For most people who enrol at a dental school, dentistry is their first university degree; and most qualify as dental surgeons in their early-/mid- twenties.

I don’t have any evidence to back this claim but I can confidently say that here in the UK, most dentists will have applied to study dentistry at university when they were at school or whilst on a gap year. But there is a small proportion of students at dental schools across the UK who did not follow this typical route to becoming a dentist.

Before I started at dental school I expected to be one of very few to be taking the long route, so was surprised that there were significant numbers of others on my intake who had previously been to university at some stage and so already had another bachelors/masters qualification.

I started at Barts and The London in September 2015, at the age of 23. There are ~70 other dental students in my cohort, 12 of whom have also previously been to university as an undergraduate (i.e. dentistry is their second undergraduate degree too). So almost a 1/5th of the course are mature students, which I didn’t expect, but thinking about it now, and reminding myself of my own route – it shouldn’t surprise me really…

And there is in fact a significant number of graduate students across all five years at Barts and The London. Interestingly, many of the current final year students here actually applied to an accelerated 4 year dental course that was offered at Barts previously, but in 2012 it was scrapped and so the graduates who had applied to the 4 year course were instead offered a place on the traditional 5 year dental course (A200).

I wonder if this is the same at other UK dental schools…are there many graduates on the 5 year dental courses?

BAD NEWS: Apparently, many dental schools are now not offering graduate for a new reason which is the new guidelines that state a certain number of hours must be accumulated on the before a student can achieve a BDS qualification. A few years ago (back in 2013), a joint-statement-press-release was made by the CED (Centre of European Dentists) and the ADEE (Association of Dental Education in Europe) which strongly recommended that the minimum duration of basic dental training is expressed not only in years (5 years of full-time study) but also (in a cumulative sense) in training hours (5000 hours). The 5000 hours doesn’t take into account time from previous education (i.e. they don’t allow hours from a previous degree to count towards the 5000). You can check this out here, and see other press releases on the website for The European Union of Dentists. So who knows what might happen in the near future? Perhaps the few remaining dental schools that offer an accelerated dental course could be scrapped too!?

So I started on the course as a 23 year old, and writing this now, I am 24 and about to start the second year of dental school. I’ve noticed that there are many mature students considering dentistry, and I want to encourage all of you to let go of any doubts and go for it!

There’s a few other blogs that were created by mature students:

  • Sheila, who did the graduate-entry course at Kings and is already a qualified dentist
  • Funk, a current mature dental student at Newcastle university
  • The Student Dentist Blog – I don’t know the name of the blog’s author

And there’s also a few TSR threads I came across specifically for mature students interested in studying dentistry.

It’s really nice to see these online communities where dentistry is encouraged for mature students like myself.

Sometimes I get reminded of the age gap between me and most of the other students. I wonder if they have a similar thought about me or the other mature students…?

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Is this how I look to the other students?

Despite being little more than 5 years older than some of the youngest students on my intake, I am not the oldest;

  • There is one other guy on the course who joined aged 25.
  • I’m not sure of her age exactly as I don’t want to be rude and ask, but there’s a girl (I should say there’s a woman!) on the course with us too who is maybe late 20s but more likely early 30s, she has a young son and used to work as a research scientist. I think she studied at Cambridge too, which explains why she’s so smart!

I only wanted to share this here to highlight that the course is not just populated by school leavers who struggle to remember a time before smart phone.

Not only that, it just goes to show that even if you have a family of your own, it can still be possible to train as a dentist! It will be harder of course as you have more personal commitments but is possible. Hopefully you have a supportive partner to make things a little easier.

So if you are reading this now because you’re considering dentistry and already have got an undergraduate degree, rest assured that you’re not the only one! 🙂

My application was strong and I so was fortunate to receive three offers when I applied in 2014 to begin the following year (September 2015). I’m not sure what I would have done had I not received any offers, but I guess I would have continued working in the job I was doing before dentistry (a job I loved and was good at) and maybe tried to apply again.

I’m mentioning this, because some mature students may not be so fortunate and might have unsuccessful applications. Don’t let that deter you! Just reflect on your applications, identify what needs to be improved and prepare to apply for the next year. And in the time before the next round of applications opens, you can either work or travel. Or a bit of both! Whatever you decide to do, don’t think of it as wasted time – live your life! In fact, you should enjoy your time doing non-dental things because once you’re at dental school, your future in dentistry is set and that will be your life’s focus moving forward.

A really inspiring blog I just came across is written by another graduate entry dental student who persevered, and it payed off. There’s some inspiration for ya! Check it out here.

