Student Highlights: Armin Mackie

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Introduction

Armin was born in Iran, and raised in Toronto, where he has lived for most of his life. He earned his undergraduate degree in Kinesiology and Health Science at York University, completing an honours thesis in vascular biology. This year, Armin will be entering his 3rd of 4 years in the Doctor of Dental Surgery (DDS) program at the University of Toronto. Outside of school, Armin enjoys reading, listening to podcasts, and spending time with friends and family.

Interview

When did you decide on dentistry and what made you want to pursue dentistry?

“My exposure to dentistry as a career was very early on in life. My father is a general dentist, and growing up I got to see first hand what the career entailed. Firstly, I saw that dentistry was a career that let you have an immediate impact on a patient, which is unique in any field of healthcare. Second, it’s a technique sensitive and procedural field of healthcare rather than a purely diagnostic or cognitive one, which also appealed to me. Dentistry also allows for a great work life balance, which can’t be said for a lot of other healthcare fields. Throughout school, most of my interests were in science, and of the fields related to science and healthcare, dentistry was appealing because of the hands-on component. It’s a career that’s challenging and has potential for advancement and continuous learning and skill development. Running a private practice and a business was also appealing to me, and dentistry is certainly a profession that requires good business acumen.”

Why would you recommend dentistry as a career path?

“I would recommend dentistry as a career path because in most cases, it allows a healthy work life balance that can be adjusted depending on how much you want to work. There is a lot of freedom in this career to choose what type of patients you want to see and where you want to work. Of course, this all comes later on in life, and it can be hard to choose a career for this reason. In terms of individual interests, it would appeal more to those who are hands on and can appreciate the practical nature of the profession. But overall, the scope of the profession is very broad and there is something in it for everyone, regardless of your interests and aspirations.”

What do you think were some of your strengths in your application?

“When I applied to dentistry at the University of Toronto in 2018, the school didn’t have a lengthy application. GPA and DAT score were the main factors in determining whether you would get an interview. They’ve since added an essay portion and require a CASPer test score. Overall, GPA is still weighted heavily. As for Ontario schools, Schulich asks for an outline of extracurricular activities (i.e: research, volunteering, advocacy), but the fact of the matter is that in dentistry, GPA and DAT scores will probably determine if interviews are given. This is true of most schools in Canada and the US. But, if one aspect of your academic scores are lacking, you can make up for it on another part of your application.”

What was the most challenging part of the process of getting into dental school was for you?

“Maintaining a high GPA was definitely the most stressful and challenging aspect during undergrad. In my upper years I had to balance this with research and extracurriculars, which wasn’t easy. Another challenging aspect for a lot of people is studying for the DAT. There aren’t a lot of resources that specify the content on the exam, so asking people who have wrote the test and gotten a good score is a great start. I think that if you’re considering this career, finding at least two or three mentors that have gone to dental school in the recent past can be helpful.”

How was the transition from your undergrad to dental school? What was the most difficult shift for you?

“Make no mistake, dental school is a challenging endeavor. As most people in dental school will tell you, it’s similar to a 9 to 5 job. I would say that the amount of work is about one and a half times the amount of a full course load of undergrad, with clinical components as well. It’s hard to balance everything at times, and hard to motivate yourself in some of the courses that are mandatory. Also, in undergrad you can get away with not having early morning classes, but in dental school, like it or not, you’re getting up early. Since most of you reading this also have a type A personality, it may be hard to just let some things slide in terms of your academics, but I would say that it’s necessary in order to keep moving forward.”

What are some things you like about UofT dent specifically for anyone considering going there?

“One thing I like about UofT is the large class size. At 96 seats in first year, it’s the largest dental school in Canada. People also come from a lot of different parts of the country, and some from the U.S., but in general, most people attended their undergrad in Ontario. Most of the students live in downtown Toronto, which is a fun place to be when you have some time in between classes to explore the city. From an academic standpoint, UofT dentistry is highly invested in research, and a majority of the school’s funding goes to this. Although most of the students are not involved in research, if your interests lie here, there are definitely many opportunities.”

What are some things students should look for when choosing a dentistry program?

“Personally, what I expected from dental school did not exactly match what I experienced my first two years. One thing that surprised me when I got to UofT is the amount of histology and pathology that was in the curriculum. I didn’t have a great background in this, and it was a bit challenging at first. Prosthodontics (the study of dentures and false teeth) was also a heavy part of the curriculum, and I was surprised by how much time is spent on these two disciplines. I should also say that there are two types of dental schools, ones with a medicine based curriculum which have courses alongside medical students (Alberta, McGill) and ones like UofT and UWO with a non-medicine based curriculum. They will both get you the same DDS/DMD degree, but the road to the degree will slightly differ. Some schools are also pass/fail, while the majority are graded. Choosing a school that aligns with your expectations and goals can be helpful, and I would encourage everyone to do some research before choosing a program to attend, if you have the option to do so.”

If you could go back to when you were in undergrad, would you do anything differently?

