Starting dental school is one of the biggest commitments you will make in your life. Not only are you deciding to spend four more years (and maybe more if you pursue a residency) studying, but you also have to consider the hundreds of thousands of dollars that it will cost. This is a decision that should not be made lightly, and if you are anything like me, you will struggle with the decision quite a bit. It took me a while before I knew I wanted to pursue dentistry as a career path, and hopefully, my journey will help you with your decision.
Throughout my undergrad, I was certain that I wanted to be a pharmacist. I found pharmacology intensely interesting and loved the idea of being able to use that information to help my patients. Upon graduating senior year, I had a finished application—letters of recommendation and all but just needed some shadowing hours to fill out the requirements. I got a job at a local pharmacist-owned pharmacy, which was, in my mind, the ideal situation for a pharmacist. I figured that I would spend my gap year working there, gaining experience and learning more about the career, but that all crumbled once I realized that I hated it. I was miserable at that job and knew that there was no way that I could be a pharmacist. This idealized version of what it meant to be a pharmacist came crashing down around me and I was left with the realization that I had no idea what to do with my life.
I felt exceptionally lost and hopeless. How could I be so wrong about something I was so sure about? I quit my job and started tutoring and substitute teaching to make money while I tried to decide what I would do with my life. To tell you the truth, I had no idea. I hadn’t come up with a backup plan. I needed help, a lot of help, because at this point, I was directionless. I reached out to my parents’ friends and every other professional that I knew: intellectual property lawyers, biotech researchers, real estate appraisers. I wanted to talk to anyone who could show me what their career was like so I could see if it might be a good match for me. And of course, none of them felt right.
I started to reorganize my thoughts and think about what I wanted out of a career. I wrote down a list of aspects of a job that I wanted and figured that any career that fits most of them would be a career worth investigating further. I had a preference for working in healthcare, but that wasn’t a necessity. I liked working with clients and trying to solve problems for people. I wanted to make enough money so that I could provide for a future family. I had never even considered dentistry until I was at a cleaning and mentioned to the hygienist that I was a bit lost in deciding what I wanted to do after college. She suggested that I talk with the owner dentist and see if this field might be right for me. The rest of the story is pretty standard: I shadowed the owner dentist and a few of his colleagues, found an associate dentist to help mentor me and ended up loving the career. I took an extra year off to prepare my application, and I am now working through my third year of dental school at UCLA and am loving the process.
I learned a lot by going through this journey. The first piece of advice is to take your time
deciding if dentistry is right for you. Just because it sounds like a good idea on paper, doesn’t mean that you will actually enjoy it in practice. Immerse yourself in dentistry by shadowing and speaking with as many practicing dentists as possible to fully understand what you’re getting yourself into. Secondly, don’t be afraid to take your time. I know it may not seem like it now, but there is plenty of time to decide what you want to do with the rest of your life. Working a job that you don’t love while you search for your true passion is much better than being stuck in a career that you hate forever. As I mentioned before, dental school is a huge commitment, and making sure that you are emotionally ready and excited about your career is vitally important. If you aren’t, don’t be afraid of taking an extra year or two to decide.