Do I have to do research to get into dental school? What kind of research should I do?

This is a really common question people ask about getting into dental school. Do you HAVE to do research? Short answer: no, BUT it kind of depends...

At the time I submitted my application, “research” was one of the boxes I didn’t have ticked. I was pretty nervous about that, so I had hoped the rest of my application was up to par.

I was a non-traditional applicant who had taken time off after undergrad before applying to dental school. I returned to school part-time at a nearby university the fall after I submitted my dental school application to take a few pre-requisite courses. I found out about a research lab in their school of medicine which happened to be studying tooth loss and I emailed the principal investigator immediately. (“Principal investigators” are like the “boss” of a research lab.) I submitted an application, interviewed soon after, and started working in the lab! At this point, I had already planned two interviews at two different dental schools within the next month. In hindsight, I probably should have emailed the contact of each school to update my application, but I decided I could share my new research position at the interviews instead.

Interestingly enough, none of the interviewers at either school asked me if I had done research. I also didn’t feel as if they thought it was a deficit in my application. Looking back, I think it was for a few reasons: I went to a small community college (commonly limited opportunities for research), my bachelor degree wasn't a “hard science” major or necessarily relevant to dental school, and I had enough experiences outside of research which fulfilled their criteria.

On the other hand, I did get an opportunity to talk about working in the research lab at the university in the spring at my final interview with an out-of-state school (by this point, on Zoom because of CoVID). However, I never told them about my new research position before the interview so I can only assume that “research” was not a reason they invited me to interview.

DESPITE MY EXPERIENCE...Let’s get one thing straight: research is never going to hurt your application!

In fact, I really encourage every student to try it given the opportunity.

Okay, so I will backpedal a bit here and say that although I generally don’t believe research is a “must,” if you are a “hard science” major who is only going to school and not doing much else, admission committees will want to know how you were spending your extra time. Especially if you want to talk in an eventual interview about how passionate you are about science.

Research experience demonstrates something really important: you ARE passionate about science and want to contribute in a way you can. And in any lab, there are plenty of ways! There is a lot of science happening all the time. The thing is, PhD’s get so tied up with writing so they can get grants for their lab and their university that they don’t get to do as much of the hands-on work as many of them would probably like. This means that a lot of the actual hands-on work gets to be done by lucky students! Sure, you have “labs” built into your science courses, but you are just learning the principles of science there and not applying them in a new way like you get to do in research. You get training to do all kinds of stuff that you might only ever experience in a research lab meaning it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Doing research also demonstrates good self-management and independence in your work ethic. Once you are trained to work in a lab, you won’t get as much supervision. In fact, a lot of times it may just be you and your playlist grinding alone in the lab. Depending on what kind of research you are doing, you might actually have a lot of flexibility in your working hours and will have to be very self-disciplined to create your own schedule and complete tasks without being assigned to them and getting a deadline. You will just know things need to be done, so you will go in and do them without someone telling you to do so.

(NOTE: This is really important to understand for dental school! Instructors can show you what to do if you ask them, and you will get some tutorials, but no one is going to hold your hand or babysit you when you are learning.)

Working in a research lab shows you are committed to being a lifelong learner: you want to go above and beyond your required coursework to learn more and do more science! Curiosity is one of the traits that is probably less-discussed but incredibly important in dental school. Committing yourself to dentistry as a profession means committing yourself to becoming a lifelong learner. Even after graduation, dentists must take “continuing education” (CE) courses every year to maintain their license to practice dentistry. There are new materials and technology to restore teeth created in labs every year. Many of them are able to hit the market with few studies. That is where it is important for you as a clinician to be able to separate fact from fiction. Will you be suckered in by some dental materials company? Or will you use evidence-based research to determine what is going to get the best results for your patients? Some people may find this extra work to be a turn-off, but others an opportunity to always be growing as a clinician (and, a scientist!).

But Meredith, research is scary! How am I supposed to do that?! What should I do research in?!

When I actually was an undergraduate student, research was completely off my radar. First, there were no labs at my community college, and second I was terrified! I had no idea what “research” was actually like. I was afraid I would have to write my own studies, proposals, grants, and articles all on my own. Like any college student, I had to read a lot of scientific articles and knew how much work must have gone into them. How could I do that by myself?! I wouldn’t even have known what I wanted to research!

After I started working in my first research lab as an assistant, I realized that labs have many members including other students like myself. I was fortunate to be in a really organized lab with a great manager who trained me to do a lot of different things to help out in my role as assistant. She encouraged me to train to do more and more tasks as I became comfortable and I knew I would never be forced to do anything I wasn’t prepared to do.

Research can be really interesting, but it can also be incredibly tedious sometimes when you are doing the same thing over and over again. That’s why my biggest advice is to choose a lab that you are TRULY interested in where you think you will like the work involved.

Aaaaannnndddd... IT DOES NOT HAVE TO BE DENTAL RELATED! Yes, I said it. And I would say it again, but this post is getting kind of long.

A lot of dental-specific research happens at dental schools so it’s reasonable to assume there aren’t a lot of labs at undergrad institutions doing that too. Also, doing any kind of research will mean you have a lot of the good traits I mentioned already. One of my dental school classmates worked with plants, and my best friend who is graduating from optometry school studied fungi! It would sure be cool if your lab is dental-related, but it is certainly not a requirement.

I found that in my first research position I got to practice a lot of skills relevant to dentistry including giving injections, doing anatomical dissections on a really small scale, along with general chemistry and even a little bit of histology and physiology. Pick a research lab which focuses on a discipline that you are really interested in--use your favorite science classes as a guide for where to start.

If you decide that research may be right for you then check out any openings in labs on your campus. Or, if you really want to show grit, look into a lab and email someone first to see if you can meet to talk more about what it’s like to work there and if there are opportunities to help out.

If you still have some time before you plan to apply to dental school, you definitely can’t go wrong giving it a chance, and it can really take your application to the next level.

Did you do research? Are you thinking about it? Tell me more--I want to hear about it!