How to make the most of your time at dental school

Peninsula's Professor Ewen McColl and student Amy Sharp discuss dental school life and offer advice for making the best of your studies.

Professor Ewen McColl is the head of University of Plymouth’s Peninsula Dental School, and Amy Sharp is a Peninsula dental student in her fourth year and editor of the Dentsoc magazine, On the Cusp.

We asked them for their perspectives on dental school life, from support networks and professionalism to opportunities and expanding horizons.

What ingredients do you think a dental school needs to succeed?

Ewen McColl: The key is developing a community of practice with the shared aim of optimising opportunities while achieving the best outcome for our patients. It’s also important that we offer therapy and dental students a wide range of clinical experience in a variety of settings in the community. As Peninsula Dental School is based in primary care across South West England, we can have significant impact in providing services to patients. Indeed, last year in conjunction with our clinical placement provider our students saw over 6,000 patients, many of whom would have struggled to access care otherwise.

I’m especially proud that we were recently ranked number one for dentistry in the UK in the Guardian University League tables, and have also been shortlisted for this year’s Times Higher Education Awards for Outstanding Contribution to the Local Community.

Amy Sharp: There are a few things. I think it’s important to have access to a really good online platform because there’s so much self-directed learning on the course. We have a digital learning environment called Moodle, which is a really good resource as you can find things like past lectures, the reading list, links to important websites and so on.

The second ingredient is good facilities. We move around a lot so it really helps that we can trust that everything is working with the phantom heads and the equipment in clinic and the nurses are great too. 

Having good support networks is also important. It could be quite easy to feel alone when you’re going into lectures and clinics where you might have a different supervisor every time. By having small groups, you get to know the tutors really well and they get to know you, so you feel you can go to them with any problems.

And finally, willing students. Every activity is much better when everyone is prepared, engaged and wants to learn. In our first year we were Zoom-based because of COVID, which was difficult, but now people are asking more questions and you can tell we’re all more confident and passionate about what we’re doing.

What advice would you give students to help them make the most of their time at dental school?

Ewen: There are so many learning opportunities at dental school, so in my opinion the most important thing is to seize these while you can as they can be much more challenging to access once qualified. Always have a question for staff as it shows you’re engaged and able to make the most of their experience. 

Amy: Initially it was quite nerve-wracking because it felt we were still quite young when we started at dental school and we began by doing simple procedures on patients, but it was really important to get out of our comfort zone and make the most of it.

How do students learn about professionalism and the ethical aspects of dental practice?

Ewen: Learning about the professional responsibilities that come with looking after patients starts on day one of first year for therapy and dental students. For the last five years, the General Dental Council (GDC) has attended year one induction to help explain professional responsibilities and the shared priority of patient safety and we cover different aspects of professionalism throughout the curriculum. After every patient contact, students are assessed on their professional interaction with patients and colleagues, as well as their clinical knowledge and performance.

Amy: Being professional is so important and it’s something we cover a lot in lectures, group sessions and clinic itself, so we learn what that means as a dentist.

What attributes does a dental student need?

Ewen: To be successful at dental school, students need to be well organised, motivated, enthusiastic and willing to work hard on developing communication and clinical skills, while maintaining focus on professionalism and patient safety. It’s a very busy curriculum with a lot of different types of assessments and the pressure can be significant, which is why Amy was right to highlight the importance of strong support networks.

Amy: One of the biggest things, which is part of professionalism, is being prepared. In year four, we’re in control of our diaries, so if we have a denture patient, for example, we need to ensure their appointment fits with lab timings. If it’s a procedure we haven’t done in a while, read up on the theory and guidelines. The staff are great in helping us if we’re unsure, but we’re still expected to prepare.

Would you encourage dental students to explore different opportunities outside the general practice setting?

Ewen: We absolutely want our students to think broadly about their career options beyond dental school, and we highlight the wide range of opportunities available to them. We encourage students to get involved, be it entering professional competitions run by various professional societies, writing articles or contributing to the wider dental community. Staff at the dental school have a very wide range of professional contacts and are always keen to support students’ career aspirations be it at home or abroad. Next week, for example, I’m meeting a student who is interested in a dental career in the military.

Amy: Before I got into dental school, I just assumed I’d go into a practice and do the things you’d expect, but even in the first and second year there’s so much you can discover and Peninsula Dental School is really good at opening our horizons.

For example, we’re encouraged to do dental core training after our FT year, which involves hospital night shifts and working with ENT – I would not have considered that before. It’s also been good to learn about different specialties. We have specialist care visits where we go into hospital to learn about a speciality, which is so interesting – last year was Maxfax and this year it’s paediatrics. I don’t know many people who just want to go into practice full-time – I’m sure they will do that for some of the time, but they want to get different experiences and some are interested in working abroad for a while.

What should dental students do if they are struggling?

Ewen: The first thing is to speak to someone if they feel something isn’t going so well professionally or personally. We all want students to enjoy their time at dental school and we appreciate the pressures students may be under so don’t hesitate to ask for support. 

Students have a very wide range of support available at a clinic level or through the professional support services offered by the University of Plymouth. It’s important within our community of practice to support each other and being kind to others can help manage day to day problems we all inevitably face in a demanding profession.

Amy: The first thing is to talk to other students because everyone goes through it at some point. If you have a couple of bad days in clinic or at uni it can feel like you’re dissolving a little bit, but if you find out how other students feel – half the time it will be the same and you encourage each other. If it’s a recurring problem and affecting work, it’s important to speak with a member of staff. That can feel like quite a big step, but they are willing to help and most have been to dental school themselves so they know it can be hard.

I also think it’s a good idea to get involved with other activities and societies. I really like being editor of the Dentsoc magazine, On The Cusp, as it’s pushing me out of my comfort zone and I want to encourage other students to contribute.

What do you enjoy most about being in dental education?

Ewen: I’ve always enjoyed learning and for me personally every day is a learning day at Peninsula Dental School, be it from staff members or from the students themselves who always seem to have good questions to push my own knowledge. I really enjoy witnessing the students’ professional journey, particularly at graduation where all the hard work has paid off and the graduates take their next step. I keep in touch with many former students and it’s great hearing how their careers progress.

Amy: Dental school is really fulfilling and it’s nice knowing that your future career is going to be so rewarding. We see six or seven new patients each year and a lot have not been to a dentist in a really long time so we just know that treatment is really going to make a difference, even simple things. That’s the biggest thing for me and why I wanted to be a dentist in the first place.

I also feel I’m challenging myself. There are times when it feels very difficult – like when there’s a hundred lectures to get through – but knowing you will get it and hopefully be really good at it is another reason why dentistry is fulfilling for me.

Why should dental students join a dental defence organisation?

Ewen: As students will find out on qualifying, indemnity is a requirement to remain on the GDC register each year. More importantly, in my opinion, is having easy access to advice and support from a dental defence organisation like the DDU when you face challenging professional situations. Being in contact with experienced, non-judgmental clinicians is invaluable and their reassurance and awareness of what you may be going through are essential for your own piece of mind.

Amy: I think it’s important for our own protection and guidance. Of course, we’re supported here, but I’m aware that when I leave, I won’t have those supervisors around and it will be important to have someone to call with experience. The dental defence organisations also provide support through dental school by coming to events, writing articles, giving talks and supporting electives.

This page was correct at publication on 23/11/2023. Any guidance is intended as general guidance for members only. If you are a member and need specific advice relating to your own circumstances, please contact one of our advisers.