Cutting Her Teeth
Rachel Florence’s transition from psychology to the dentist’s chair
Everybody has a defining moment in their lives, or perhaps even a series of them. For aspiring dentist Rachel Florence, one of hers came early into young adulthood. She’d long set her sights on a career in Occupational Therapy (OT), having even accrued a chunk of related credits by her high school graduation and completed subsequent college coursework in a year. But just as she was set to pursue higher OT education, the Brooklyn native and current Passaic, New Jersey resident made a slight but crucial change in direction.
“It came to actually signing the papers to OT school, and I just didn’t sign the paper,” Florence recalls, adding that she realized, “I moved so quickly to get to this point, but then it struck me that this is not what I want.” Instead, she enrolled in Touro’s Lander College of Arts and Sciences as a biology major under Dr. Milton Schiffenbauer, where she hoped to enhance her background in psychology with scientific research and ultimately choose a career she enjoyed that would allow her to balance work and eventual motherhood.
During that time, Florence participated in a two-week dental-school internship in New Jersey. She describes the experience, which included time observing students at an open clinic, as “eye-opening to the whole field,” adding, “That was what really solidified my decision to go into dentistry…. What I saw that I really liked was you do work with other dentists and can speak to a doctor, but each dentist is managing their own case, one at a time. It wasn’t just that they were working on their mouths. They were also talking to the patients. It wasn’t just mechanical. It was also interpersonal.”
If there is a common thread between her OT knowledge and immersion into more concrete science, it’s Florence’s lifelong tendency toward engaging directly with other people. She has no regrets about the transition. It’s all part of a bigger picture. “Psychology classes play out into any profession you go into if you’re going to be working with people,” she says. “I’m just happy that I did decide to go and observe therapists and actually see what they do because I was able to realize this is not something I’m going to enjoy doing for many years. Something like dentistry, you get to work at your own pace. Therapy takes a lot of patience. Dentistry does too, but in a different way.”
Florence is currently applying to various dentistry schools, something that would have been hard for her to see coming when she started accumulating those OT credits as a teenager. But her main piece of advice to anyone rethinking or modifying their aspirations is to be thorough and patient. “Ask questions,” she offers. “Not just to one person. They have to figure out what their interests are. Not just read things, but to go and see it themselves. You really have to enjoy what you’re going to be doing, because it can affect your whole life. A person who’s waking up in the morning and is not happy going to their job, even if they are making good money, they won’t be happy. The most important thing is to figure out what interests them the most and not get caught up in doing things quickly.”