If you read no further, I want you to hear this one bit loud and clear: conferences are my all-time favorite part of dental school. They are unmatched opportunities to expand your education and network within the dental field. We spend thousands of hours in class and clinic, so be quick to jump on a chance to experience life outside of your school’s walls. Unfortunately, students shy away from conferences due a few reasons:

The excuse: Conferences are lame.

Conferences are a blast. I’ve waded through the Cubs World Series parade, taken selfies with LSU professors swimming in the fish tanks at the Audubon Aquarium, and squealed with delight on the roller coasters in Disneyland. I’ve clinked glasses in ice bars, held an Olympic gold medal, and run an Instagram account with more than 12,500 followers. Most conferences have events sponsored by some of the biggest dental companies in the country and are all-expenses-paid adventures on the town. The fun cannot be rivaled.

The excuse: I can’t afford a conference.

Nothing beats free, and that is what most dental conferences are for students. State and national dental organizations usually waive fees for current students as a way to encourage their future colleagues to get involved. Dental student-specific conferences often require fees, but there are plenty of opportunities for sponsorship through student organizations, local dentists, or dental businesses. Get involved in your school’s organizations and ask for financial help to attend conferences.

The excuse: I don’t know how to network.

This myth may actually be true, but conferences are the perfect time to practice. Attend the sponsored socials, strike up conversations between courses, and exchange contact information with interesting people you meet throughout the weekend. Follow up on social media or email, and start to build a group of conference friends who you can learn from and lean on throughout your career.

The excuse: I don’t need continuing education. I’m already continuing my education by being a dental student!

Conferences bring together some of the best speakers in the country to present on topics on which they are experts. You will get a chance to learn about new techniques and materials that are not available at your school and open your mind to the possibilities available to you once you enter practice. Also, many courses help you rack up actual CE credit that you can “cash in” after you graduate so you won’t have to spend as much time or money as a new dentist.

2) Call Yourself Madam President

Dive into an organization early and grow in your leadership skills and seniority. Free time is precious in dental school, and although it is tempting to sink deep into Netflix, devoting time to a group you are passionate about will enrich your life and the lives of your fellow students. You will plan socials, book lunch-and-learns, churn out cutting-edge research, and serve your community. You will gain new friends, resume padding, conference opportunities (that sometimes result in free travel, remember?). You may even find a passion that you will continue to cultivate for years after getting that DDS.

3) Grow Your Toothbrush Collection

Vendor fairs available to you through your student organizations and conferences are treasure troves of free swag. Pick up samples of new products not available in your clinic, and keep an eye out for technology you would be interested in adding to your practice someday.

4) Befriend a Sales Representative

Here’s a moment of brutal honesty: I used to avoid sales reps at all costs. I have trouble saying no, and I worried that if I opened up a conversation with them, twenty minutes later, I’d be handing over my credit card and ordering nitrile gloves in bulk for an office I don’t even own.

I sat in this belief until started to grow my toothbrush collection at vendor fairs and actually started talking to these representatives who, shockingly, turned out to be kind humans with knowledge and great products and good intentions. They knew that I was a dirt-poor student, and they often just wanted to educate me on products and services I had never heard of before.

Now that I am a fourth-year student, my classmates are looking for jobs and asking these sales representatives for help. Sales reps work with practitioners throughout the region, and they often hear of job opportunities before they are advertised publicly. The next time you are at a vendor fair or sponsored social, engage in conversation with one of these representatives. That conversation may help grow your current toothbrush collection and future career.

5) Lobby for Our Profession on Capitol Hill

Dentists have one of the largest lobbying presences in the country. Our lobbying effort allows us to maintain independence as practitioners and protect our patients in a variety of public health settings. Care deeply about opioid prescribing policy or student debt or mid-level providers? There are opportunities to join the lobbying effort in Washington DC at National Dental Student Lobby Day through ASDA, ADEA, and a variety of other organizations. Opportunities to lobby on the state level are available as well.

6) Host a Friendsgiving With Your Classmates

Or form a kickball league or book club or Bible study. Plan time outside of school to make memories with your classmates and get to know them on a personal level. Not the type to host an event? Attend the events your classmates plan. Bring a dish to the potluck. The more effort you put in, the stronger your friendships and in-class support system will be.

7) Apply to Extern

Most dental schools don’t build in time for externships, so making time to extern and shadow outside of school is a personal responsibility. However, if you are uncertain about your interest in a specific specialty or work setting, an externship can provide instant clarification. I struggled in my decision to pursue pediatric dentistry or oral surgery, so I (nervously) applied for an oral surgery externship. The ten days I spent on my externship taught me a million nuances about the profession that I wouldn’t have known otherwise. I got to see incredible surgeries and trauma, but ultimately it helped affirm my decision to pursue pediatrics.

8) Try the Tricky Extraction

Whether it’s an advanced anesthesia technique or a pulpotomy on a squirming five-year-old, step outside your comfort zone in the clinic. Dental school is a unique type of safety net, with dozens of dentists and specialists in one building, ready to save you. Before you’re alone in private practice, sweating over an extraction that you just now realize is ankylosed, try the procedures that are just outside your skillset so you are prepared for these situations in the future.

Crafting a bucket list can help ensure that you never settle for an average dental school experience. The opportunities listed here can get you started, but the list will grow as you achieve dreams and think up new ones. Keeping your drive alive will propel you toward the ultimate goal: becoming a dentist who is always learning, never settling, and constantly dreaming of more for their patients and themselves.