“I think that my undergrad was spent stressing too much about my transcript and resume. Yes, it did get me interviews, but looking back it might have been worth it to take some time to focus on some courses outside of my major, and some that would prepare me better for dental school. I think that courses like anatomy and histology would be very helpful to take in undergrad, but if you haven’t taken these course don’t worry, a lot of students like myself had very little background in these topics and still found it very manageable to learn all of the material.”

How is the workload in dental school? How are you able to balance school work and wellness?

“The workload in dentistry is a lot to handle. I don’t recall a time in my life when I’ve been as busy as I have been during exam season in dental school. Most often, you have to balance patients and clinic duties with classes and exams. One thing I learned the hard way during my first year is not to procrastinate, and to attend class. It’s also important to have something non-dentistry related as a hobby to get your mind off of school. Overall, a healthy work ethic will go a long way in dental school, especially as you approach your upper years. There are also a lot of opportunities to get involved in sports and social events at the school to get your mind off of dentistry for a while.”

What is the typical path after completion of dental school? Is there residency training, do you immediately start working independently in a practice?

“One of the great things about dentistry is the freedom to choose if you would like to do a residency. Upon graduation, some students immediately begin working as a general dentist, while others do a general practice residency (GPR) or apply to a specialty training program (periodontics, orthodontics, endodontics, etc.) after they graduate. A GPR is a one year paid hospital-based residency that lets you practice dentistry in a hospital setting as opposed to a private clinical setting. These residencies are good for gaining clinical knowledge and skills and are popular for people that want to apply to a specialty program later on, or just to gain some more experience before they begin private practice. They vary greatly in what kind of clinical experience they provide, and it’s important to do research before applying to any given program. Some people also go into a specialty program right after they graduate and spend very little or no time practicing as a general dentist. Another option that is fairly recent is an advanced education in general dentistry (AEGD) program, offered by some schools in the US. These programs are appealing for recent graduates who wish to gain more experience specifically in general dentistry before they begin private practice.”

If you did not become a dentist, what else did you consider doing?

“Healthcare had always appealed to me, so personally, I had narrowed my career options to medicine or dentistry, because I felt that these careers allow room for growth in the field of healthcare. My undergraduate degree was in kinesiology and health science at York University, and I had been working in a wet lab for the last two years of my undergrad. Had I not gone into one of these healthcare fields, I might have pursued a masters in kinesiology. In hindsight, I was pretty narrow sighted in my decision making, and there were a lot more career options that would have been a good fit for me. Having taken some courses outside of my major in other areas may have opened my eyes to other opportunities as well.”

What specialty/specialties in dentistry are you currently interested in/exploring?

“So far general dentistry appeals to me because it has such a broad scope of practice. The nature of dentistry also allows you to do as much as you want in terms of the types of treatment, granted you have taken accredited courses and are capable of performing the treatments. Of the specialties, the ones that appeal to me are anesthesia and oral surgery. I feel that anesthesia opens up a lot of doors in terms of the types of treatments you can provide and the types of patients you can treat. Oral surgery is similar in the sense that it would provide the opportunity to see more complicated cases and broadens the scope of dental practice and provides the opportunity to work in a hospital as well as private practice. However, it’s not the only specialty that has hospital privileges, and a lot of general dentists, oral pathologists, and other specialists work both in private practice and the hospital. Of the other specialties, periodontics, endodontics, and orthodontics are also very popular. It’s nice to do some shadowing to find which specialty appeals to you, but you’ll most likely have a good idea by your third or fourth year of dental school if there is one specialty that interests you.”

Do you have any extracurriculars or hobbies you currently participate in outside of school?

“There are a ton of extracurriculars you can be involved in at UofT, and I’m sure it’s the same for most dental schools. My personal favourite at UofT is this annual show called dentantics. It’s basically a talent show, except it’s not lame. It’s very well put together and takes a lot of effort from students in all years to execute. Besides that, there are a lot of intramural sports, the ODA cup which is a hockey game between UofT and Western dentistry that takes place every year, and class council. I’ve definitely left a lot of things out, but if extracurriculars are what tickle your fancy, fear not, for there are copious opportunities.”

Any final comments for readers?

“Make sure you do your research and find out if you are committed to pursuing dentistry. The ‘it’s only four more years’ attitude isn’t a good one to have, and if you’re not really interested in the field it can lead to burn out. There are obviously aspects that you cannot gauge until you get to dental school, and no one is interested in every aspect. I have yet to meet someone who doesn’t complain about dental school. But try to at least shadow some dentists and specialists to see if there is a specific area that interests you, and once you get to dental school try to focus on learning all that you can. Also remember that it’s not a place that will teach you absolutely everything you’ll need to know about dentistry. Continued education is something that you’ll most likely need to pursue.

A final note, if you’re reading this and you can’t decide if you want to pursue dentistry versus another healthcare field (i.e: medicine, optometry), I highly recommend you to investigate the fields thoroughly, and make a decision before you apply to either program. There are a lot of similarities, but also quite a few differences. Which school you go to can also make a difference in how satisfied you will be during your time there.”

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