How to be happy in professional school
November 2, 2017 2:27 PM   Subscribe

I've recently started dental school and am feeling super disconnected and unmotivated. Most days I wake up with a feeling of dread, knowing the drudgery that lies ahead. I need hobbies that make me happy, ways to re-discover my purpose/social responsibility, methods for maintaining a social life, and any techniques/milestones I can implement to make this time (4 years) go by smoother.

I think it's worth mentioning that I moved to a new state for dental school. I was happy where I was living before, and felt fulfilled in my role as a full-time volunteer teacher w/ AmeriCorps. I do think part of my fulfillment came from knowing it was a year-long commitment, and I'd be moving onto something else at the end of it, though. I feel like being in a new place should give me more opportunities for exploration, but there's never any time, and when there is, I just lay around. I also feel like I could do a better job of keeping in touch with people from home and my prior city, but I have been isolating myself, trying to keep up with the workload.

Dental school has been a long-term goal of mine, and I do think I'll enjoy the actual profession, as I like working with my hands, helping people, being my own boss, etc. However, the school part is sooo boring and mundane. It's teeth without the human aspect, it's a ton of stress/work/deadlines that eat up all of your time and energy, and it's a detailed repeat of all the science you thought you learned but need to learn again to pass the boards.

From talking to my peers, and browsing student doctor network forums, I've found that what I'm feeling is not uncommon. However, this doesn't make me feel THAT much better as shared unhappiness is still unhappiness. It sucks to wonder "is this all even worth it?" for something that you worked so hard for. I want to take responsibility for regaining my happiness and zest for life.

I picked a small school, thinking I'd receive a lot of attention from faculty/staff. However, a lot of the faculty don't seem genuinely interested in helping us. They rush out of the lab at 5pm, and are disorganized on many fronts. There are a couple that I feel more connected to who are more caring, but we have to interact with all of them extensively. A lot of times we are given a task (i.e., set up dentures) without proper instructions on how to carry it out, and then we are criticized for doing it improperly. I am very sensitive and this criticism is really wearing me thin.

I like my classmates, but after spending so much time with them throughout the week, I don't particularly enjoy socializing with them outside of school, especially because many of them ONLY talk about school which is super draining. This makes it hard to have a social life though, since I know very few other people in this new state, and time is so limited that the convenient option is hanging out with my classmates. Also, my classmates seem very privileged and are totally unaware of some of the racial & social injustices in our country that I feel passionate about. Sometimes I feel like our reasons for choosing this profession are not in alignment.

I just feel like I work so hard for so little reward (i.e., I get C's on exams, criticized on my tooth preparations, and don't get any credit/acknowledgement for going the extra mile when I do), and I don't want to get more and more burnt out. I don't feel like I'm making the world a better place right now- I am uninspired by myself and my surroundings. Basically, I need tips and advice on how to incorporate moments of joy into my everyday life, how to stay motivated/positive, how to maintain self-esteem while seeing the mediocre results of your labor, how to focus on long-term benefits, etc etc.

Thank you!!!

PS I've tried meditating more often (helps a little)
posted by DayTripper to Human Relations (10 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
If your small school has other professional or grad programs, you may have opportunities for socializing with people who are in similar situations but aren't going to talk so much about the specifics of dentistry. That can help a bit, as can finding regularly scheduled meetings for getting out and doing anything social that doesn't involve teeth. Groups that get together for board games, crocheting or knitting, music or film or whatever suits you might work.

I also feel like I could do a better job of keeping in touch with people from home and my prior city, but I have been isolating myself, trying to keep up with the workload.

Try scheduling times every day or week to make calls, or send letters or emails. The workload won't go away, but fifteen minutes that you've planned in advance aren't going to derail your performance all that much. It might even be doable to fit those calls in between classes.

Also, my classmates seem very privileged and are totally unaware of some of the racial & social injustices in our country that I feel passionate about.

A lot of them probably are, and a lot might not be but don't yet feel comfortable speaking up. I would try not to make too many assumptions about how people think based on how they look and present themselves at a time that may be just as stressful for them as it is for you. If there are any student groups that would attract people interested in public service, that might help you find like-minded classmates.

And finally, there's no shortage of dentistry-related Asks. If you need a pick-me-up, maybe read some and think about how soon you'll be able to help people!
posted by asperity at 2:56 PM on November 2, 2017 [2 favorites]

This is very normal. Things will naturally improve as you progress in school -- you get a ton of hands on clinical experience in the later parts of dental school, actually providing care to people who need it, and I'm sure as a current dental student you are already aware of the tremendous impact that dental care has on people's lives. It's hard when you aren't delivering it day to day, but you will be relatively soon as a student, and that really will make a huge difference for you.

Try to be mindful about what academic success means to you now and how to achieve it. Again, in order to get into dental school you were probably pretty laser focused on doing as well as possible. Depending on your goals, getting a C on your exams might be just fine! I'm not saying not to try to learn, but there's a vast difference between the stuff you study to make yourself a better doctor and the stuff you study because you think it might net a few extra points on your test. Even if it doesn't change your overall workload, it might help you feel a bit more zen about grades or evaluations that feel arbitrary.

