One of the more critical experiences for pre-dental students is exposure to patients in a clinical setting. This type of experience will allow you to ensure that you enjoy working with patients and that you are well suited for a career in dentistry. The dental schools expect that you will have a strong knowledge of the field and you can gain that knowledge either as a volunteer or in a paid position. While there is no set number of hours for this experience, a common guideline is to attempt to gain 500 hours before you apply. Again, this is just a suggestion and by no means a required amount. Instead of focusing on the number of hours, you should instead focus on the type of experience and the benefits for both you and the patients you serve.
One of the more difficult aspects of clinical experience as an undergraduate student is that in most cases you are not yet trained to do clinical work. Often, this means that you are restricted in what you can do in a dental office setting. However, there are a variety of options for meaningful clinical experiences as an undergraduate. Some of these are described below, and you should read over them to see which one is a good fit for you and your schedule.
Shadowing a Dentist
Shadowing involves following a dentist during his or her daily activities. This type of experience will give you a realistic view of the career that you have chosen. This is an opportunity to see how a dental team works together and to understand both the positive and negative aspects of the life of a dentist. It is recommended that you shadow dentist in a broad range of specialties so that you can obtain exposure to many different fields. It is also recommended that you shadow a number of different dentists to obtain different viewpoints on the profession. To get involved in shadowing, simply call dentists to determine if one would be willing to let you come and visit. Be aware that privacy laws may prevent you from observing in some situations or specific patients.
Dental Assistants perform a wide range of tasks within the dental office. Many of these tasks are associated with pre and post-treatment interaction with the patient. While some states require certification to act as a dental assistant, others do not. There are courses in dental assisting offered at many community colleges, but some dental offices prefer do to on-the-job-training. If you can obtain a dental assistant position, this is a wonderful way to gain an understanding of the profession and determine your suitability for dentistry.
Dental Laboratory Technician
This position is not strictly clinical, as there is little to no interaction with patients, but it does give you experience in a different aspect of dentistry. Lab technicians are given instructions by dentists and then construct bridges, dentures, crowns, and other dental structures. This position requires a great deal of coordination and artistic skill – both of which are important in dentistry.
Dental Missions Trips
Many students take advantage of the opportunities to become involved in dental missions trips. These are trips that are taken by dental professionals to areas of the world where access to dental care is severely limited. Most trips require that students pay for their own transportation and fees associated with the trip. These trips are a great way to combine travel and dental experience as well as gain exposure to a totally different culture. Students with dental assistant training can often use their skills on these trips and even those with no training can act in supportive roles. While these trips are a great experience, it is not recommended that this be your only type of clinical experience. Because you will primarily be practicing dentistry in the US, it is important that you gain exposure to the US medical system as well. Dental missions trips are usually considered a wonderful way to supplement your clinical experience.