Dentistry. Welcome to the hardest undergraduate degree in Singapore. I’m not kidding you right here. Don’t take it from me, take it from professors who have been running the curriculum, even ones from the Faculty of Medicine in NUS YLLSoM.
Your road to getting a Bachelor of Dental Surgery (BDS) degree is going to be filled with countless hours of sweat and tears.
You will break down, you will cry at some point in time. It's not a matter of “whether” but “when”.
As cliched as it sounds though, it will all be worth it, if you have the right attitude and heart to serve. The lessons you learn in dental school are life lessons that are invaluable to your growth in character and in your understanding of the world.
Welcome to the professional world
The first thing you need to know about dental school, is that it doesn't feel like a University course. You don't get the tertiary life you see on TV, or wonderful experiences and fun your seniors, peers or even parents talk about. It pretty much feels like pre-work training from Day 1.
You report to school at 8 am every single morning, with the rare exception of some very special and…beautiful days. You end at 4 - 5 pm on a daily basis too. So you pretty much run office hours 5 days a week, unlike your peers who have free periods, breaks, and off-days. You get… almost none.
Plus, your summer breaks? No such thing guys, it’s called Term IV, so when your friends are having their 3 month breaks, you are in school, that’s right, from 8 - 5 pm everyday.
Oh did I mention? You wear formal wear to school everyday too. For girls, it's much easier since, hey, you can pass anything off as formals with the right reasoning; just don't come in shorts.
For guys, this means buttoned up office wear with collars, long trousers, pants and covered shoes everyday under the hot Singaporean sun.
Why? Because you have to act like a professional from day 1, and because work starts at 8 am in hospitals and clinics.
1. Get used to feeling lost
The content load in dental school is pretty insane for the first 2 years - some say it's worse than Medicine. Maybe, but it's unfair for me to say that because I have never lived the MBBS M1 life first hand.
We do almost every single medical subject and study the entire human body, from the musculoskeletal system to the reproductive system; you can only imagine the work load that comes with it.
And hey, I mean school lasts from 8 - 5 pm everyday, you got to fill those hours with lessons right?
The worst part probably is that lectures are incredibly fast-paced, and you get no video stream or webcasts that your other friends in other courses get. So you have to focus, and trust me, unless you are a gifted child, you’ll drift off halfway and end up feeling absolutely lost.
Probably not a day goes by in dental school where I walk out of a lecture not knowing what just happened, and not for the lack of trying.
In case you're wondering if maybe I'm a pretty bad academic example, I’m probably an average kid, who works really hard.
Dental school is tough. But nothing good ever comes easy.
I guess a big lesson I learnt here - sometimes you have to admit your limits. You push them, but, there is only so far you can go, and you need to be realistic about it. All those motivational videos telling you that you can be the best, I mean, use it when you feel tired, but if you are always trying to climb to the top, you will burn out and crumble.
Accept your limitations, seek help, work hard, but humble yourself and accept or forgive yourself for being a fallible human being.
During this period of trials, you might find yourself thinking a lot about things, and you might experience a huge perspective change. For myself, I grew in faith and in spirituality way more than I could have imagined, because of the trials set forth in front of me.
2. Grades…..mean so little. Chase the growth
I chased my As back in the days, being constantly at the top 5% in Raffles Junior College.
This somehow made me yearn academic glory, much more than I care to admit. But I came to realise the futility of it all in dental school. I mean, as long as you pass, everyone gets that same BDS dental qualification, no difference there.
So enjoy the process, stop chasing the grades. Chase learning, learn to love, to learn.
In dental school, when the academic stress piles on, sometimes you forsake your learning and take shortcuts to get the A you want. That’s just a horrible, short term attitude that will turn you into a self-serving dentist, who doesn't put his/her patients first.
That destroys the very meaning of healthcare and attitude of service. It will cost you your happiness, if you truly enjoy learning.
You will learn to love school, even when things get tough and you will cry, but you will cry to keep on going and never to stop. Because you are doing it for something greater.
3. Stop comparing
There is no bell curve in dental school. Singapore has made its education into an endless rat race and competition, so much that we feel compelled to fight each other to be better than one another.
That's just nasty and sad. In dental school, the only way to get through it, is to help one another.
Doing it alone and trying to edge others off is going to leave you jaded, worse off than you were before, and probably hated by your classmates.
Also, accept that some people are just naturally more gifted than you are. There are geniuses around that use their phones during lectures and come out with their A+, and you have hardworking stragglers who study so hard, only to get a C.
Is it unfair? Maybe, but that's life, and if we keep on focusing on these petty comparisons, life is just going to be one long miserable journey. We all have things we are good at.
If we aren't smart, well, that's great, it means we are blessed with the unique opportunity to appreciate and hone our discipline and hard work to put in the effort to be better. This is a lesson geniuses and talents may not ever comprehend.
Academically, you may or may not feel it, but when you start working on hands on work such as cavity preparations and dental procedures, you realise how easy agility, and dexterity comes to some, and how hard it comes for others.
But it's alright, just work on learning and growing and being better than you were the day before.
4. Manage your time
Time is your most valuable asset. Money, when lost, can be earned back, but not time, and not the opportunities that are associated with it.
Running an 8 - 5 schedule every day in Year 1 (it gets worse in the later years) means very little free time for yourself at night.
You will have limited time to socialise with your friends, do your hobbies and manage your own self-study (I spent the bulk of my spare time out of school studying, maybe because I wasn’t the smartest kid on the block).
I blocked out time for studying, and time for exercise. I managed to hit the gym about 4 - 5 times a week despite my schedule, and made sure that I still had a 2 hour study block to catch up on the day’s work.
Exams in dental school pop up...everywhere. We average 2 tests every 2 weeks because of the sheer amount of content that we learn. If you fail to manage your time well, you will let your knowledge gaps snowball, and get overwhelmed at the end of it all.
Make sure you know what’s worth your time. Ration it well and be disciplined enough to keep a schedule (if you want to do well).
I kept my discipline and timetable throughout the entire Semester, whilst still making time for friends, church, playing my instruments and hitting the gym. If you have the discipline to plan a strict schedule, you can achieve a lot in your 4 years here.
This is just Year 1, Sem 1, and it’s only 1/3 of your assessments.
5. Be nice to people
Your friends and assessors are the 2 most crucial things you have in school. I’ve had the honour, and pleasure to have met people whom are like-minded with me, in morality, spirituality and companionship.
School is tough, it’s hard; but if you have people who lift you up when you fall, it makes all the difference in the world between falling and getting back up on your feet.
Plus, there’s only 54 people in the entire cohort. You’ll be seeing them everyday for 4 years, don’t piss them off.
Everyone needs help at some point of time, so cherish those around you, be good to them, focus on helping them and being a good friend, more than focusing on your own academic success, because mutual help, and support, is what it takes to succeed in dental school.
Share your notes, share your ideas, comfort those that fall, affirm those that do well, and respect everyone in the faculty, from students, to teachers, to the admin staff and the cleaners.
To sum up, the last 1 year has indeed been a journey. Looking back, I’ve learnt and internalised so much more within just 1 semester in Dental school, as compared to my entire 2 years in Raffles Junior College or serving in the military.
I hope that this post gave you a little taster about what life is like as a dental student. If you plan to apply to NUS Dentistry this year, you can check out this Guide To NUS Dentistry Applications.