Not everyone has had the same pathway in life! That is important to keep in mind. I guess what people might consider as the traditional route is: GCSEs, A-Levels, Dental School. Some of you reading this might not have done the relevant A-Level subjects – this makes it more complicated but doesn’t mean you can’t still train to be a dentist. You can always do the A-Levels you need (Biology, Chemistry, Maths are usually the required subjects but you need to check the specific dental school websites to see exactly what they want). And I’ve heard about Access Courses you can do – check out the linked page for more information on it. I can’t write much about the access course for dental schools as I haven’t done it, but its a year long course, and it ain’t easy so you’ll have to put the work in!

There are pros and cons for studying dentistry as a 2nd degree in my opinion. Of course these depend hugely on the individual, what they did before dentistry and their motivations, so I want to stress now that these points are my own thoughts and mainly are related to my dental path.

ADVANTAGES/BENEFITS of coming into Dentistry as a 2nd degree

MATURITY

I had to start with maturity, because after all, we are referred to as “Mature Students”

This is in my opinion the greatest advantage. Although not always the case, generally speaking, with age comes maturity. If I think back and compare my 18 year old self with my current 24 year old self, the differences in maturity are vast. The term maturity is very vague and I mean for it to be, since I feel that maturity can be regarded in a number of different ways, most/all of which apply.

Since graduating from Imperial College in 2013, I have been fortunate to have travelled extensively; some of these were backpacking trips either with my close friends or as a solo traveller. I strongly believe that travelling to new countries, experiencing new cultures, different ways of life will broaden your horizons makes you a better/more rounded person. I could happily write a giant blog post about the benefits of travel and I probably will very soon! And I know some people reading this might be thinking why is Ali planning to write a post about travel, this is supposed to be a blog focused around dentistry, not another cliché travel blog!

I promise it won’t become a cliché travel blog, and I also promise here to never veer to far from the roots of this blogs niche, which is dentistry from a dental student’s perspective. BUT, as I very briefly mentioned, travelling makes us better people, more humble and there are so many more wonderful positive ‘side effects’, all of which will ultimately make a better dentist (but a better anything really!).

Another positive that comes with maturity is an early seriousness for dentistry (in an academic sense). I have to be careful here when making this point, because I don’t mean to say that those students starting dentistry as a first degree don’t come into the course with the same seriousness, but generally speaking those students who have been to uni before, have already had all the fun in their fresher year the first time, and done their fair share of partying (myself included). For that reason I should stress that this point is most pertinent in the first couple of years and then most students will I’m sure be equally as switched on, but I personally believe that the students like myself who have ‘done’ university before will do better early on, miss less of the scheduled teaching.

This of course also has to do with the fact that mature students have already made that big step up from school to university, so don’t need to ‘adapt’ so much and this again is another advantage.

STRONGER ACADEMICS/GREATER SCIENTIFIC KNOWLEDGE

An obvious advantage for any student entering dental school who has previously been to university and spent at least 3 years studying a scientific course.

The requisite degrees that allow an individual to apply to dental school are scientific in nature. The most common degrees students study before dentistry are: Biology, Biomedical Science, Biochemistry and Pharmacology.

LONGER SUMMER HOLIDAYS 

When I was working full time, I had annual leave allowances. So each year I could choose when to take my holidays, but in 12 months I only had a limited supply of days I could take off.

  • In my first job I had 25 days annual leave allowance (5 weeks)
  • In my second job I had 20 days annual leave allowance (4 weeks)

So being a student again means I back to enjoying outrageously long summers and of course we get nice, long breaks for christmas and easter.

The summer break between year 1 and year 2 was a beautiful 4 months long. It was one of the best summers of my life; I travelled to Thailand, Japan, Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia as well as spending a whole month in London just having fun!

SELF-CONFIDENCE

This of course varies by individual, but in general most mature students will have a certain level of self-confidence that isn’t necessarily greater than the school-leavers but perhaps you could describe it as a different kind of confidence, which comes with life experience and also having spent some years living more independently.
Everyone will change when at university, some people change so much they become almost unrecognisable (in terms of their character/personality but also even physically), whilst others hardly change. But the point is that you continue on your own personal path to defining who you are as a person and with this development comes self-confidence, because you are breaking moulds and becoming and doing exactly what you want to.
So since mature students have spent more time on this pathway of self development, I’d say we are generally more self-confident (NB: I should stress this is different to being confident, which is simply an outward expression that could be false). Now to relate all this as an advantage, I feel that when more comfortable in your own skin, you do better.

