Medicine and Dentistry

It’s OK to not be having fun

“It’s such a doss year!”

“Freshers is so epic!”

“Everyone is so nice!”

These are just some of the phrases I heard both before, and during my first year in medical school.

With freshers’ week fast approaching, I imagine prospective students are starting to feel the fear and excitement that comes with opening a new chapter in one’s life. It’s no wonder; the first year of university is often portrayed as the most instructive and adventurous time in our studies, even in our lives….perhaps that’s why it was so easy for me to feel alone in my unhappiness during this period. Between moving away from home, being dunked head-first into a flurry of confusing lectures, and navigating the foreign social landscape, I felt as if I were caught in the eye of a storm: directionless, isolated and hopeless. It’s hard to know who to listen to during freshers- the second-year who tells you it’s OK to miss lectures? Your friend who says you should start revising a month early? Your specialist lecturers who insist their teaching will be imperative for your future career? How did everyone else have it so together?

This is not meant to put prospective students off. In fact, that time of struggle taught me a lot about being a “grown-up”:

  • Never set your standards (professional and personal) by the apparent certainty of someone else.
  • Never think that the people around you aren’t as scared as you are.
  • Never think that bad times will last.
  • At some point, someone will gossip about you. Move past it and so will everyone else.
  • Friendships happen.

I hope that by writing this, or through my interactions with scared-looking freshers, that I’ve helped pay some of these lessons forward. As for me, the lesson I’ve learned is to always be helpful and gentle to the people around you…especially freshers going through the torture of FunMed!

The dreaded ‘Write Up’ stage approaches

Only a few months remain before I leave the lab and enter the dreaded ‘write up’ stage of my PhD, where I hear day and night no longer hold such distinction, and it becomes acceptable to drink before noon. Duvet day, everyday! I fear that novelty may wear off pretty darn quick.

To be honest, my project has been on a steady track to doom since the start, but a couple of months ago began to turn around. I can just see a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel, partly because I might not have 80,000 words of pure negativity, and partly because this last year is finally coming to an end.

The final year is a strange one, as I’ve been told by many a friend that made it to the end. I want to be rid of this year just as much as I want to cling onto it with both hands. I want to leave this year behind mostly because of the stress. Oh, the stress! Frantically trying to finish experiments that are really resisting completion, whilst having to accept that not everything will actually be done by the time October comes around, and that any promising aspects of my project might be picked up by another student in the future. I feel very territorial about my work, which is why I don’t want to ever leave – I want to stay and finish every last bit myself. Alas, I have to fly the nest because nothing is ever finished in academia.
I must admit, the light emerging ahead of me evokes a level of excitement inside. The nervous kind of excitement that comes from wanting to move on into the big wide world and it being almost close enough to touch, but also not knowing what on earth that will bring. I could be unemployed for months, or I could be snapped up into the job of my dreams. Who knows? But, I’ve been traveling through this dark tunnel of a PhD for so long now, the brightness and vastness of the world ahead is also frightening one. How will the harsh environment outside of my little academia bubble feel?

My next post may well be written from a duvet den at around 3am, laptop on knee and gin in hand. But thankfully (I think), it’s now back to the lab.

To commute, or not to commute

That is the great question that faces the majority of people who work or study in London. I, unfortunately, could not escape this dilemma.
During the first year of my PhD it was my first time actually being in London, on a daily basis anyway. It therefore didn’t take me too long to conclude that I definitely wanted to live in London, no matter what. Besides, I had commuted to university in Sheffield from Lincoln for my very first semester in my undergrad (don’t ask) and I absolutely hated it!
I had big dreams of the city, where everything was just a short whirr of a tube journey away, and I would spend every weekend gallivanting round the trendy markets and shops of London. I was surprised then, as you can imagine, when I had to get the bus most places (including to and from the lab everyday) because an annual travel card for the tube was out of financial reach, yet the bus only cost £530 (a year!) with my student discount, and I spent almost every weekend visiting or being visited by my boyfriend in Cambridge.
Even though I got the snail-paced bus most places, I did really enjoy the freedom that living in London brings. Being able to hop on a night bus that will take you pretty much all the way home after one too many drinks, is something that you simply can’t do if you don’t live here. You have to factor in last trains, and thoughts such as, ‘is it even worth going out?’
Welcome to Liverpool Street Station

