My take on work experience required for dental applications through my experience as an interviewer and an applicant. A small insight for you prospective dental students out there and a few mistakes to learn from!
This is probably what most of you are thinking about when you consider work experience:
“How much do I NEED to have to set me apart from the other applicants and make my application stand out?” - This is an intelligent question, but also somewhat misguided.
The simple answer - most universities require a minimum of two weeks experience in general practice to show commitment and undestanding.
In my opinion it’s about the quality rather than quantity of experience. The length of time you spend in a practice or hospital is less relevant than what you saw and learned. This sounds simple and I’m probably not even the first person who has said it to you, but it really is true.
When I was a dental applicant (5 years ago now) I was pretty far behind on the old work experience myself. In fact, when I applied for the first time in 2010, I actually didn’t even have any work experience relevant to dentistry… at all! Just a vague notion that this was somehow the course for me, and the career that I wanted. Needless to say my woeful lack of preparation (along with some very harsh predicted A level grades - ABB) was punished, and I didn’t get a single interview… Ouch!
I realised pretty soon after I sent my application in that I needed some work experience and so I busied myself trying to get as much as possible. Like many dental applicants I was initially driven by fear of being left behind and not being up to scratch rather than really wanting to understand the career on a deeper level.I really went to town and by the time I reapplied my final work experience summary looked something like this:
General Practice (NHS) – 6 months (on Mondays)
General Practice (Private) – 1 week
Orthodontics – 1 week
Dental Lab – 1 week
Paediatrics (Hospital) – 1 week
Oral Surgery (NHS/Private) – 1 week
I managed to get this much through a combination of luck and tenacity. I phoned around multiple practices before I found one that would let me come and observe. Luckily they were willing to let me come in on Mondays (my self-study day). I went there for nearly 6 months, to be honest I’m not quite sure how they put up with me!
I also decided that I should probably get a wider variety of dental work experience so I started looking for some specialist dentists. Now, as much as I loved growing up in Pembrokeshire, it isn’t exactly a hotbed of dental specialisms so I had to look further afield. This required a willingness (and ability) to travel. I remember driving 40 minutes every day one half term to an orthodontist and again in another half term to shadow dental technicians in a Lab. I also drove 1:30 hours every day over one Easter holiday to an oral surgery clinic in Swansea.
My biggest adventure was a 6 hour train ride and a 5 night stay at a youth hostel in Earls Court. I’d never been to London before and I was there to shadow some Paediatric specialists that a friend of mine had put me in touch with at Chelsea & Westminster Hospital! It was an amazing experience. I learned a lot and met some really colourful characters in the youth hostel! Whilst I was there I got my first interview offers from Barts and Liverpool via email. At the time I never thought that I would actually end up in London!
The atrium of Chelsea & Westminster Hospital where spent a week in Paediatrics.
But why did I push myself so hard to get all of this experience?
I wanted to make doubly sure that dentistry really was the right career for me.
I wasn’t going to let something like work experience hold back my application.
I thought that having more work experience would make me a more attractive applicant.
Do’s and Don’t’s
Bring a pen and paper – to write down things you saw or spoke about, this is good for jogging the memory when writing your personal statement. I only started doing this about halfway through my work ex and I regretted it closer to my interviews!
Ask lots of questions – make sure to check whether the dentist is happy for you to talk during treatment and try to be sensitive with your questions (“is that supposed to be bleeding!?” – probably not a great one), generally it’s best to discuss specific cases when the patients aren’t in the room.
Ask about all aspect of Dentistry - Don’t just ask questions about treatment, you’ll learn a lot of that stuff at uni. Ask about motivations, qualities needed to be a dentist, the good and bad parts of being a dentist and what makes a good team player etc. Remember you’re trying to get an insight into the qualities of a dentist.
