Combatting burnout in dental school

academic advice burnout dental school

One of the most difficult aspects of being a dental student is often achieving a personal versus professional balance. The beginning of dental school can be tough. Many students struggle with imposter syndrome, time management, and dealing with a completely different way of learning than the one they had just mastered during their four years of undergraduate studies. Although the work is often challenging and demanding, it is important to not get caught up in the frenzy of the transition. While studying to be a good clinician is important, personal wellness is a prerequisite to taking care of others. 

During my junior year of college, I took an ornithology class which sparked my passion for birdwatching. To my surprise, there were many more physicians and dentists who were also birdwatchers than I expected. I have learned that this may be due to the similar thought patterns that go into the process of making a medical/dental diagnosis and making a proper bird identification. For me, maintaining and growing my hobby of birdwatching has been a key element of recharging myself - it gets me outdoors in nature and focuses my mind on non-academic tasks. Additionally, I have found that running with friends or with organized groups has been a nice way to explore the city and get away from the immediate surrounding area of school. 

Similarly, during dental school, I have made a habit of keeping in touch with college and high school friends who ended up in the same city. Since many of my friends are in my dental program, 95% of what we talk about is related to dentistry. I have found that maintaining old friendships and setting aside time to think and focus on aspects other than dentistry can be invaluable. Furthermore, I have always kept in close touch and made an effort to both visit and spend time with friends and family who make up my support network. With many potentially overwhelming moments in dental school, these individuals are crucial to helping you ground yourself and to step back to see the larger picture. 

Lastly, I have learned that dentistry can be a physically demanding profession. When talking to many practicing dentists, I often hear that they set aside time to keep in good physical shape. Whether this is through daily walks, stretching, doing yoga, or going to the gym, staying active helps combat many of the musculoskeletal problems that dentists are predisposed to by working in a small, hard to visualize space. Learning and practicing good ergonomics in dental school is equally as important. While “cutting corners” during a crown prep and bending over to use direct vision may seem harmless in the moment, it is important to practice indirect vision and good ergonomics in challenging situations during school to build good long-term habits.   

Overall, I have found that my academic and clinical success is often reliant on maintaining a personal versus professional balance. In doing so, hobbies outside of school, relationships with friends and family, and personal wellness have been crucial elements. Although this balance may not be 50/50 since the demands of dental school come in waves, it is important to capitalize on times that are less academically demanding in order to recharge yourself both physically and mentally. 

Andrew is a current DMD candidate at the Harvard School of Dental Medicine. Previously, he pursued his undergraduate studies at the College of the Holy Cross, where he graduated summa cum laude with a BA in Biology.

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