You Are Not Alone - making the transition from student to dental practitioner during a pandemic


You Are Not Alone - making the transition

They say the transition for students from theory to clinical practice is always a big one. To transition during COVID-19, with limited clinical exposure throughout both this year and last, has made it even bigger. It is an undeniably exciting time, and simultaneously terrifying. However, in those first few weeks of seeing patients, you’ll learn more than you have learnt collectively over the last few years.

For the first time, your knowledge transcends from textbooks and lectures into hands-on practice. Concepts make so much more sense and soon enough, those simple tasks become second nature. For the first time, you feel like you’re a proper dental student – donning your scrubs and heading into the clinic each day. Finally, you feel like you’re where you’re meant to be.

But then, just as insidiously, those niggling doubts start creeping in.

Experiencing doubt

I remember sitting with my friends after clinic one day, listening to their conversations about their most thrilling patient cases. The air is filled with stories of the full cuspal replacements, molar extirpations and full mouth clearances everyone’s scored. I laugh with them, but in the back of my head the cogs start turning as I realise, I haven’t done any of those things. I remember sitting there and quietly wondering, “Am I the incompetent one?”

It’s a slippery slope, isn’t it? Some days, you’ll pull out a difficult tooth, score a ‘Proficient’ grade for your crown prep, earn a little praise from your tutor, and you’re absolutely untouchable. Other days, it’s cutting close to lunch time and you realise you’ve spent the last 3 hours doing a supragingival scale, only for the tutor to tell you it’s a good start, and that you can come back to the spots you’ve missed in your next session.

I know I’m not the only one that feels this way, and so how do we settle ourselves? How do we pacify our racing minds and ease these invasive doubts?


At the end of each clinical session, we’re asked to fill out self-reflection sheets – what did I do well, what did I learn and what could I do better next time? I’ve always found these moments to be so valuable and timely reminders of my progress. It eases the worrisome side of my brain with affirmations that there are things I still did well, and it humbles the brash side with reminders that there is always room for improvement. At the end of the day, it reinforces the idea that I am not at a standstill, but on a journey of continuous growth and development.

It doesn’t just stop at clinical practice either. I think self-reflection across all aspects of our life is such a powerful tool. Whilst lockdown has presented us with many difficulties, it’s also granted us with the time to really stop and think about why we’re doing things, and what it is that we want. Sometimes, we can get so swept up in just doing things that we end up running on autopilot with no real direction. However, by pausing for a moment and reassessing our journey thus far, perhaps we can redirect ourselves onto the right path and progress forwards with intent and purpose.

Talk to someone

One night, I was leaving the clinic late after staying back to listen to an evening lecture. By chance, one of my classmates had done the same and was also heading towards the station. She’s always been the star student in my head - switched-on, unphased and an all-round high achiever. However, as we walked together, she told me how stressed, confused and overwhelmed she was. We grumbled over our timetables, gossiped about our tutors, and laughed over the stupid mistakes we’d made that day.

It was a heartwarming moment of solidarity. I think too often, we can get so caught up in our own heads, that we don’t even realise what’s going on around us. The reality is we’re all just trying our best to navigate our way through life. What’s more, whilst you’re here looking at someone, thinking they have it all, chances are, there’s someone looking at you and thinking the same. Perhaps, if we took the time to connect with each other a little more, we’d realise that we aren’t so different after all. And cheesy as it may be, we really are in it together.

I think talking is so paramount to our wellbeing – not just to better understand each other but also to understand ourselves. My head is so often this convoluted jumble of thoughts and worries that it can be overwhelming to process at times. However, by talking out loud, I’m forced to sift through and separate these confusing thoughts to formulate concrete sentences. The more I speak, the more the tangles unravel, and bit by bit, I can begin to make sense of it all.

Sometimes all you need is just someone to hear you out, and to realise that sometimes we catastrophise the situations we are in. Confide in your family, your trusted friends, a mentor or a professional. And if you’re ever in need, Dental Practitioner Support offers 24/7 telephone support services on 1800 377 700 where they’re always available to lend an ear or offer resources.

Take care of yourself

As students, it’s easy to feel like our whole life revolves around school with early morning wake ups and a flat out day of patients and lectures – rinse and repeat. It can feel like there’s hardly enough time to catch up on work, let alone take care of our basic necessities or do the things we love. And so sometimes, we let them all slip.

Whilst lockdown was yet another spanner in the works, perhaps it was also a much needed breather. For the first time in a while, when the whole world slowed down, I had the time to stop and realise just how many aspects of my life I was neglecting.

If we can take something positive from the pandemic perhaps it should be that self-care isn’t a luxury or a reward to be earnt, but rather a part of our daily to do list as much as any lecture or reading. I know I’m still guilty of it myself, but how can we possibly do great things if we’re not eating well, sleeping well or moving out and about. How can we take care of our patients, if we don’t take care of ourselves first?

Dentistry isn’t the only thing that defines us. So let’s designate time to do things for ourselves, broaden our horizons beyond our textbooks and take control of our own wellbeing- you don’t have to be a hero with it! When times are stressful, sometimes just making yourself breakfast, taking a 10-minute walk or changing your bed sheets can be more than enough to help you reset and get back on track.

You will get through this

Dental school is by no means easy, and the reality is that this is just the beginning of a much bigger future we have ahead of us which will come with its own fair share of trials and tribulations. We’re on a path of continuous learning and so perhaps we should be more gentle with ourselves. The ups and downs, the uncertainties and the challenges may all seem daunting, but I believe with time, patience, good habits and the resilience to try again, we will all get there in the end.

If you ever need someone to talk to, Dental Practitioner Support offers 24/7 telephone support. Just call 1800 377 700. Remember - you are never alone.

About Erica Hwin

Erica Hwin

Erica is currently a third year dental student at The University of Sydney. Outside of student clinics, she also helps coordinate and co-host the Dental Head Start podcast which advocates for dental students and new graduates, and aims to help them transition from textbooks to real life practice. Growing up in a family full of story-tellers, Erica has always been fascinated with hearing about peoples’ lives - whether it be that of friends, patients or mentors in the industry. She’s a firm believer that everyone has a story worth telling, and is deserving of being given a voice and heard.