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Expectations vs reality: the transition from an exclusive theory learning into a blended clinical experience

03 August 2023


Timothy Tlhapane, a final year dental student, explains how the transition from purely academic studies to practical experiences in a clinical setting can be a challenge for many in dental school.

Most of us starting dental school have an urge to really get into what we came to study for. I remember walking into the faculty early in the year during our first-year orientation and seeing a couple of students wearing scrubs. I was observing how cool and awesome they looked and how they seemed so put together, professional and sophisticated. My, was I in for a shock when I found out that it would take me another two years to see my first patient (it didn’t help that the COVID-19 pandemic delayed that whole process). Looking back now I personally wish I could have been more prepared for the jump from the second to the third year of dental school. 

The academic transition period is quite a jump from what you would be used to. For those who are and to those who can still remember, the first two years of the program entailed endless classes, practicals, assignments, tests, pre-clinical lab work and all that academic jazz. The truth of the matter is from third year onwards (the clinical year) you’re gonna see the academic requirements intensify and you’re gonna start working with patients. That would all mean more modules, more assignments, more tests, more workload and a new time consumer: clinics.

For students who are just starting out in their program, you are going to need to pay attention to how you take care of yourself in the next coming years. This entails how you sleep and how much sleep you get, the diet you choose to have, whether you exercise or not, etc. The worst days where things were just not working out, clinics were challenging and when I was not coping academically, were days where I did not get sufficient rest or did not have a good breakfast. It’s important to prioritise sleep (at least seven hours a day). Incorporating a balanced diet is key to nourish your body and have enough energy. If you can incorporate exercise into the mix, that would be an even greater bonus.

Getting into the habit of using a diary can be a great way to navigate your way through your clinical years. You will also be able to build on a healthy life-saving habit that will not only help you better track your time and manage your schedule but you will be able to manage the patients that you will treat. For the latter half of the program, you will serve as your own assistant and the responsibility would be on you to book your patients in the system on time, reminding them of their appointments and keeping personal track of their (and your) progress. If you’re not into pen and paper, making use of digital tools like Google calendar, print outs, digital calendars, etc can also be helpful. Personally, both will be a great combination. All that responsibility can be quite daunting, but having a method to keep track of everything will make your life significantly easier.

All of these activities and decisions will add up to make you a stronger version of who you’d wanna be and how you will be able to handle challenges in the clinical and academic space. It’s some of these minor and unrelated changes that I made gradually that have created some sort of a buffer for my experience as I progressed further into my degree program. Although we are not all built the same, these will be the years you will discover your own individualised techniques and tricks that will help you not only cope and manage, but come out on top and flourish.