Delay Is Not Denial: How I Matched Into My Top Choice Pediatric Dental Residency Program
Updated: Jan 22, 2021
Delay is not denial.
Delay is not denial.
A concept I’ve grappled with for the past two years.
I remember my fourth year of dental school being extremely stressful. I was the National President of the Student National Dental Association, while also balancing clinical (graduation) requirements, licensure exams, board exams and many other extracurricular activities...
I knew I wasn't the most competitive applicant for the pediatric residency cycle, but I felt I still had a chance. I was not in the top half of my class and had no work or post grad dental experience. However, I still wanted to apply. I knew working with kids was what I wanted to do for the longevity of my career and the only kind of dentistry I wanted to do.
Apart from grades, my resumé was stacked with various scholarships, recognition and community service. I also had strong letters of recommendation and I felt (with interview practice) that I would be adequately prepared for the 2019 cycle.
Well, the cycle quickly proved otherwise.
I applied to ~ 20 schools the summer going into my 4th year of dental school. It wasn’t until September that I began to receive rejection emails.
Email after email.
“Unfortunately we had (insert crazy # of applicants) apply this year and we cannot offer you an interview.”
I read that so many times that I began to assume it was the new mantra of 2019. I started to lose hope. I was finally offered an interview at my dental school at the time (UAB) and then at a Lutheran program in Tampa, Florida. I felt very confident about the interview at Tampa. I really liked the residents, faculty and city. I wanted something different from where I had already been schooling and decided to rank it first, with my dental school second.
I ranked my (2) programs and nervously waited until Match Day. I still remember the cold feeling I got when I read the first part of the email.
A hard yet easy email to understand.
You did not match a position.
You did not match a position.
I didn’t match a position.
Reading the email, so many thoughts crossed my mind.
What do I tell my parents?
What do I tell my family?
What do I tell my friends?
What do I tell my professors?
I wrestled with a number of emotions. Defeat. Shame. Embarrassment. These were the same cycle of emotions I would undergo each time a person would run up to me excitedly asking me “Did you match?!!” at
school. Or each time I got a text stating “so where are we going!!!??” For the first time in my life, I had applied for something, didn’t get it and had no idea what to do next.
Ironically, the people that I was ashamed of telling I had not matched were the same people that God placed in my life to pull me out of my failure funk. They reminded me that I had accomplished many things in dental school – and that ONE thing I wasn’t successful at had no bearing on the kind of dentist I aspired to be. It’s crazy how obvious this is now, but it was so hard to see this through the lens of defeat then. But again, God placed special people in my life that would help me get back on my feet and come up with a plan.
Not matching can be a very traumatic experience. For anyone. Dental, Medical, you name it. While the stakes for not matching as a medical student are higher (because in dentistry if you don’t match you can still get a job), there’s still a huge amount of money and time invested into the cycle as a MATCH applicant. We’re talking atleast 100-150 per school for the applications alone. When you add lodge and travel, you’re spending a pretty penny.
Regardless, I had to pick up my face and figure out what I was going to do next. I had a couple of options. After talking to a few of my mentors and friends in the pediatric cycle, we came up with these:
A) Getting into a General Practice Residency (GPR) – Apparently this would look best especially if I wanted to reapply after I completed the GPR. My mentor (a Pediatric Dentistry Program director) said that programs preferred to see that I was still in a learning environment. GPR’s also come with knowledge of hospital medicine (sedations, OR experience, etc) which can work in my favor especially since most pediatric dental residencies have a big hospital component.
B) Getting into an Advanced Education in General Dentistry (AEGD) program – Another one year post-doctoral training program. This would also look good because I would still be in an academic environment while also attaining pediatric experience (depending on the program). Most AEGDs (in comparison to GPRs) are set up like a private practice so it would be a great opportunity for me to get first-hand experience along with staying in an academic environment. This would especially be helpful if the program had pediatric patients.