Despite all of this, I’m now living in my second commuter town. I first moved to Welwyn Garden City, where I lived for a year, and it took 1 hour 20 minutes from front door to desk. Now I live in Bishop’s Stortford, and even though I have a longer walk from the station, the faster train makes it 1 hour 15 minutes, if there are no delays!
Sometimes I miss the magic of London, but I think the time was right for me to move. As an undergraduate I hated commuting, and I wouldn’t recommend it to anybody, but as a postgraduate I think it definitely has its perks. Commuting by train means I have a dedicated time slot to read or write, and I even get a little desk on the back of the seat in front of me! If I didn’t have that hour or so to read (scientific papers, by the way!) I know for sure that I wouldn’t make that time up during the day. Besides, lab work is just too busy sometimes.
My bank balance obviously suffers a bit of a blow once a year when I have to fork out for my annual season ticket, but I’m rewarded with remarkably fresher air than in London, a cheaper cost of living, and an actual house. That’s right, two whole floors that actually belong to me and my boyfriend. We even have a garden! Compare that to the one room I rented in one of the flats in a converted house in north London, for almost £200 more per month, and I’m laughing.
You may have grasped this already, but despite the allure of the big city, I would commute into London any day. This is obviously just my opinion, but as a postgraduate with choc-a-bloc days, I vote commute. (Unless of course you can afford to live within walking distance of uni/lab, but for me that would be sacrificing too much money, space, and dignity. I don’t want my bedroom to be a converted living room, thanks!). Besides, if the city beckons, I can use my annual season ticket to go gallivanting at the weekend!


How I came to do a PhD…

Good day!

I thought it would be sensible to start off my contribution to the student blog with how I started my toughest journey yet: my PhD!
Back when I was a wee college student, studying (ha…) for my A levels, a PhD was something that I associated with grey hair and wisdom. I didn’t realise what it was, or how you got it. When I was an undergrad, I knew my lecturers had ‘Dr’ preceding their names (or professor, in a couple of cases), but I never really thought about how they got those mysterious letters. Naive? Maybe… But I also put that down to lack of education in career prospects and progression.
My undergraduate course was a BSc biomedical sciences, which included a placement year at a hospital or in industry (only if you were successful in application and interview!). It was only in my third (placement) year at a small biotech company in Cambridge that I became aware of what a PhD was, how to get one and what it can do for you.
More than half of the 50ish people working at this company had a PhD, and almost everyone in the biology lab, where I was based, had one. It was here that I learned how it is pretty much vital for a career in research, in industry or academia. Why did they never tell me this at university?
When I returned to university for my fourth and final year, I began researching potential PhD supervisors and their work. For some reason, I felt intimidated by PhD application forms and the potential for high-class competition, so instead of applying through ‘‘ I applied directly to each supervisor.
By writing an email directly to my potential supervisor, I made sure my application actually made it to their office, and I wasn’t surrounded by other applicants that may have attended a better university or, I don’t know, done more volunteering or something. Insecure? Probably!
Out of the 7 supervisors I emailed, I got 2 replies asking me to attend an ‘interview’, which was basically an informal chat to make sure I wasn’t completely hopeless at life. Both of them offered to write up a grant proposal for me. Wait… I had just been offered 2 PhD positions, and I was worried about my application?
Just goes to show what being a little proactive can do for you!

I think I have to include a photo here, so here is me graduating (on the left)… ready to head down the long, dark road of the PhD. I should definitely look more scared…


‘Til the next time,

Starting as I mean to go on…

Week one of fourth year is over! I already feel like I’m drowning in work. It’s only been 5 days and I’ve already written and handed in one case report, booked two patient appointments, done 3 days of placement, sat through six lectures andddd started revising for my third year finals exams (our finals exams are in November for some weird reason).

I’m trying to put everything I’ve learnt over the last 3 years into use. So here are a few of the mistakes and what I’ve changed because of them:

In first year I did fairly well in a mock exam and then I became quite complacent and thought I could revise 80 lectures in 10 days for the real exam. This was not a wise idea. This year I’ve made my notes well in advance and started revising early so I have time to go over things. Also since we don’t have study leave I’ll be doing most of my revision in the evenings which cuts down my time pretty drastically.

Usually when it comes to summer exams everything else in life pretty much shuts down. Most university societies go into hibernation. However, November exams mean the rest of the world is still awake and there’s no point waiting to get involved in stuff in the summer because it all dies down! This year I’m part of the qmessenger editing team so I’ll have to do my bit for that. I’m also helping out at the Queen Mary open day and hopefully I’ll be part of the Saving faces society committee. Time management is key; there’s 24 hours in a day – use them wisely.

There’s that slight sense of panic when you forget to book in your patients until 2 days before and then it’s too short notice. This year I’m going to make sure I book as many of my sessions well in advance so I don’t have to worry about it all the time!

