My Second Attempt: How I Got to Study Dentistry at Manchester

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2021-03-09

Samar is a fourth-year dental student at the University of Manchester.

Why Dentistry?

As a child, I was always scared of going to the dentist — I know I wasn’t alone! 

This all changed when I was referred to a specialist paediatric dentist to have an urgent extraction due to a periodontal abscess. 

During the treatment, I received an immense amount of care and compassion from the paediatrician, which really inspired me. I was able to overcome my phobia and transitioned from having no trust in the profession to wanting to emulate my incredible dentist. 

What other careers did you consider?

In all honesty, I thought about medicine for about five minutes, but really couldn’t see myself living the lifestyle my father, who is a urologist, lived. He thoroughly enjoys it, but I do think medicine is mentally, physically and emotionally challenging, and I am not sure if I would have found happiness that way. I couldn’t tolerate the on calls and night shifts. 

In contrast, dentistry has flexible working hours and you can have a great lifestyle.

Were you expected to study something as challenging as dentistry?

In terms of my background, my father and both of my elder brothers are doctors. Based on this, I do think it was quite clear early on that something along these lines was expected! 

My eldest brother set the path as he was an extremely bright child and always achieved outstanding results; he got into Christ’s college, Cambridge for Medicine. This definitely set the bar high for the rest of us! 

An open book laid out for studying

Was there any pressure to study dentistry?

Because of my personal challenges, my parents never pushed me to overwork myself or go into a career I wasn’t interested in. They would have been happy with whatever I chose to do. It was my own motivation which drove me; I couldn’t let my ill health keep me from getting what I wanted out of life.

Did you ever doubt yourself?

I missed a lot of school due to ill health (60% attendance some years!) and it was definitely harder for me to do as well. To make up for the time I missed, my father took a lot of time out of his day to tutor me. This was an amazing boost.

I attended a state grammar school and due to my low attendance, I was predicted Bs in my GCSEs.

I spent a lot of time teaching myself at home, and worked really hard in the run up to my GCSEs. I couldn’t believe it when I achieved all A*’s and A’s!

After this, I grew in confidence and had new self-belief as I had proved to myself that my previous ill-health would not keep me from doing as well as the rest of my family.

What was your school life like? Did your teachers help you with the application process?

The teachers were supportive, but in a class of 30 they were limited in how much they could help me catch up the time I had missed. 

I wouldn’t pay much attention in science, as I preferred self-study -  it was a lot more effective! 

As for the application process for dentistry, my school did try to help but they didn’t really know what was required (they assumed it was like any other course). Because of this, I really had to take most of the organisation into my own hands. I took advantage of resources online and also tried to get in touch with dental students I knew for advice.

A dentist examining a patient's teeth

What about work experience?

I was quite lucky with work experience. I got exposure to a variety of settings, which was more than enough for any applicant. 

Manchester had a strict two-week work experience minimum to even get an interview, and this had to be mentioned in the personal statement (many applicants are rejected for this reason). Liverpool also required experience in many settings - somewhat unfairly, in my opinion, as it is extremely hard to get. 

My work experience:

  • Two weeks in an NHS practice where I shadowed a Dental Foundation trainee who was finishing her training 
  • Two weeks in a private practice where I also got to shadow an implantologist carry out oral surgery 
  • Around 20 half days with an orthodontic consultant at Trafford General Hospital (NHS). 
  • In my gap year I managed to arrange a week of work experience in the Oral and Maxillofacial Department at Manchester Royal Infirmary. I shadowed a multidisciplinary team, mainly in the Oncology Department, and got to visit an operating theatre to observe extractions under general anaesthetic.
  • I also got to shadow consultants at Maxfax, which was an incredible experience (that we barely get as dental students!)
  • In addition to this, I visited my grandmother in Islamabad, Pakistan (my parents' hometown), where I arranged work experience in a government and a private hospital.

All this meant I could walk into my interview and talk about contrasting settings in the UK and abroad, as well as the differences between NHS and private dentistry. 

What happened during your exams? How did you react to not getting your grades?

During my exams, my mother became unwell and was admitted to hospital, and my grandmother underwent emergency surgery. This made it very hard for me to focus in my last few days of preparation and I kept suffering from complete mind blanks which in hindsight may have been from shock and anxiety.

I sat two of my final exams with completely brain fog, unable to remember simple concepts that I had been studying for two years. 

On results day, I opened UCAS and saw that Manchester (my firm offer) had instead offered me a place to study a BSc in oral health sciences. I was one grade short in two subjects, and just by a few marks. 

The whole situation made me realise that sometimes you just don’t have control over what will happen, even if everything is in place on your end! 

So how did you finally get your place to study dentistry?

I went back to my first step - entry requirements. After many hours of researching, calling up universities, and trying to work out where I stood, I figured out a plan to achieve my end goal. 

It took another year of improving my application and resitting a couple exams, I received two offers, including one from my first choice - without an interview. 

During this time, I also worked towards a plan B and secured a place to study pharmacy at UCL. After all, despite your best efforts, things might not work out. 

Luckily, I did go on to get the grades, and I am currently in my fourth year at my first choice university. 

My additional year prepared me for the degree ahead, it turns out studying dentistry at university is just as challenging as getting in!

Samar’s Pros and Cons of Dentistry

Pros and cons of dentistry

What do you wish you knew before starting the course?

I knew that Manchester had very few contact hours (6-8 hours a week), and I saw this as a massive bonus to begin with as I planned to commute and less time at uni meant more time to enjoy myself as a fresher!

I did not realise that this would mean less contact time with course mates, and not getting to know everyone for a very long time! I think having more contact hours in first year would have been a lot more enjoyable as you get to work with your course mates and really get to know them! 

Additionally, Manchester is centred around independent learning. This was something I was very used to at school and assumed it would be perfect for me!  

I quickly realised that with something as specialised and complex as dentistry, I’d have preferred a more ‘spoon fed’ course with a more traditional style of teaching and lots of lectures. Teaching styles are VERY IMPORTANT.

What do you love about it?

Being involved in the dental hospital with the dental therapy students, nurses, postgraduates, tutors and consultants, where we all treat patients together. This makes you feel like a dentist from early on in the course. 

Not only are you learning but you are also providing treatment! You feel like you are in the real world working as a trainee!

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