C) Getting a job in a pediatric dental office – another option. Working in a pediatric office as a general dentist would give me a myriad of pediatric experiences that I would be able to pull from during interviews. It would allow me to show that I am passionate about the field. Also depending on the practice I work with, I could potentially get pediatric dental CE (continued education).
Everybody’s situation is different but for me, option C fell in my lap. I found a great pediatric dental office in central Georgia that worked solely with the demographic of
patients I was interested in (Medicaid). They saw a large volume of patients and the owner (a pediatric dentist) offered to mentor me – (I was very clear that I wanted to apply for residency in the
next year or 2 and he wanted to help). A and B weren’t really feasible because I had waited until after Match to look for opportunities – by that time a
lot of residencies that were pediatric focused/ hospital focused already had who they wanted. I was also in the middle of planning for a wedding so the extra cash from working full time would have definitely benefited. I went with option C – working in a pediatric dental office.
I worked for about a year and a half and re-applied for the 2021 cycle. I wish I could say that having work experience boosted the number of interviews I received. However....I can’t honestly say that because I applied to ~30 programs and got interviews to only 3. I won't lie, this was really discouraging. I started feeling like much had not changed from the last cycle because I didn’t see a drastic increase in the number of places I was offered an interview. I knew that I, as an applicant, had become a lot stronger. I was way more comfortable working with children, more comfortable coming up with treatment plans for children and even more comfortable communicating with parents. I understood the importance and role that pediatric dentists play in the overall health of children. IF I wanted to become an advocate for the oral health of the pediatric population I realized I had to change my mindset... I didn't have "only" 3 interviews. Rather, I had 3 amazing opportunities to convince people why I was deserving of a spot in their program.
While the number of interviews didn’t increase as much as I would have liked, I did interview at more competitive programs this cycle. So, did work experience work in my favor? I would say so. In the interview, I was asked a number of questions about what I had to offer and how I knew the field of pediatric dentistry was for me. The work experience I had allowed me to thoughtfully articulate my WHY - overall adding a layer of confidence during interviews and socials.
Networking also helped! I had friends/mentors at these programs that could advocate for me as a potential candidate. A good number of programs (not all) utilize an algorithm when deciding who to offer interviews to. They often start with the candidates GPA – so if your GPA isn’t at or above a specific point, your application could possibly not even be looked at. Moreover, interviewing this year was very different from all the previous years due to COVID19. To accomidate the pandemic, all interviews were held virtually. Pre-pandemic, the interview process for each program would last two days: the first day would be a social that would give you an opportunity to assess the residents and atmosphere of the program. The second day was the actual interview where you toured the school and interacted with faculty and had your interviews. Unfortunately, this year we missed that opportunity of exploring the program in person. Because everything was virtual, both the program and candidate had limited interaction with each other. Thus, having people in your corner that can vouch for you as a candidate could potentially go a long way.
After interviewing at all my spots, I made the decision to rank UCLA first. Why? When I first realized that I wanted to work with kids I did an externship at UCLA’s pediatric dental residency program my sophomore year in dental school. At the time, I didn’t have much of an idea of what I wanted from a program. Now, after practicing a little bit, I’ve developed a better idea of what I need from a program as a dental provider. I wanted a program that was strong didactically, which will be able to properly equip me for passing boards) strong clinically (good number of sedation cases), and a program that encourages diversity while maintaining a healthy learning environment. Externing (shadowing) at this program allowed me to experience many parts of their program firsthand. My interview experience this year, although virtual, mirrored this as well. I also like the city of LA and saw it as a place I could live (temporarily) so it wasn't very hard to rank them first.
I am excited to say that I have matched into my first-choice residency. It’s easy to think that accomplishments of this caliber are of your own doing but I know doubtlessly that without God, the people He put in my life, His wisdom and His favor, that It wouldn’t be possible. To anyone that finds themselves in a similar plight, I want to encourage you to not give up! For friends of people that are going through this, the best thing you can do is believe in them and encourage them to continue to pursue their dreams. Be encouraged! It's not over until you quit.
– “If it seems slow in coming, wait patiently for it will surely take place” – Hab. 3:2
Questions? feel free to contact me.