Establish some ground rules– It’s always good when you’re starting out at a new practice to check how things are done. Chances are they will be different to other practice you’ve been in. Some dentists may not allow you to observe children, some might ask you to get things from reception or out of drawers for them etc. Some may ask you questions or encourage you to ask questions during treatment. Always check if you’re unsure and if in doubt, stay quiet and err on the side of caution.
Observe how the dentist handles emergencies – if you happen to see a medical emergency (Syncope, hypoglycemia, asthma, heart attack etc.) during your time at a practice, or in a hospital setting this can be distressing but can also make for a great learning experience to talk about in your statement or interview.
Try and get some experience at a dental lab – this will give you yet another perspective on the dental team. There is also more of a chance that you will be allowed to get hands-on (with an understanding technician) I made a set of wax dentures when I spent some time at a lab and they provided a good talking point at interview.
Ask to use the drills – You’re not insured and it’s just illegal, most dentists will probably just give you a flat no. If the dentist offers you a chance to use it (on an extracted tooth) be careful and watch your fingers! Also, probably not wise to bring it up in a statement or interview, so there’s not much point in doing it really, fun as it may seem!
Listen to music, whistle, hum or otherwise distract attention during the procedures – This is a sure fire way to rub a team up the wrong way. The fact is, watching dentistry is boring a lot of the time. You can’t see much and a lot of it is done in more or less silence. Just suck it up and remember that you’re doing it to get into uni! Make up for it by asking questions when the patient is gone.
Stand too close whilst the dentist is working – I think it’s important to get a look at what the dentist is doing (when appropriate). However, a high speed drill or ultrasonic scaler can create a lot of aerosol and standing too close without protective equipment on could end up with you getting ill or at the very least covered in all sorts of disgusting droplets. You also don’t want to restrict the dentists/nurses working field – this is very irritating.
Bring food or drink into the clinic – Sounds obvious but it’s a mistake I managed to make!
Underestimate the importance of the nurse – They are often a fountain of knowledge and offer a different perspective. Most nurses are more than happy to chat and it gives the dentist a break from your interrogations.
In my experience as an interviewer, applicants always write well about the amount of work experience they have, making sure every little bit is on the personal statement. Most write about an interesting moment observed whilst on work experience. Very few actually talk about what they learned or any negatives they observed. The work experience part of your application (which should account for around a quarter) is your chance to list the qualities of a dentist and point out how you have them!
Here is a small excerpt from the work experience part of my own personal statement:
“As part of my research into dentistry I arranged work experience. This included six months at an NHS/private practice, a week in a pharmacy, a week in a dental lab, a week shadowing surgical specialists in a hospital and a week with an orthodontist. During my experience, I observed a medical emergency, which showed me a dentist needs to keep calm under pressure. I also witnessed the attachment of a crown to the abutment of an implant. I noticed how the dentist constantly checked the spacing both mesially and distally as well as any interference with the bite. I realised that attention to detail is very important in dentistry. In my time at the dental lab, I was able to make a wax denture and a gum shield. Throughout these processes, I used the technicians drill to cut, shape and polish the end product. I had to consider aspects such as shaping the appliances to accommodate the movement of certain oral muscles, whilst maintaining a good fit. I found this process rewarding and informative. It showed me that a dentist has to coordinate effectively with the dental team to provide good quality patient care. I have noticed some problematic sides to dentistry i.e. the difficulties experienced when trying to explain to a patient why extraction is the best course of action. Despite this, it is a dentist's duty to provide empathetic support and accurate explanations of the facts.”
Points to remember
It’s about quality not quantity of work experience.
Ask lots of questions.
Try and get a variety of experience.
Write down everything.
Reflect in your PS, don't just list.
Try and enjoy your work experience. Remember, it’s a look into the potential working world that you’re trying to join. If you don’t like the look and feel of what you see, now is the time to pull the plug, not in 3rd or 4th year when the workload kicks in!
Hope this was helpful and best of luck to all you dental applicants out there.
Bye for now.