Depending on who you talk to, choosing to specialize could be either a premature decision where you miss out on the satisfaction of practicing a broad spectrum of dental procedures, or a great decision that will enable you to refine a highly honed skillset simply by investing in a few additional years of schooling. This often means spending some time sorting through advice and anecdotes from friends, family and mentors in order to form your own decision on the matter. However, I believe that the best way to make an informed decision about specializing is to honestly assess yourself.
Start with the most important – Know Thyself
- Consider passion vs. values. As a student, do you need to be passionate about root canal therapies to apply for an endodontic residency? Many people find passion once they have studied and are engaged by a particular topic, but a lot of us need to start somewhere else. This starting point is what I call a value system. At the very core, a value system represents the things which mean the most to you. Stability, prestige and spontaneity are but a few of all the different values that could make up your system. As a practical example, orthodontics may not be your passion, but it may fit your interests and match up with your value system because you like the prestige it offers. There are no “wrong” values; your value system is yours alone and reflects what is most important to you. Once you have a solid definition of what your value system consists of, you can filter out outside perceptions, expectations and any other distractions that can cloud your decision-making process. Remember, having innate passion from the outset is great, but not having it is okay too!
- Journaling your daily experiences. An exceptional way to gather your thoughts and hone in on what you value is by journaling how you feel about what you are learning as you go through dental school. Journaling can be a valuable tool used to evoke mindfulness. You’ll be surprised by how well you can truly gauge how you feel about things just by writing your thoughts down. For example, you might write about how you felt about the anterior crown prep project you did in pre-clinical lab, or about when you performed a molar root canal on a real patient. When you write with honesty about what you are experiencing, things will begin to be clear to you.
- Interest/self-reflecting exercises that you can do right now. You can also perform the following exercises in quiet moments of introspection to help you sharpen your understanding of your dental interests. Better yet, write about these tests in your journal as topics to guide your writing.
- The Library Test. Visit your school library’s dental section, if you have one. Which books would you want to take home to expand your knowledge and on what subject? Even if you don’t enjoy reading textbooks, think about which books contain the information that you would desire most to have.
- The Conference Test. Imagine that you have a substantial amount of money to spend on attending a dental-related conference. What conference do you most want to attend and why? This is an effective test because not only does it help you account for your own interests, but it also enables you to think about the professional associations that you would want to be involved in.
- The Facebook/Instagram Post Test. When we post something on social media, we often do so because we are proud of what our content represents. What kinds of dental cases do you think you would be most proud to post on your social media? It is also worth noting that being proud of something could be a big clue into your value system.
- The Five Years Test. This exercise seems simple, but can be very helpful and revealing. Envision yourself five years out following graduation. Then, imagine yourself not in the role that you are considering, whether it is working as a specialist or as a general practitioner. Do you feel tangible regret and lost potential?
Keep in mind that this is not an easy decision, and you will most likely go back and forth many times in your thought process before coming to a final decision. Trust your gut, and if an idea or urge continues to “come back” to you, it is probably a good indication that it is a direction that would suit you.
~ Joel Deehr, Midwestern-Arizona ’19
About Joel Deehr
Joel is currently a second-year dental student at Midwestern University in Glendale, Arizona. He has plans to pursue an OMFS residency following graduation.