Alumni profile - Dr Raja Awais Ali
My story is being rejected twice and then doing another degree and then finally getting in to study Dentistry. However, I then had to raise £36,000 to make my dream a reality... my story is testimony to anyone who has a vision or a goal – you can achieve it, you just have to put your mind to it and put yourself out there.
Why did you study Dental Materials (B.Eng.) at Queen Mary? What sparked your interest in this specific degree? I initially applied to study Dentistry at Barts and the London as I had the minimum entry level requirements (three As in Biology, Chemistry and Psychology), however the one thing I wasn’t clued up on and which I wish I had put more time into preparing for, was the UK CAT. At the time, Barts placed a lot of importance on this and I was rejected. I decided to take a gap year before reapplying. I worked for a year at my old Sixth Form as a science technician. I failed to get an interview from Barts the second time round so I then reapplied with optometry as my back up and I was given an unconditional offer from City. However, on the day of the deadline, Queen Mary called me and asked whether I would consider studying Dental Materials instead. I accepted this offer from Queen Mary as I still wanted to pursue my dream of studying Dentistry and I thought this degree would act as an entry route.
For anyone who is looking for an entry route into Dentistry, I cannot recommend Dental Materials enough; it is not often that you get someone who has studied this degree. There was 15 of us in total and this group remains my lifelong friends.
What aspects of your degree did you find most enjoyable? What modules did you like learning about and was there anything that surprised you in your studies? Overall the course was a lot of fun, it offered a bit of everything: engineering, problem solving, maths, physics and biology. I find that when you study the sciences, it is often through rote learning, however, when you are left to do problem solving, like I was in my degree, you have to explore and figure scenarios out for yourself. This independence taught me a lot about how to learn. Also being around people who were naturally from an engineering background gave me an insight into being a critical thinker and this is something that I never would have gained from studying straight Dentistry.
I encourage anyone who has the chance to be part of a small group for three years to do it because you end up becoming a family and you rely on each other both socially and academically. I loved that there were only 15 of us in total – we really bonded, especially on an industrial trip to Stoke!
Why did you choose to study at Queen Mary aside from the fact that we phoned you? The location was a big factor for me as I didn’t want to leave London. I had actually visited Queen Mary before as I was part of Gifted and Talented at Primary and Secondary school and our trips included visiting universities for debates. When I visited Queen Mary I really liked the campus and when I actually started studying there, I felt like I really belonged. I had the perfect balance of being able to study and being able to get home in about twenty minutes.
You have had an incredible journey to date, after graduating from Queen Mary I understand that you actually got a place to study Dentistry but that you couldn’t initially afford it. How did you raise the funds to be able to make your dream a reality? It is all such a blur when I look back now, it is such an achievement to have raised £36,000 but at the time I didn’t have any answers and I was scared. However, I didn’t hold back, I was proactive, I searched the web and I asked people for jobs as well as doing anything I could on the side. I have this never give up mentality and there is something cheesy I always say – where there is a will, there is Awais! I’d done so much to secure a place to study Dentistry, I couldn’t allow finance to be the obstacle between me and my dream. I knew I had friends who were doing really well financially and who would have helped me out, but I also knew that I could do it myself.
I applied for something called the HSBC bursary competition in which 10 people across the UK were given £10,000. Fortunately, I was one of the few selected. If you watch the video that I made for the competition, everything that I said, I'm doing now. I want to continue to support and empower young people through education as education opens up a world of doors. People shouldn’t think of money as being a barrier; my story is testimony to anyone who has a vision or a goal – you can achieve it, you just have to put your mind to it and put yourself out there.
How did it feel when you finally graduated from Dental school? It felt amazing. I invited a handful of people who went through the journey of seeing me struggle and hired a personal photographer who took at least 350 photos the day I graduated. I call it a Smilestone – it was great as everyone around me knew what it meant to me. Saying that, only recently have I spoken about the true extent of my struggle in a podcast and I have had friends message me to say that they had no idea what I went through at the time. The fact that I had such an unconventional life at such an early age has shaped me and made me resilient.
As well as being a fully qualified dentist, you are also the Founder of Film Dental. What does Film Dental aim to do? I run a film company that specifically films and creates videos for dentists and we have a lot of fun doing it and trying to educate people in the process. The first time I made a film was in America post 9/11 – I was very passionate about cultures and bringing communities together and I was in charge with the overall vision of the video. This led onto other projects and over time I made a bit of a name for myself. In Dentistry when a video was needed, I was the go to guy. Eventually the production value became better and better and now my company works with dentists to provide a service which is much needed.
