From East Coast to Gold Coast
Dr. JC Kaiser on studying dentistry Outside of Canada (4-min read)
Dr. JC Kaiser knew he wanted to be a dentist from an early age. His mother can remember him first expressing an interest when he was just six or seven years old, something that might’ve seemed odd to her compared with, say, wanting to become an astronaut or a fire fighter. His early enthusiasm in the profession was further bolstered by favourable experiences at the dental office growing up in Baddeck, Cape Breton where the family dentist, Dr. Stuart McDonald, kept a poster on the wall of his office of all the kids who reached a certain age without having a cavity - a kind of wall of fame. “I always had a great experience at the dental office as a young kid,” says Dr. Kaiser, “and I took great pride in being on that poster. I remember being inspired by how the people in the office operated.”
Heading into his teenage years, dentistry continued to be the ‘plan A’. Following graduation from Baddeck Academy, Dr. Kaiser would attend Dalhousie University for an undergraduate in health sciences, and then move swiftly on to dental school at Dalhousie before coming home to set up practice.
Or so he thought…
It was somewhere during an undergraduate degree in biology at Dalhousie when Dr. Kaiser’s convictions began to waver. Doubts began to creep in about whether he would even have the grades to get into dental school. Regrets too that he hadn’t worked harder in his early years at university. But then an introduction to a staff member at Dalhousie Dental School in 2015, facilitated by friends and mentors Dr. Burton Conrod and Dr. Connie Conrod, led to a game-changing conversation about the possibility of studying dentistry outside of Canada, something Dr. Kaiser had never even considered. “Up to that point I had no idea that it was even an option. I had this one notion of going to dental school at Dalhousie, a singular vision of how my life was going to go.”
He started researching the options both in the US and further afield. One such option was Griffith University on the Gold Coast of Queensland, Australia, a school he admits he had never even heard of. He was seriously tempted to apply, but something was holding him back. A niggling in the back of his head telling him it was all too much of a leap into the unknown. He was outside of his comfort zone. Then a four-week trip to the Philippines and Malaysia with his partner, Mari, who was working as a pediatric dietician in Dhaka, Bangladesh, opened his eyes to a world outside of Canada. “It was really the first time I’d travelled outside of Canada. Up to that point there was this fear of the unknown, but when I came back, I was like, why not?”
Upon his return to Canada, Dr. Kaiser sent off the application to Griffith and in November 2015 he got a letter of acceptance. Wow. This was really happening. There were last minute jitters of course, but supportive conversations with close friends and family – in particular his partner Mari – persuaded him that this was an opportunity that only comes around once in a lifetime. In February 2016, both he and Mari packed their bags and set sail for the Gold Coast.
Life in Australia
The School of Medicine and Dentistry at Griffith University offers a five-year program, something that is not unusual for dental schools in Australia. The program consists of a three-year Bachelor of Dental Science followed by a two-year Master of Dentistry, the latter providing the professional experience required for registration as a dentist, including extensive clinical experience in the 96 chair Griffith Dental Clinic, as well as the opportunity for community placements in regional clinics.
With the Gold Coast being a city similar in size to Halifax, and with a similar friendly feel, Dr. Kaiser and Mari felt right at home. Soon after they arrived, Mari was accepted onto a four-year PhD program at the nutrition department at Griffith, studying trends in pre-diabetes within primary care in the Australian population. Everything was working out perfectly to plan. And with the dental school only a five-minute drive from the beach, the new arrivals were able to take full advantage of the Aussie sunshine and the beach vibe, even trying their hand at surfing with Aussie friends in a region that has been dubbed Surfers Paradise. “It’s almost hard to believe that people can live in such a beautiful place and have such amazing opportunities and experiences,” says Dr. Kaiser. “Waking up every day was like, how lucky are we that we get to live here? Looking back, it was the best five years we’ve experienced.”
Return to Canada
Five amazing years passed in what was the adventure of a lifetime. A road trip to Sydney and the Blue Mountains. Another to Cairns and the Great Barrier Reef. Two separate trips to New Zealand, both North and South Islands. Countless trips to the Sunshine Coast and a host of sporting events including AFL and NRL games, surf competitions at Snapper Rocks and Burleigh Heads, and the 2018 Commonwealth Games at the Gold Coast. But alas, all good things must come to an end. In the fall of 2020, with graduation looming, it was time to make the next move. And although the original plan was to stay on in the Gold Coast and work for two years post-graduation, an unexpected offer of a post-doctoral research position for Mari at Dalhousie had opportunity written all over it, and soon plans were afoot for a return to Canada.
Under normal circumstances, Dr. Kaiser would have been able to sit the NDEB in Sydney, Australia. But because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the exam was cancelled. Luckily, Griffith University were kind enough to reshuffle their exam schedule to allow Dr. Kaiser and a handful of other Canadian graduates to scramble back to Canada in time to sit the NDEB on home soil in November 2020. “We completed our final dentistry exam on the Monday morning at Griffith and drove ten hours overnight to Sydney to catch a flight home on Tuesday morning. We ended up getting to Halifax at 9pm and drove four hours to Baddeck where we were quarantining and then sat the rescheduled dental business exam online at 3am local time. It was crazy but it worked out perfectly. Then I had to knuckle down for the NDEB which was scheduled two weeks later, at which point we were out of quarantine. I got the results three weeks later and was able to apply for my licence in Nova Scotia.”
Looking to the Future
Dr. Kaiser now works at two separate practices in the Halifax area as an associate general dentist and is loving every minute of it. Early concerns about how colleagues and patients might perceive him as a foreign-trained dentist were quickly eased in the friendly, supportive environment. “Honestly, it’s much better than I thought,” he says. “Everyone has been extremely supportive and friendly. It’s been a great place to work.”
He is enjoying being close to family and friends in a city he loves. He and Mari are set to be married on July 17th this year in a small, COVID-friendly, outdoor wedding in Cape Breton. So, does this mean it’s finally time to settle down and put down some roots? Dr. Kaiser is slow to commit to what the future may hold. It’s a perspective he quickly attributes to the Australian experience. “Realistically I’m only four months into my career, so who knows? It seems silly to me now to plan where I will be working in five- or ten-years’ time. Looking back, as a sixteen-year-old I thought I would go to dental school in Dalhousie and my career and life would unfold in a particular way. But things turned out to be way different from my expectations. That’s the biggest takeaway from the whole Australia experience. For every opportunity that comes my way, all I can see now are the possibilities.”
And what advice does he have for other Canadian students who may be considering studying dentistry abroad?
“I would recommend it 100%. It was the best experience and the best decision I’ve ever made in my life. If there are people out there thinking about applying to Australia, I would say do it.”