Get exposure to dentistry

Students often come to their health professions advisors for help finding experience in dentistry through shadowing, internships, summer programs or research. As an advisor, it is important that you maintain a list of resources for students to contact for experience. It is helpful to reach out to the dentists in your area to see if they are interested in having students shadow them. This way, you can connect an interested student directly to a willing dentist. You should also work to maintain relationships with the admissions officers at the schools in your area, as a number of dental schools host summer programs for students interested in dentistry.

Shadowing dentists is one of the best ways to find out if dentistry is the right career for students. It will help them understand the daily life of a dental practitioner, the pros and cons of the profession and provide them with great discussion material for their dental school application and interviews. Most importantly, it will help them gain insight into the major differences between a general dentist and a specialist.

Before beginning any shadowing experience, help your students determine their objectives for shadowing. Is it to determine the fit of the profession, to learn more about the roles of the dental team, to increase their knowledge about dentistry and/or just to gain more hours to add to a dental school application? Understanding their purpose and objectives for shadowing can help the student have a more effective and rewarding experience.

Where should you begin?
Encourage students to think about the relationship they have with their own private practitioners and start by speaking with them. Usually this is the best resource as there is an established relationship and the practitioner will most likely have an invested interest in helping the student succeed. Additionally, there is nothing better than to have someone who likes you and wants to show you the ropes.

If a student does not have a dentist, then cold calls still work and/or networking with their classmates, their friends’ parents, professors, etc., to ask about their dentists. Encourage students to not be afraid to ask others about dentists they know. Many dentists are glad to speak with a student interested in pursuing dentistry.

Finding the right practice setting.
While there is no set practice setting that is recommended for students, they are encouraged to gain exposure and experience within a variety of practice settings, such as general dentistry and specialties. This experience will give the student a rounded perspective of dentistry, how the practices are run differently and similarly and the difference in patient experiences.

It is important for students to be flexible about when they can observe. Remember, this is a business and their hours may not fit within the students’ preference for shadowing. Therefore, students need to adjust to the hours of the practice. 

What kind of questions should students ask?
Remind students that when in a dental practice setting the focus is on the patient and not the student. Therefore, students should be mindful of when to ask questions and what kinds of questions to ask. Students’ questions should come naturally from what they are observing, should not be forced or preplanned and in general will depend on their knowledge of the dental profession. Focusing on the profession and the life of a practitioner is always a good way to go. 

Understanding the professional environment and professional etiquette.
When shadowing, students should be mindful of the appropriate attire for the practice or setting where they will be shadowing. In many dental practices, open-toed shoes are restricted, revealing and tight clothing should be avoided, and extreme casual attire may bring undesired attention. Contacting the practitioner prior to the shadowing experience can alleviate anxiety about appropriate dress; however, professional dress is always a safe avenue.

Professional etiquette requires students to be conscious of HIPAA regulations, meaning that students will need to keep any information they learn about a patient confidential. In some areas students may be required to sign a HIPAA compliance document stating they will not disclose any patient information. Additionally, flippant and casual remarks are inappropriate and should be avoided.

Demonstrating commitment.
Although the number of shadowing hours that a student needs for a dental school application will vary by dental school, most dental schools want students to have enough experiences to be able to reflect on the profession in a meaningful and significant way. In their research of dental schools, students should have gained some information on what the schools they want to apply to expect in terms of shadowing experiences. Dental schools are interested in students having a meaningful experience and not just building up hours.

Finally...
Remind your student to write a thank you note to the dentist reflecting on what they learned and how they enjoyed the shadowing experience. The dentist has given his or her time and resources to assist the student and this should be acknowledged by the student.

One critical component to helping students realize if dentistry is the right fit for them is spending time shadowing a practitioner. Encourage students to reach out to their family dentist or if available, a local dental school, for potential opportunities, and if that is not an option, remind them to check in with their classmates, friends, and professors, who all have potential connections to a dentist.