Once I made the decision to take the leap and actually make a career change from the music industry to dental medicine, I had to first locate my finish line (read more about my steps to a successful career change). I knew my end game was to practice family dentistry but my starting point was an undergraduate Princeton degree with just a couple years of working experience in a field completely unrelated to medicine. So, I had to essentially design my own path into healthcare and then find my way back home to general dentistry. Working backwards to devise a plan was a little tricky but in the end and along the way proved to benefit me as it gave me these very clear challenges to complete on a track that ended up being uniquely my own. Here are my checkpoints:
1. Pre-Medical Studies. I'm sure things have changed a bit since I applied to school, but most dental schools generally require fulfillment of the basic pre-medical or pre-health curriculum that includes two semesters with laboratories in the following subjects: Biology, Inorganic Chemistry, Organic Chemistry, and Physics. Additionally, many students may elect to pursue advanced academic work in a particular discipline. However, because I didn't even consider a career in healthcare until two years after graduating from college, I had to essentially go back to college to pursue this coursework. A mentor advised me to apply to the nearby Bryn Mawr Postbaccalaureate Pre-Medical Program. Although, you can complete these pre-med college courses at your own pace, I strongly recommend a structured pre-med program to help keep you motivated and on good pace to reach your goal.
2. Medical Research. A great way to gain experience in healthcare is to work in medical research. There are countless opportunities at large research institutions and hospitals to interact with providers in both clinical and laboratory settings. My research at the Hospital of University of Pennsylvania Department of Otorhinolaryngology introduced me to specialists in ear, nose, and throat medicine as well as oral maxillofacial surgeons and neurologists. I had a super cool chance to work on a study that followed smell and taste function in patients with degenerative diseases including Parkinson's and Alzheimer's and the best part was my research was ultimately published in the Annals of Nuerology. Working alongside other aspiring healthcare professional students gave me lots of insight on how to prepare for the application process to dental school. Look around campus and inquire about positions in lab research. One may just be your gateway into a degree program.
3. Shadowing. Ask your dentist if you can watch him in action! What exactly does a dentist do? Find out! Working, volunteering, or interning at a dental office can introduce applicants to the extensive variety of procedures, materials, and the general culture of a dental setting. I shadowed my family dentist as well as my oral surgeon which were great opportunities to compare the two very different areas of dentistry with regards to anesthesia, office pace, and training. Shadowing also gives a future dentist a chance to pick the brain of a seasoned provider. Find out what to expect in dental school as well as practice. Ask him to outline his dentistry pros and cons and how he maintains a good work life balance. I strongly encourage aspiring dentists to learn as much as possible about the profession before the hustle and bustle of day and night studying required of dental school commences.
4. The Dental Admissions Test. In addition to testing in the natural sciences, math, and reading comprehension, the DAT also examines spatial perceptual ability. That's right! There's a lot of art work, waxing tooth structures, and design preparation in dentistry so your ability to visualize and understand the spacial relationships among objects is essential. Don't worry, there are several tutorials to help you get ready for this part of the test. Visit the website of the American Student Dental Association to find out what to expect from the complete exam and how to best prepare for your test date. Every student has to figure out his own learning style. There are volumes of old exams, practice tests, flashcards, and computer programs to help you succeed. Be sure to exhaust as many resources as possible to do so.
5. The Application Process. Submitting your dental school application can be stressful but it is also a time to really highlight yourself as a great candidate. Test scores, grades, honors, experiences, and recommendations are all pieces of the pie. The campus interview is also an important part of the process. Meeting with administrators, faculty and students allows future students to ask questions to find the best fitting dental program. The geographic setting of the school, design of the student clinics, and even the size of the campus can impact your student experience.
Choosing dentistry was the tough decision but finding your dental home will be based on navigation of your own design and strategy. Be confident, be persistent, and best of luck with each and every step of the way!