Requirements. Requirements. Requirements. That all too familiar word for dental students. However much you want to care about the patient. And believe me when I say I really do. Requirements are what life comes down to in the end. This year I’m going to try and finish them as early as possible! That might be easier said than done but we’ll see how it goes.

Basically the aim of this year is to be more organised so for me that means incessant list making. I’ve already made mine for this weekend. Let’s hope it’s a productive one.

Working on Campus

These days it’s pretty difficult to get a part-time job. And while it’s difficult for the average Joe, it’s near enough impossible for a pessimist like me. For a while I was stuck in a cycle of: I don’t have any money-> I should get a job-> It’s so hard to get a job-> I’d have to fill in hundreds of applications-> I probably still won’t get a job-> What’s the point?-> Still unemployed-> Back to the start. It doesn’t help that the dentistry timetable is so erratic. Some weeks you get days off and other weeks you don’t. A lot of people get Saturday jobs but I figured I don’t want to commit to a job and give up all my Saturdays.

So I want a flexible job that allows me to do shifts during the week and isn’t too far from the campus and isn’t mind-numbingly boring. Doesn’t sound like I’ll be making any money soon, right? Wrong! Every year Queen Mary UoL has a work experience fair in the Octagon in the Queen’s building. Here they advertise a variety of on campus jobs and volunteering opportunities. These include administrative jobs, mentoring and university ambassador work. Many of the opportunities are for paid work and the timetables are flexible making them perfect to mould around your lectures and seminars. Even if you miss the fair, the Queen Mary website has a brilliant careers section where you can find all the details about the jobs and how to apply.

I’ve been working as a student ambassador, which is a paid position, at Queen Mary since my first year. It’s given me the opportunity to work at open days, UCAS conventions and do campus tours. On top of that I’ve been contacted for other random jobs like admin in an office, working at graduation and writing this blog! This year I also signed up to be a mentor. This involved travelling out to a school where the number of students going on to higher education is low and mentoring some of them. And for next year I’ve signed up to be part of the university magazine and newspaper.

My point is that there are hundreds of opportunities for work experience on campus that it’s near impossible not to find something that interests you. You just have to look out for it.

The First Patient

Dentistry is a unique degree in that as students we carry out treatment independently on patients as part of the course. All the treatment we do is overseen by qualified members of staff but in the end the drill’s in our hands which can be scary!

We first started going into clinics in our first year but we worked in groups of three; the dentist, the patient and the nurse. This helped us get used to the chair and the tools and mostly just looking into people’s mouths. The tutors walk around and literally pick on everything – how to position the light or position your own chair or even hold the instruments!

The next step is to go to a series of communication skills seminars which sound really pointless but are actually quite useful. We did loads of role plays pretending to be dentists and difficult patients. Going to these made me realise how easy it is to get carried away talking in dental jargon, which we’re so used to using, that the patients won’t understand.

So near the end of second year was the first time we saw our own ‘real’ patients for a check up appointment. No matter how much the tutors tried to convince us we were ready it still felt like I had no idea what to do. It wasn’t so much that I felt like I was going to hurt the patient but more that my mind would go blank and I wouldn’t know what to say next or that I would somehow offend the patient accidentally.

Turns out it was just as the tutor said it would be; my patient was absolutely lovely, the tutor was so helpful and whole experience was pretty fun! Bring on the next three years!

British Dental Conference 2013

Every year the British Dental Association puts together a huge 3 day conference with an exhibition and talks led by experts in fields all over dentistry. The event is open to all qualified dentists, dental therapists and dental students. And luckily for us students it’s free entry!

This year it was held at London ExCel and it was my first time going to one. I wasn’t really sure what to expect and especially whether it would be mainly aimed at qualified dentists. My busy timetable meant I could only be there for Saturday so I registered for the event online on Friday evening and collected my pass when I got there.

The exhibition was perfect for us dental students to trial and learn about the variety of new and existing oral hygiene products on the market that we can advise our patients to use. There were also plenty of stalls from organisations open for students to join like Dental Protection – a professional indemnity service, and Dentaid – an oral health charity that works to promote oral health in third world countries. The talks were all based on topics relevant to all emerging and qualified dentists and included: dental caries, practice management and career development.

Last but not least – Freebies. Lots and lots of freebies. If nothing else, the lure of free toothpaste, chewing gum and pens has me marking my calendar with next years conference in Manchester. However, the star of the show this year was definitely the free Phillips Sonicare Airfloss worth £75, which will be getting its debut this evening! Oh the perks of dental school!


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