What you should learn in dental school, but don’t

Something feels oddly familiar.

Sitting in my neighborhood coffee shop with my laptop open, staring at a course syllabus as it ominously lays out what my life will look like for the next several months. Coffee, flash cards, and wild Friday nights are in my future. And if I’m lucky, I’ll get the pleasure of writing a research paper or two while I’m at it. I can only hope as I start my endo residency.

Dr. Vaughn

I haven’t “studied” in six years. I haven’t even thought about studying. It’s been so long since I’ve studied that I’m not even sure I still know how to do it effectively. But still here I am, a student once more, and residency promises to be very much one of those sink or swim scenarios.

Luckily, I haven’t forgotten everything that I learned in dental school. There’s a few lessons I’m bringing with me this time that I’ve picked up along the way. Maybe you’ve heard these a few times before. Maybe you haven’t. But I think all of us, from brand new dental students to those who’ve been out a while, could use a refresher.  Here’s four important lessons that I learned in dental school and in my years practicing as a general dentist.

1. Get your money’s worth.

Every day you walk into your dental school, it’s like showing up to an 8-hour CE course for which you have paid top dollar. It’s tempting to coast. Many of us are guilty of trying to get through our programs by putting as little effort in as possible.

“D stands for Degree,” right?

But what I’ve learned is that dental school is filled with opportunities to learn more than the bare minimum. Some of the most impressive people in our profession work in dental education. And what I’ve found out is that many of the expensive, top-notch CE courses you take as a practicing dentist are taught by, you guessed it, dental school faculty. Take advantage of your environment. You’ve already paid for it.

2. Listen well

Having been a part-time faculty a few times myself, I’ve found one of the most desirable qualities in a student is the ability to listen well. Are you teachable? Can you take constructive criticism? Are you willing to own that “student” mentality?

Will you agree with all of your attendings? No.

Do you have to agree? Of course not.

But no one ever starts a sentence hoping that you’ll finish it for them. Not every teacher is waiting for your perfectly crafted rebuttal of why you did what you did. Oftentimes, listening is the most powerful tool we have. You will find that this translates well out in practice. Make an effort to actively listen to what your patients have to say, and you’ll have a group of raving fans who trust you wholeheartedly.

3. Hand skills rarely matter

Look through the Google reviews of any dental office in your community and you know what you won’t see? Any mention whatsoever about the occlusal composite staining of the Class I secondary grooves. No 5-Star review on the distoincisal angle of your biomimetically placed resin composite. Not even a single word about that buttery smooth crown margin that you spent an extra 15 minutes polishing for your Instagram photo.

Of course, our hand skills do actually matter (to a degree). But my point is that to the patient, what is often more important (and rarely taught in dental school) are the soft skills required to be a successful practitioner. If I could go back to dental school, I’d spend much more time honing that skill set. Because if you can effectively communicate with your patients, and if you can make a great first impression and win their trust, dentistry becomes a lot easier and a lot more enjoyable.

4. Don’t sleep on business and finance.

From my very first day in dental school, I was told that we wouldn’t learn a single thing about how to run a business, but oddly enough it was essential to our success as a dentist. After hearing that, do you think I made a single effort to learn about business and finance as a dental student? (See lesson #1. Hint: I did not)

Like so many of us, I chose the path of least resistance. I didn’t even look at my student loans until six months after finishing my GPR. I didn’t read a single article on practice management until two years into practice.

What a huge mistake. Such a huge mistake in fact, that now I spend much of my time talking to dental students about how to manage their student debt and avoid common mistakes that are made every single day. Mistakes that can set your career back years, and could ultimately affect the decisions you’re able to make for you and your family.

So don’t do what I did. Don’t do what so many of us in this profession continue to do. Start early. Take control of your student loans. Spend time learning about how they work, how to save and budget, and even how to invest.

Tap into the vast list of resources on practice management and how to run a business. Books, podcasts, blogs, and even YouTube. Ask your part-time faculty how they run their private practices. Take advantage of the ADA Success program and have an experienced dentist come to your school and talk about these topics (I’d be more than happy to visit and tell you everything I know).

Dental school was honestly some of the best years of my life. And although it was very difficult and challenging at times, the memories will last me a lifetime. I want to wish all future dentists the best of luck in this new school year. Cherish these moments and always make an effort to take advantage of the opportunities in front of you. Cheers!

Dr. Joe Vaughn is a general dentist who graduated from the University of Alabama and currently practices in Seattle, Washington. He works both as an associate in a private practice as well as in a public health clinic. Dr. Vaughn currently serves in roles with both the Seattle King County Dental Society and the Washington State Dental Association. He is passionate about organized dentistry, writing, and talking with other dentists about the many issues we are facing in our profession today. He welcomes any and all of your questions/comments and can be reached at jkvaughn44@gmail.com.

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