Dr. Kay Warren is a general dentist who practiced in the Bay Area after graduating from the UOP San Francisco Arthur Dugoni School of Dentistry in 2005. Before that, she had extensive experience as a software models analyst and technical writer/editor and started a contract writing firm in Santa Monica, CA. Her clients included small startup firms needing documentation, creative writers wanting development and polishing of their stories/scripts, and previous employers who needed help developing and presenting responses to requests for proposals (RFPs).
Practicing dentistry requires being more of a jack-of-all-trades than you might initially think! It’s fast-paced, requires thinking on your feet, and is tremendously satisfying when patients are grateful for what you can do for them!
During the course of a typical day’s work, you will act as a detective in taking the patient’s medical history and descriptions of pain, a material sciences expert in determining the best material(s) to use, an artist in designing and restoring defective teeth and gaps, an esthetics expert in detecting smile imperfections and facial asymmetry, and a psychologist in managing patients’ anxieties. And if you run your own practice, you will also need to be a businessperson. Interpersonal and communication skills are critical for managing and motivating your staff, consulting with laboratories and other dentists, and interacting with your patients.
Besides owning a private practice, there are many other career paths at both private and government-funded institutions. Companies are always developing new products and materials. Some dentists become their lead marketing and salespersons, and instruct dentists how to master new techniques and technology. Federally-funded institutions and universities need researchers to study topics of current intense interest, such as the genetic research of regeneration of oral tissues. A clinic or hospital dentist may treat many emergency cases in the course of a day. Dental schools need instructors, some of whom are full-time professors. Insurance companies employ dentists to evaluate treatment claims submitted to them.
It will be in your favor to take as many hard life sciences as you can. These include anatomy, physiology, histology, biochemistry, pharmacology, and neurology or neurobiology. While majoring in biochemistry is not required, you will need to have a good working knowledge of organic chemistry and physiology before you graduate. Dental schools are looking for capable, well-rounded individuals, so it is fine to major in another discipline so long as you are able to prepare yourself to take the Dental Aptitude Test (DAT) before you graduate.
There are some specialized skills dentists need to master such as hand-eye coordination (dexterity) and the ability to conceptualize and manipulate objects in three dimensions (since you will largely be working with a hand-held mirror). You also need to be able to perform CPR.
As an applicant to dental school, it is advantageous to begin working on these special skills and indicate this as part of your application background. For example, you can obtain CPR certification from the American Heart Association on your own. Any hobby that requires dexterity such as fashion design, sculpture, playing a musical instrument, or even painting is a plus! Ask to shadow in a dental office or even volunteer for a few days.
Many dental schools offer some sort of DAT-prep courses, often run by second- and third-year dental students. Set aside some time everyday practicing 3D object manipulation problems and angle identification problems, in addition to sciences preparation. Take every sample DAT test you can find!
Your Personal Statement is a critical part of your application. All applicants are going to be well-qualified, so the Personal Statement allows you to stand out. Explain, from your heart, why you belong in the dental field. This has to be your personal, compelling story. Write about your unique interest in dentistry and how it developed – it’s the single part of an application that administrators are likely to remember when it comes time to review the cut list.
Dental school is the training ground for practicing. School flies by and is demanding. Take a vacation before you start! And definitely take time to enjoy part of your breaks, in spite of needing to review for classes and boards. You will find that you actually become so accustomed to the hectic pace that life as a practicing dentist seems comfortable. Plus, you will finally get to follow patient outcomes and learn what techniques and materials work best in your hands. Joining study groups and professional societies allows you to compare notes and cases with other dentists. Nothing beats learning about other dentists’ most complicated cases before one appears in your office!