I was recently invited to participate in an Instagram Takeover for the Women in Dentistry at the University of Toronto where I shared a day of my private practice life to the dental students. I had prepared different content to be released that day and I tried to select different aspect of my life: a prosthodontist, a practice owner and the information that I thought would be beneficial for the dental students at this stage of their career. One of the stories that had received a lot of attention was one where I candidly revealed how insecure I was as a dental student and that only recently I realized I probably had the impostor syndrome.
I first heard of this term “the impostor syndrome” from a dentist Dr. Jessica Metcalfe from her Instagram account (@thealchemistdentist). When I first read through her material on the impostor syndrome, I completely discounted it. To me, the person who has this condition just means he or she has not been trained enough or haven’t practiced long enough. That’s all.
How I came to realize that perhaps I do have or did have the impostor syndrome was when I saw a graph where the extreme opposite of a person with the impostor syndrome was one with the Dunning Kruger condition. As for me, I knew I didn’t have the Dunning-Kruger effect. If anything, I was the exact opposite of that but I didn’t know that was called the Impostor Syndrome. Later in life, I was having a casual conversation with my classmate and I confided to him that I was not a confident student during dental school…. He told me I was a very strong student but someone who was also very well aware of my own inadequacy. There were some classmates who could not see their own inadequacy. That was also the first time I realize how people can have a very distorted view of themselves.
I first read about the Dunning-Kruger effect from an oral surgeon, Dr. Marco Caminiti. In his article, he started describing beautifully how he could not recognize his oral surgery intern’s lack of ability to throw a few stitch in wound closure, a skill that he perfected after more than 25 years of practice. He also stated that what appeared easy for him may not be easy for his students and he should not use that as a baseline in skill development in dental education.
I could relate every bit of what he was talking about. As a dental student, I remember a clinical instructor refused to show me how to perform a dental procedure where she thought it was seemingly simple and that I could handle it myself. I obviously didn’t think I have the ability to do the procedure. But I was afraid to ask again for fear that I would be graded as incompetent. The truth is I learn by watching….the more I watch….the more I will be more confident in trying a new procedure and the more I will perceive myself as being competent, and hopefully the less of this impostor syndrome as well as acquiring the true clinical competence.
Unfortunately, the current challenge of most dental schools where the curriculum is so packed with different didactic courses, combined with the difficulty in finding instructors to supervise the students and the inability to meet their clinical requirements, the clinical experience of the dental students really do suffer. The luxury of watching an expert to perform a clinical procedure or any in depth preclinical training in prosthodontics is almost nonexistent. The students are thrown into the clinics and asked to figure out how to do procedures that were only taught and discussed in didactic lectures and seminars. And this system works for the students with the Dunning-Kruger effect, the overly confident students who had no trouble jumping right into a clinical procedures without prior experience. The system does not work so well for those with the impostor syndrome.
Why I brought this up here that I have the impostor syndrome is not to gain sympathy from friends or colleagues but to recognize that dental schools attract students that are high achievers and perfectionists and some of these individuals are susceptible to the impostor syndrome. Dental educators should recognize the different cognitive awareness of the students’ learning ability and to create strategies to remove these barriers of learning and to improve the effectiveness of dental education. Perhaps why I decided to go back to teaching was because I recognize that the type of undergraduate dental training I had did not work for me and I wish to improve that for the next generation of dentists.
Thanks for reading.