Research Looks at How COVID-19 Changed Dental Students’ Career Paths

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Everyone is sick and tired of the coronavirus, and that’s a simple fact. Its existence has transformed the world and devastated more people than we can count. As dental professionals, our protocols have changed in dealing with the crisis.

Dental students had to take a break with the rest of us, and when we went back to work and learned the new regulations, many of these students were still at home, either on a forced break or learning online. Dentistry is a subject best learned by hand, rather than 100% by book or online.

COVID-19 and Dental and Dental Hygiene Students’ Career Plans addressed the current climate around dental students to determine if COVID-19 has disrupted anyone’s career trajectory and educational decisions. What do you think? Have you thought about changing careers or bettering your education to put yourself in a safer environment?

The State of Things

Students who are already naturally anxious about their classes and grades found themselves completely stressed out by the unknowns on top of unknowns. When people are so unsure about their future, they can easily change goals and paths, especially when their lives are on the line.

The majority of dental hygiene students have always reported that they entered into their careers because they wanted to help people. They consider their important job essential to a person’s general health and are proud to be a part of it.

An Anonymous Survey

A REDcap Survey, anonymous, strictly online via link, and consisting of 81 questions, was emailed to 436 current dental and dental hygiene students at the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Dentistry. The survey asked questions about the student’s educational debt, student wellness, career plans after graduation, and whether they feel that they are even ready to enter the field at this time.

In the beginning, the students were asked a single question: Since the COVID-19 outbreak, has your plans for future dental practice changed? The students who said yes to that question were considered for the full study.

While 252 people responded to the survey, only 29 had declared that they had altered or completely changed their career trajectory. Around half of the 29 students had plans on going into private practice. Half the students who responded to the survey (126 students) said that they are staying on their current career paths only because they are seeking residencies or post-grad educational opportunities, so they wouldn’t be immediately required to work independently with the public.

According to the survey, more students in the fourth year of study, those who are near the end, changed their career goals than students in any other year. When asked why they made these changes, the replies were pretty consistent. Concerns about future job availability (employment rates), job disruption (such as we experienced during the COVID crisis), and general uncertainty in the field were the major concerns almost everyone shared.

Concerns for the Future of Dentistry

It was determined through the survey that many people who changed their career trajectories did so out of pure shock and fear due to the extraordinary events that were occurring, perhaps related to The Great Resignation. Minority students were also more prone to make career-changing decisions at this time because of socioeconomic status and the tremendous burden that the virus put on such students.

Most people who chose to change reported higher rates of anxiety in their daily lives. Those who did not change their paths reported higher rates of optimism and general resiliency.

The conclusions were that a student’s mental health should be a top priority while stress management, disaster preparedness, and crisis leadership should be incorporated and addressed as a practice within the classroom to prepare us for any future problems that may come.

We will always need dentists, and we will always need hygienists. We just need to update the curriculum in our dental programs and learn how to be prepared for anything. As we have recently learned, anything can happen.

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