Words From Your Peers

Life of a Third-Year Dental Student: The Good, Bad and Ugly

Posted by Wendan Li on December 22, 2016

[Excerpts from Wendan Li’s blog Laundry on Sundaes: D3 LIFE: THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY used with permission.] 

The transition into my clinical years of dental school was not an easy one. In fact, it was probably one of the hardest experiences I’ve ever had to go through in life so far. As I’m about to begin my final year of dental school, I want to share some of my experiences with clinic this past year.
This message is especially for the incoming D3s who are about to enter clinic. Some of you will be instantly awesome at clinic, and some of you will struggle. I was one of those who struggled last year, and I struggled hard. For the first time in my life, I felt like I was doing poorly in school. More than that, for the first time in my life, I was not enjoying school. What happened? I wondered to myself. I loved the first two years of dental school and felt like I was prepared, but now that I was in clinic, everything felt 100 times harder. The amount of paperwork and administrative stuff was overwhelming, and I felt like for the first time, the amount of success I was getting was not directly correlated with the amount of effort I put in. 

I’d look around and see a lot of my classmates excelling, with some already doing their third crown and seventh filling when I was still struggling to get patients in my chair. I listened while they told me how much they loved clinic and how much better it was than simulation lab, but I could not relate at all. I wished so desperately that I felt the same way, but I didn’t. I woke up every day dreading the thought of having to get out of bed to go to clinic. I had so much anxiety about everything clinic-related. I felt overwhelmed all the time and began to seriously doubt my decision to go into dentistry. Which then led to immense guilt over the thought because I, and more importantly, my family and loved ones, have already invested so much time, energy and money to get me this far. Just weeks ago I was presented with an award at our clinic induction ceremony and now I felt like a fraud. As if any day now they are going to realize that they’ve made a terrible mistake. Things got so bad that I even sought professional help. 

Over time, though, things started to get better, slowly. Fall quarter was still hard, and it wasn’t really until winter that I finally started feeling more comfortable in clinic. Don’t get me wrong—there are definitely still tough days but now things are so much better than they were a year ago. After speaking with classmates over the past year, I now know that I wasn’t the only one who had felt this way at the beginning of clinic. So many of my classmates told me that they felt the same emotions and went through the same struggles as I did. Several of the incoming D3s told me how thankful they were when I publicly shared my thoughts. We so often only share stories of our successes and don’t hear about the struggles. 

So I want to put this out there for all the D3s: if you ever feel any of the feelings I described above, you’re not alone. It’s completely normal. The truth is, dental school is really, really hard. But don’t give up! If you don’t immediately fall in love with clinic, it doesn’t make you any less of a great future dentist. Caring for patients is an enormous responsibility. The transition to clinic is not easy for everyone and it’s okay to struggle. It is also true that I sometimes felt very alone in my struggles last year. If you do find yourself struggling, please talk to someone—a classmate, a friend, a family member or a mental health professional. I would be more than happy to listen as well, so feel free to reach out any time. That’s also part of why I’m sharing my experiences so that others can feel less alone. Remember as you begin to take care of patients to also take care of yourself. Mental health is so important, especially for health professional students and the more candid conversations we can have about it, the better these situations will be for everyone. We’re all in this together.
Despite my initial struggles in clinic, my third year of dental school was also full of rewards. So moving on to happier things, here are some of the highlights of my D3 year in photos!

My clinic partner Kathleen and I at our clinic induction ceremony! We might be smiling but I was definitely internally panicking about actually having to treat patients. It’s so important to have a good support system in dental school and I’m so fortunate to have an amazing clinic partner by my side!

My big and beautiful Delta Sigma Delta family at the initiation dinner last year. Once again, support system!

Me and my wonderful D2 assistant Wendy at Give Kids a Smile Day this year


I was able to join the American Dental Education Association (ADEA) as a University of California, San Francisco, School of Dentistry (UCSF SOD) student. Exploring my interest in academia is one of the best decisions I made in dental school. This past year, I went to the 2016 ADEA Annual Session & Exhibition in Denver with a large group of UCSF SOD students and faculty. Here are some lovely members of the UCSF SOD student delegation.


I also participated in the ADEA Academic Dental Careers Fellowship Program this past year. As part of it I conducted a research project on dental students’ perceptions of and satisfaction with faculty diversity. Here I am presenting my research poster with my incredible mentor, Gwen Essex, RDH, M.S., Ed.D.


I was also honored to receive one of two ADEA/Crest Oral-B Laboratories Scholarship for Predoctoral Dental Students Pursuing Academic Careers.


I’m so glad for the opportunity to attend the conference, which left me feeling inspired and grateful and made me realize two things: 1) that dentistry is so much bigger than what you experience at your dental school, and 2) we truly are surrounded by the most brilliant and supportive faculty and students at UCSF SOD. A word of advice to all dental students out there: If you ever have the chance to attend meetings and conferences on a national/international level, do it. There are so many opportunities out there: ADEA, American Student Dental Association (ASDA), AADR/IADR, etc. The experiences you gain, the people you meet and the things you learn at these meetings and conferences will stay with you for far longer. Onward and upward!

To read more about Ms. Li’s journey visit her blog.

About Wendan Li:

Wendan Li

Wendan Li
University of California, San Francisco
School of Dentistry, Class of 2017

Wendan Li is a fourth-year dental student at the University of California, San Francisco, School of Dentistry. She received a Bachelor of Arts degree from Columbia University in 2012. After graduation, Wendan plans to pursue a residency in Orthodontics and hopes to combine clinical care, research and academia in her future career.