BETTER “SOFT SKILLS” 

Firstly, what do I mean when I say ‘soft skills”? The first definition I found on Google was that it describes the “personal attributes that enable someone to interact effectively and harmoniously with other people”. In short it means people skills, something all dental students will have had to display during their dental school interviews but it’s another key skill that I believe is more developed with graduate students. Again, a generalisation, exemplified by a number of the school leaver dental student I am studying with, who have excellent people skills and I can already picture being fantastic with their patients (good bedside manner).
Everyone’s people skills will continue to improve, especially from the ages of 16-45.
The mature students on my dental cohort are almost an even mix including students who went directly from their first degree into dentistry, and students like me who spent a few years working full-time jobs. But regardless of the route, most of the mature students have been gainfully employed before they started at dental school and so would have had opportunities in a professional setting in which to improve upon/develop their soft skills.

BETTER ORGANISATION AND TIME MANAGEMENT

I can’t claim to be highly organised, and I am not always the best at managing my time but  I certainly am a lot better and efficient now that how I was a few years ago.

There are a few reasons why I’ve become better at managing my life:

  1. As you get older, you realise more and more what’s important and what’s not. And when you can distinguish between these, you can make better decisions on what is something you should dedicate time to and what you don’t need to bother with. So with this wisdom you can manage your time better.
  2. Through my two full-time jobs, I was actively trained to be a more efficient person in a professional sense so that I was more productive as an employee and worked faster/better. From work I gained an appreciation for the cliche: “Time is money”. Time is one thing we can never get back, so don’t waste your seconds/minutes/hours/days doing something that is not worth it! I also had regular appraisals with managers and co-workers where we would sit down and discuss my performance over the past few months – and one thing I wasn’t great at to begin with was my time management, so I made efforts to get better.
  3. I’m 24, most of the other students with me on the course (we’re 2nd years now) are 19. So I have 5 years more life experience, and with that, you almost inevitably will become better with these simple skills like organisation. That isn’t true about age gaps, except in this case, where I’m comparing myself with people who have only recently become independent adults who have to make most of their own decisions – because up until 18, your parents and your school are the support system who do a lot of the time management on your behalf.

GREATER APPRECIATION OF MONEY and therefore potentially BETTER AT BUDGETING

I read somewhere recently that most freshers (i.e. students in their first year of university) burn through their student loans virtually the week after they have received it. And that’s pretty much true for me too – I specifically remember the day about a month into my first term of freshers when I realised I had almost no money left and had to somehow survive until christmas.

You have to start making adjustments to your lifestyle to survive, and it starts when you start replacing Smirnoff with Glen’s and Heinz for Sainsbury’s own brand baked beans in the shopping basket. Little things like that.

But in the years after freshers, I got more sensible with my spending. With each year you progress at uni, the academic work gets more serious, so you go on fewer nights out, eat out a little less frequently – things like that.

After graduating, I went backpacking for a couple months which was amazing! But I came back without a student loan to look forward to; I was unemployed for a little while then whilst I searched for work.

I had little money in the bank, so was surviving off the kind hand outs from my lovely mother. That period helped me to become tighter with my spending (and it is also when I completed Grand Theft Auto V).

The real turning point for me was when I started working, earning my own money. Although I had been working since the age of 18, it had always been part time work so the pay wasn’t significant relative to the money I was earning in full time employment.

You just get this great feeling when you start getting the monthly cash injections when in your early-twenties. It’s money you’ve worked to deserve, and with it you had freedom – I probably had more financial freedom than most because I was living at home whilst working so was lucky in that I  didn’t have to pay rent. This for me is when I started to become good with budgeting. When you work to earn your own money, you feel more attached to it and so are less likely to waste it on silly things (although that still happens).

I’m back to being a student, which means I no longer get a salary, but I do get a maintenance loan and am very careful with my expenditures. I now keep all my receipts and work out my monthly expenditure: commuting costs, gym membership, phone bills, petrol costs, food and drink, booze and other miscellaneous spendings. By keeping track of my expenditure, I can look back at the end of a month and see if I did ok or was there over spending on something. You might read this and think I’m over analysing it, but if I didn’t, I wouldn’t be able to be an unemployed dental student for 5 years – for me its a necessity for survival.

DISADVANTAGES/LIMITATIONS of Dentistry as a 2nd degree:

SELF-PAYING TO STUDY

Unfortunately, here in the UK, any student who decides to enrol on an undergraduate degree course but has already completed another undergraduate degree is not eligible to receive the tuition fee loan.

To make matters more frustrating, the tuition fees are now £9,000 per year. If I had chosen to study dentistry as my first degree, the tuition would have been £3,300 per year. Thanks Nick Clegg…

As well as the ineligibility to receive tuition fee loans, for most courses, mature students are not eligible for the maintenance loan. However, there are a few courses that are exceptions to this rule, and fortunately dentistry is one of those!