I went to medical school after spending a bunch of time out in the "real world" working a "real job" and I felt very similarly about my classmates with regard to issues of social justice and awareness of privilege. It's hard. It remains hard. I will say that many of my classmates who were incredibly tone deaf and not-thoughtful at the beginning of our time together have grown and matured tremendously during the past few years of school. 22/23/24 is a formative time for many people, especially people who went straight from a comfortable childhood home to a comfortable undergraduate experience.

In the meantime, a "convenient" option for socializing outside of school is to find an established activity or meet up that you can join -- it won't require any effort from you to set up, and ideally would be the kind of thing that you can go to or not go to without worrying about offense if school gets in the way. Casual run clubs, board game/trivia nights, etc are good options. My medical school is at a university that has a bunch of other professional and graduate programs and there are a lot of social events and activities organized by the other programs and made open to us, which is a really nice way to get just enough distance from the classmates I spend most of my waking hours with.

I hope this helped. It really does get better. Now that I'm in the latter part of medical school and really do spend most of my time taking care of patients, I'm happier than ever, as well as thankful for the time I spent earlier in school learning what I needed to to become a good doctor (eventually).
posted by telegraph at 4:38 PM on November 2, 2017 [4 favorites]

Have you considered transferring? This seems like a dreadful way to spend four years.
posted by Capri at 4:51 PM on November 2, 2017 [1 favorite]

I've never heard of anyone complimenting a dentist on going the extra mile. Probably most people wouldn't even know if their dentist went the extra mile for them. They'd only know if there was a problem, and then they'd complain.

I would try to think of it as taking pride in your work. Even if external rewards don't show up in the form of compliments or grades, you'll just quietly know that you're putting in the effort and that you're doing good work. When you are doing that, it makes you genuinely proud of yourself.
posted by Former Congressional Representative Lenny Lemming at 6:52 PM on November 2, 2017

The fact that it doesn't sound like you're being well prepared for your career makes me think this isn't a tough it out situation. Is it possible to find a better school?
posted by bleep at 7:02 PM on November 2, 2017

Probably most people wouldn't even know if their dentist went the extra mile for them.

Not true. A good dentist can make a world of difference. I recently had to get a tooth pulled and my dentist made me feel so relaxed and at ease, and did it so skillfully and quickly, that I almost enjoyed the experience. For people who have anxiety at the dentist, dentists like that make a big difference.

Sharing this because I don't want to make DayTripper feel like their work is in vain. I think it's great of you to try this. I wonder if a larger school might have a wider variety of students? Maybe it would also be more diverse with more people interested in social justice. So maybe look into transferring into a more suitable program? Or, you might develop good connections with a few classmates and professors that can make this experience more worthwhile. Some things are just tougher in the beginning when you haven't developed strong ties.

Good luck!
posted by bearette at 7:50 PM on November 2, 2017 [6 favorites]

I survived law school by making enough handicrafts to supply a small nation, and taking up Irish Step Dancing. One evening a week I went and saw a totally different group of people who gave zero shits about law stuff, and in a class setting like that you see the same people week in and week out and you make friends. It was a really important safety valve for me, something to look forward to and 90 minutes a week (driving to and from, and the hour of class) when I didn't have to think about law school at all. My classmates came to my wedding. I didn't get very good at it (especially since when finals rolled around I'd have to miss a month of classes), but that was not the point!

So my suggestion is find some kind of community rec class you can attend weekly and enjoy time away from your dentist life!
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 9:16 PM on November 2, 2017 [4 favorites]

Get off student doctor forums, they will only reinforce this feeling. More offline connections will be healthier.

Remember that dentists end up so rich and that when you acquire these skills, you can be as pro bono as you want. You’re learning important skills for fixing society, even if you’re getting Cs.

I’m sure after a while the same professors brushing you off will at least know your face.

You need an outlet outside of school, some joy and spice in that arena. New friends.

But why not start some social justice project with your classmates? They may not get social issues at an intellectual level but they might be kind hearted enough in other ways to help.

Or connect with other faculties in the school.
posted by karmachameleon at 10:36 PM on November 2, 2017

Dentists are so important for health and it's heartening to see someone as thoughtful as you becoming one! You can get through this. You will get through this. Dental school ends. I strongly agree with the recommendations to find more things outside of school that give you both stress relief and some engagement with the kind of work you want to do. I know you have no time, and no energy, but anything that sounds good to you will lead you in the right direction. I lifted really heavy weights during grad school; it was 30-40 minutes, 3x a week, but it was my time. It was something.

In terms of engaging in meaningful work while you're in school, I volunteer with Remote Area Medical, and we get many groups from dental schools. You can't provide dental care until you're a 4th year, but even just volunteering as General Support and being around so many people who need the care might help you remember why you're going through this shitty time.
posted by quadrilaterals at 7:04 AM on November 3, 2017 [2 favorites]

I am a little late to the show but Nth the idea of getting involved with a regular activity outside of school and your classmates. I did grad school in the sciences rather than professional school, but having something other than school to focus on and knowing people who were not scientists or academics (as well as people of different ages) was hugely helpful for my sanity during that time. If it is physical such as dance or sports, that has additional benefits, but games or knitting or other activities are great too. Good luck!
posted by 2 cats in the yard at 10:30 AM on November 5, 2017

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