Dentistry has long been a popular career choice for students.
Good job prospects, great earning potential and the opportunity to help others are frequently listed as reasons to pursue the profession.
But how many of these assumptions actually hold true?
We reached out to Charlotte Leigh at Brecknock Dental Surgery in London to find out. Over the course of her career, Charlotte has worked in dental practises and hospitals, acquired a master's degree in restorative dental practice and provided emergency dental treatment for patients in need during the pandemic.
Her experience has given her some invaluable insights.
So, if you're considering a career in dentistry and want to know what life in the field is really like, read on...
Interested in gaining a unique, 360-degree experience of dentistry? Take a look at InvestIN's Dentistry Programmes; each is jam-packed with immersive career simulations, exclusive site visits and personalised career coaching, all designed to give you a more hands-on experience of the industry.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
What does a typical day in your working life look like?
I start practice at 9.30am. I try to get there for 9am so I can look at my list for the day, speak to my nurse about anything special that I want her to prepare and check all the equipment we need. I chat with my colleagues, have a coffee and start at 9.30am.
The morning session runs 9.30am-1pm. I can see about three or four patients if they need longer treatments or, if it’s shorter treatments or check-ups, it’s a patient every half hour. Then I have lunch between 1pm and 2 which, realistically, ends up being a lot of admin time. After that, we continue seeing patients between 2pm and 6pm.
Also, for one day a week, my practice runs an emergency dental centre.
People can phone 111 if they have any severe problems, and if they can’t see their normal dentist, they will get referred to us. On those days I see a patient every half hour - strictly emergencies and strictly to get them out of pain.
What made you want to become a dentist?
I know it’s a bit generic, but I really liked the idea of helping people.
I loved science, I loved working with people and I couldn’t stand the idea of sitting behind a desk.
One thing I really like about dentistry is that you can usually help someone pretty instantly. You can take a tooth out, do a root canal or put in a filling there and then. Whereas sometimes with medicine it’s 'take this tablet and come back in six weeks' or 'we’ll send you for a scan…'. I like the instant feeling - I can put my gloves on and I can fix your tooth.
There is also a lot of planning involved and it’s nice to have a mixture of both. Sometimes I look at a patient's mouth and see they haven’t been to the dentist in a while and need some work. I do enjoy the planning and staging, doing the appointments and seeing the results over a longer period of time. That’s equally satisfying.
I like being able to rebuild someone’s smile.
What’s the best thing about your job?
I like the variety.
I like being able to rebuild someone’s smile.
I like seeing patients who were previously too nervous to even come into the room, and now we’re doing treatment. I like seeing patients over a long period of time, from little kids to teenagers.
Every patient is different so every day is different. Yes, there are the most common treatments: fillings, root canals, making crowns and check-ups. But every day still brings something different, a new challenge or a more unusual procedure.
And there are also lots of other things you can do within dentistry: education, cosmetic treatments, research, using your skills in other healthcare professions. There are so many different avenues I didn’t know about until I did work experience and started talking to dentists.
What has been your biggest achievement since starting your career?
It’s always an achievement to get a thank you card, or a phone call from a patient after a treatment, or a patient recommending you to a friend. That’s amazing and I never take it for granted.
Also, two years ago I did an MSc alongside working. As a result, I wrote a paper that will hopefully be published this summer. That’s something I’ve always really wanted, to have research published with me as the author.
Universities want people who are passionate...If you can prove you’re passionate about learning and you can present yourself, that’s what they want to see. They’ll teach you the dentistry - that’s their job.
Are there different pathways or specialisms aspiring dentists can choose, and if so, what are they?
There are loads of specialisms you can choose from.
When you go to university, you train as a general dentist, so you get experience in lots of different specialisms.
There’s orthodontics, paediatrics, radiology, oral surgery (e.g. removing teeth), oral medicine (examining soft tissue for ulcers or bumps), oral and maxillofacial surgery (surgery of the head and neck), periodontology (treatment of gums), endodontics (e.g. root canals) and then, of course, there’s dental public health, teaching, research and product development.
There are lots of people who qualify, but then realise that clinical dentistry (i.e. with patients) isn’t for them. But they still use their skills to enhance the dental health industry.
What did you study at A-level and why did you choose those subjects?
I did biology, chemistry and history with an AS in maths.
You had to do biology and chemistry for dentistry and I really like science. I thought I would like maths but it turned out I didn’t.
I loved writing and I loved history. I wanted to do something a bit different (most of the people I went to uni with did biology, chemistry, physics, or biology, chemistry, maths). But I really wanted to do a humanities subject.
I do think doing history served me well because I can look at evidence and draw conclusions - something you do a lot of at dentist school. In terms of reading, analysing and critical thinking, I think doing a mix of subjects helped me. Not essential by any means, though - that’s why they usually only ask for biology and chemistry.
But if you love photography, music, textiles - or anything! - just go for it. You’ll have to study it for two years, so you may as well do something you enjoy.
What was your first job?
When you graduate, you go into what’s called Dental Foundation 1.
For 99% of people, that’s in a general practice. You have your own patients, but you also have a supervisor. This will be a more senior person in the practice who oversees your work, tutors and supports you. They are there to guide you and get you used to working in a practice, communicating with nurses, dealing with running late - the realities of dentistry.
Then you can do foundation year 2 and 3, where you will receive an introduction to the specialities. For example, you can do a year of children’s dentistry in a hospital.
How did you find your first 12 months in the field after dental school?
It was very overwhelming.
It’s a national recruitment process: you take a national exam and rank all the places in the country where you’d like to work*.
Then, depending on your results and the popularity of different places, you’ll be matched with an area and a practice.
It was incredibly daunting but really enjoyable. I had a great supervisor who was really supportive. You just have to go and make the most of it, because you don’t really have that again - someone whose job it is to support you and check in with you.
It’s also a great opportunity to meet up with other dentists on your programme in the same area to discuss everything. It’s the best year to make mistakes, learn, grow and try everything.
*Dentists that qualify in the UK and wish to work for the NHS are required to complete Dental Foundation Training in a specially-appointed training practice. The recruitment process involves a national interview that students undertake in their final year. Candidates across the country are ranked based on their performance and their result helps determine which practice they get placed at to do their training.
What are your hobbies and interests outside of work?
The important thing is that when I get home, I try to switch off from dentistry. I can do a bit of planning and research, but I can’t be working on things late at night.
I really love cooking, so I love trying new cuisines and watching cooking shows. Obviously seeing friends and family is great but COVID stopped that for a while so was all over Zoom or Facetime.
I like to jog outside and exercise. I find that very good for me; mainly for physical health but mental health too.
I also mentor students from my old high school who are considering dentistry and help them with their personal statements.
Do you have any advice for young people thinking about pursuing a career in dentistry?
You don’t have to tick every box.
Universities want people who are passionate, and that often means more creative, alternative hobbies. Don’t think you have to have written a research paper or made a fake mouth or know everything about science and dentistry.
If you can prove you’re passionate about learning and you can present yourself, that’s what they want to see. They’ll teach you the dentistry - that’s their job.
My colleague used to say, “I can teach a monkey to do a filling. I can’t teach a monkey to be a dentist.”
If you want to find out more about Charlotte and her work you can visit her at Brecknock Dental!
Plus, check out our guide to medical school interview questions. It's packed with tips and examples to help your prepare.