So that means students must self-pay the tuition fees for dentistry but we do get a maintenance loan (yay!) – without which I would not be able to survive.

I am still unsure of the details but I think that the NHS funds the final year for some students, so I need to pay tuition fees for the first 4 years of the course – equating to £36,000.

Worth noting is the differences in funding for post-graduate dental courses – Students on these courses are able to receive a tuition fee loan. I might be wrong, but I believe there are four dental schools that offer an accelerated graduate-entry course: Liverpool, Kings, UCLAN (Central Lancashire) and Aberdeen.

DELAYED ENTRY TO THE WORLD OF DENTISTRY 

Assuming I pass all my exams and proceed through the course smoothly, I will graduate in June 2020 at the ripe age of 28.

There’s nothing wrong with this, and I don’t think of it as a bad thing at all. But it means I’ve been a student for a long period of time, and will have a massive debt that will follow me around for many many years before I’ma able to finally pay it off.

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My Student Loans Debt

DIFFERENT SOCIAL LIFE 

This point depends on the individual.

For some people, the excitement of freshers and getting amnesic-drunk on Glen’s Vodka is no longer, but for others, one of the main plus points of getting back to uni is the toga parties and Wednesday nights sitting round a table with your team mates and five pints of snakebite.

For mature students like myself, not only are we at least three years older, but we’ve been to university before and had all those great experiences once already. So for some of us, the uni social scene (that tends to revolve around lots of booze) is not such a big thing.

Don’t get me wrong – I love the social side of things and its one of the best things about being a student again, but out of choice I tend to limit my nights out.

DISCONNECT FROM COURSE MATES

Most Mature Students don’t live in Halls of Residence, therefore there can be a disconnect from course mates, especially during the first year when most other students are living together full time.

I guess this might also apply to students who for whatever reason commute from home to university but I will talk about this in a separate post I plan to write soon all about ‘students who commute from home to dental school’.

Living for a year in student halls was so much fun! I had such an awesome time when I lived in halls for the first year of my first degree – so I know how great it is, which makes me kinda wish I could have done it again this time. You are basically living with the people who become your best friends; the people you spend most of your time with and who you get silly drunk with. As a result, you end up sharing experiences that anyone not with you for them wouldn’t have.

RUSTY ACADEMICS 

This might seem like a massive contradiction because I previously mentioned that one of the advantages mature students have is their advanced scientific knowledge.

So I want to stress that point is specifically true for those students, who like myself have spent some time away from full-time education.

Although it can be argued this is not the case since the previous degree will have been something scientific by prerequisite, thereby giving us an advantage of superior/more in-depth knowledge of human physiology etc – we are rusty when it comes to actually “being a student”.

I was rusty when I first started at dental school because there was a 27 month gap between me finishing my first degree in Biomedical Science and starting at dental school.

All the learnt knowledge I had accumulated during my first degree had either been forgotten or put into a deep dark corner in the back of my mind. So initially, I had to readjust to how to learn and remember massive amounts of new information, which is sort of an acquired skill in part.

For most people, what they learnt at university on their chosen course has almost no relevance to the requirements of the job they subsequently take on for full-time employment, so you quickly forget much of what they lectured you on at uni – and that’s why I felt a little rusty coming back into it.

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On the whole, I feel very strongly that the advantages associated with training as a dentist after gaining a previous university qualification greatly outweigh the few limitations/disadvantages that come with such a route.

I was considering adding another advantage where I was going to say that as a mature student you might be better positioned when it comes to developing trust with your patients. I thought this might be a potential factor because if you think about it, if a dental student begins the course aged 18, then by the time they are 20 they will begin treating patients and there may be some patients who do not feel comfortable getting looked after by someone so young! But then I decided not to include this officially^ because by the time dental students are allowed to treat real patients, they have proven themselves ready so there’s no genuine reason why a patient shouldn’t be treated by a 20 year old! This is just an afterthought I’ve had so would be interested to hear through comments what you think about this point.

If you are a reading this and already have been to university and are now considering dentistry but might prefer to be on a course with other graduates then why not consider applying to UCLAN which only offers a graduate entry course! They only accept 29 students each year but everyone studying will have a degree already.

Hindsight is a beautiful thing, and with it I am incredibly content with all the experiences and challenges I faced before I started at dental school in September 2015.

Everything from before dental school has made me the person I am now; someone prepared and confident to continue my dental studies, which will hopefully one day soon lead to me becoming a better person and a good young dentist.

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