"Do you want to specialize?"
Not only is the question above a common interview question, but pre-dental and dental students alike often find themselves pondering what life is going to be like after dental school.
The truth is, even if one had full intentions of becoming a general dentist going into dental school, it is going to be nearly inevitable for him/her to, at the very least, reconsider this initial thought, especially once the curriculum exposes the individual to the myriad of fascinating disciplines within the dental field. In fact, some general dentists even voluntarily go BACK to school to specialize after practicing several years as a GP. However, as we all know, becoming a specialist can be a very competitive process, since so many dental students eventually opt to pursue specialty training. This is reinforced when students hear rumors like: "You have to be in the top 5-10% of your class to get into OMFS, Orthodontics...etc."
As such, many junior dental students and pre-dental students often ask: "What should I be doing right now if I want to keep my options open for specialization?"
Based on my personal experience and observations, there are at least 3 action items I can think of that will help set you in the right direction towards specializing.
1) Narrow Down Your Choices (of Specialty)
The process of preparing an orthodontics application is going to be different than applying to become an oral surgeon. Each discipline has certain characteristics/experiences that is favored in its applicants. For example, you may hear that endodontics programs often look favorably upon applicants that have worked (in private practice or community clinics) as generalists for at least 2-3 years, whereas some orthodontics programs favor applicants that transition straight from dental school into residency. Other specialties, such as OMFS, are known to be predominantly metric-based (high CBSE scores are very desirable). Now, the generalizations above shouldn't be regarded as 100% true, but my point is that applicants should try and figure out which specialty(s) they are actually interested in as early as possible, so that they can invest all of their time and effort into the aspects that will actually be looked favorably upon for the specific specialty they have in mind.
If you are undecided but interested in specializing, the best action item for you is to start shadowing (observing) different specialties in different settings. You should try and shadow Pedo, Ortho, OMFS, Perio, Endo, Prosth...etc., in academia (i.e. residency programs) and in private practice. Yes, you will have to take some initiative to connect with many people to get these shadowing opportunities, but I promise that this is one of the best investments to know which specialties you can actually see yourself practicing.
Take my case for example - I was initially interested in OMFS when I was a D1/ D2, but once I actually shadowed in both the operating room and private practice, I realized honestly that it was not the lifestyle or scope of practice I desired. Over the course of my dental school journey, I shadowed almost all specialties beyond the default rotations that UCSF offers. This allowed me to find that the field of orthodontics was most congruent with what I envisioned myself to do for essentially the rest of my professional life.
As one can imagine, doing all of this shadowing can be somewhat time-consuming as one has to juggle dental-school didactics and clinical training, and so my recommendation is to start shadowing as soon as possible! Once you figure out which specialty you are interested in, then you can become laser-focused in becoming the best applicant possible for that particular discipline. And even if you end up deciding not to specialize, you won't have any regrets because you actually did your homework and found that general dentistry is where your passion is at.
2) Getting Involved in Research
Most applicants will benefit greatly from having solid research experience in their CVs. From an admissions perspective, strong research experience suggests that the applicant has above-average critical thinking and scientific prowess. In my opinion, the best time to start looking into getting involved in research projects is during first or second year of dental school. This is simply because a good research experience/outcome takes time, and it's going to be significant more difficult to publish as a first/second/third author for the student that started research in their third year. I've found that research absolutely opens doors for students who later on decide to specialize, since the foundational cognitive skills, time-management, and team-work of performing research are intuitively very transferrable to the rigorous demands of residency. If you haven't checked it out yet, here's an article I wrote describing my own research experience.
3) Getting Involved in Leadership Positions
Similar to action item #2, there is no better time to start polishing your leadership skills than first-year or second-year of dental school. You don't necessarily have to become the president of ASDA or ADEA (although it certainly helps), but any board positions you take on now simply help demonstrate later on to specialty programs that you have developed foundational leadership and communication skills that will allow you to better thrive in residency. It also forces you to better manage your time and gives you additional responsibilities beyond didactics, which reinforces the professional attitude required in specialty training (and if not, in private practice as a GP). The idea is NOT to join every club there is, but find 1-2 organizations that you know you will be passionate about, and then patiently work up in the ranks. As with research, I believe that quality experiences will serve applicants far more well than quantity.
In conclusion, if you are considering to apply for specialty or residency in the future, there are tangible steps you can take now that will greatly improve your chances. If you are uncertain about which specialty to choose or just uncertain about specializing at all, it's probably STILL worth it to do the above so that you can maximize your dental education. In the end, a well-rounded student who takes the initiative early on will likely have a higher chance of finding success later on, whether it is as a specialist or as a generalist.
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