Returning to full-time study – an interview with former dental nurse Sophie Varney

me and sophieHi, Sophie. You’re another of my fellow second-year Oral Health Science students. Firstly, thank you for taking the time to answer my questions, and big congratulations on getting through your first year of university – you are well on the way to becoming a dental hygienist now! This interview has the aim of finding out a little more about your experiences as a dental nurse and how you managed the transition from full-time work to full-time study. Hopefully it will help others who are also thinking about returning.

To start off, can you say a little about how you got into dental nursing?

I knew I wanted a career in healthcare, but I wasn’t sure which route to take. Someone mentioned dental nursing to me, and so I researched it a little and thought I would give it a go. I ended up loving it!

During your time as a dental nurse, what was the thing you enjoyed the most? Was there anything you didn’t particularly like?

I enjoyed working closely with my colleagues – we were like one big family. I also really loved getting to know and building a rapport with patients; that was probably the biggest thing for me. There wasn’t much I didn’t like, but I would say the thing I enjoyed the least was sometimes having to work on a tight time schedule, as it would end up feeling very busy and I’d feel a bit rushed off my feet.

After completing your dental nursing qualification, did you do any other post-registration qualifications? If you did, why did you choose to do this?

I completed the Certificate in Oral Health Education. I decided to do this as I thought communicating with patients on a one-to-one basis would be good experience, and I wanted it to help towards the next step in my career.

There are so many routes you can take once you have gained your dental nursing qualification. What options did you feel you had? Which did you choose, and why?

For a while, I thought about becoming a practice manager, as I liked the idea of helping to run things – but I realised that this route wasn’t for me, as I wanted to be a lot more hands-on with patients rather than working behind the scenes in an office. In the end, I chose to go to university to study Oral Health Science, with the aim of qualifying as a dental hygienist. I get to treat my own patients and build a rapport with them while improving their oral health and overall wellbeing, which – as I mentioned – is something I’ve always enjoyed.

Once you knew what you wanted to do, it was then time to apply! What qualifications did you have when you applied? How was the application process, including any interview/s you had?

I applied to the University of Essex using UCAS. The qualifications I had when I applied were my GCSES, my Level 3 Diploma in Dental Nursing and a Certificate in Oral Health Education. The application process was fairly straightforward, although I found the personal statement the hardest part, as I wanted it to stand out from the rest. I managed to get an interview at the University of Essex. The interview day was nerve-wracking, but everyone was really friendly, which put me at ease.

I was worried while I was applying, as most dental hygiene courses require applicants to have A-Levels, but I left school without studying for any A-Levels. I thought I would never get into dental hygiene, as I thought A-Level students would have the upper hand. However, I didn’t let it stop me from applying to Essex, and now here I am!

You managed to get a place first time – well done! Are you enjoying being at university? What are the best things about it?

Yes, I really enjoy being at university. I have loved getting to know new people and the experience of living in student accommodation with other students on my course. I love working alongside other students and learning in a clinical environment – both in the clinical skills lab on the phantom heads. I also love going to placement to work with patients.

How did you find the move into student accommodation after living at home?

I moved into halls because home is too far for me to commute from. I found it challenging being so far away from my boyfriend, family and friends, but they are all so supportive and the friends I’ve made at university make it all so much easier.

It can be a little daunting to return to full-time study. How did you manage the transition from working to studying at university?

Financially it was very difficult, as I was going from earning a monthly wage to not getting as much money and only getting student loan payments once a term. I managed to overcome this by setting a budget and figuring out how much I could spend on what each week, which definitely helps! It’s always good to have an idea of what you actually need and what you don’t and to make sure you stick to your budget as much as possible. I also have a part-time job in which I work one or two shifts every couple of weeks just to make that little bit extra.

I found that working nine hours a day, five days a week as a dental nurse was physically exhausting, but in contrast, being at university is mentally harder in terms of revising for exams and writing essays. I just focus on the end goal of becoming a dental hygienist and I manage to get through it. I can’t stress enough the importance of having a good support network around you – it helps so much!

Balance is key to success … how have you managed your time at university between your social life, your working life and study?

Although I work hard at my studies, I make sure I have time for socialising, as I don’t want to burn myself out. I make sure I set times to do jobs that I need to do and build my social life into this. It took a little while, but I managed to find a good balance between working, studying and social life. It can take time, but it is definitely possible – you just have to be dedicated and focused and really know what you want.

To finish up, what would your advice be to dental nurses who want to undertake additional study to further their career?

Go for it! Honestly, all the hard work is worth it in the end, and it’s only a couple of years of your life – which isn’t much when you think about it! I would just say work hard but, most importantly, enjoy it.

Interviewed by Tiffani Hutchinson RDN

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