But where did it come about from? Straight after I done my training year, I approached people offering to create videos for a price. However, when you’re young and you’ve just finished dental school, you aren’t necessarily taken seriously. I had to find my own company to be taken seriously. Therefore, my advice to young people is that in order to run a business, it has to be transactional, you cannot let others perceive your business as a hobby, a charity or a social enterprise. Now we’re at the point where we make a video and as much as patients watch it, dentists watch it too and that leads to further business. My business lets me meet people that I would otherwise never have access to and gives me an insight into how diverse Dentistry is as an industry in terms of dentists’ specialities, how they communicate and how they run their practices. Aside from the filmmaking aspect, I am inspired by the work in front of me that is being recorded as it is very different to the Dentistry that I do within my own four walls.
Can you describe what a typical working day looks like for you – how do you juggle Film Dental alongside being a dentist? Dentistry is the kind of profession where you rent a room in a surgery so you can easily take some time off; I also have a really nice manager. I use this flexibility to take time out and do something different from this high intensity environment. I specifically say I am a four day dentist and a one day filmmaker which allows me to have the balance I have always aspired to have. I recommend that anyone who has a side hustle or passion should be doing it. There is the perception that we should be doing one profession and that’s it, but I think we should be wearing many hats.
Do you have any plans to change this working ratio in the future? This ratio works right now as I am potentially dedicating four days a month to filmmaking. In the future, I want to get to the point where I am working less hard and smarter and I just want to be happy - I don’t want to lose the passion for both of the things that I love doing. I also need to factor in life developments such as starting a family – this is a big commitment and I’d have to cut back on filmmaking because Dentistry is my bread and butter and I’ve spent 8 years trying to get to the place where I am today. I am actually thinking about doing postgraduate Dentistry courses to upskill and invest as I don’t ever want to lose touch of who I am as a Dentist.
However, I must stress that creativity is such a massive part of mental health, being able to express yourself has such a massive impact on your wellbeing. I am so happy that I have filmmaking as an outlet and it is something that I would never cut out of my life completely.
How has your work (both as a dentist and with Film Dental) been affected by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic? I bought my home editing suite in January and two days before lockdown we filmed a video in Hatfield which I needed to chop into 4 smaller videos. Therefore I was editing flat out during lockdown and Dentistry wise, my practice never closed. We were an urgent care centre so anyone who had to have urgent dental care was referred to us and we had to treat them with the correct PPE. I was part of the admin team doing the phone calls so I was very grateful to still be working.
How did your time and study at Queen Mary help your career and development? I felt like I learned how to learn; I had a lot of bad habits when I came to Queen Mary so I had to learn all the way from the start again. Queen Mary taught me time management skills which I use daily and also how to manage a demanding workload. Watching people study around me further pushed me to do better; on my course, we all had different skillsets but we helped raise each other up so we were all on the same level. But overall, if I hadn’t done my degree at Queen Mary, I wouldn’t have got into Dentistry.
Is there any advice you would give to current students or recent graduates considering their career options? Take your time; everyone thinks that things happen from A to B to C but this is often not the case. My story is being rejected twice and then doing another degree and then finally getting in to study Dentistry. I didn’t give up and now I’m at a stage of contentment. Really spend time realising that if something doesn’t go your way then its fine, you can still continue to pursue it if it’s what you want to do for the rest of your life. But take your time to enjoy things and go outside of your field. I spent an awful lot of time travelling and doing things that had nothing to do with Dentistry and it made me a well-rounded person.
What was so special about your time at Queen Mary? Overall my time at Queen Mary was a lot of fun; one late night study session always comes to mind; we were studying so hard we fell asleep and woke up to find a random student in the room who had wandered into the library after a night out! In general, I liked having to study for exams together and experiencing those lightbulb moments as a group. You can’t put a price on having a good group of people around you.
During second year I won an art competition to visit Saudi Arabia; I wouldn’t have got this opportunity if I hadn’t have put myself out there. People need to realise that the more you insert yourself in different circles, the more likely you are to find people who want to support and mentor you.
It is also worth mentioning that Queen Mary gave me £5000 worth of funding through an initiative called UnLtd. During my studies, my brother and I were approached by a tailor who wanted to work with us. We agreed to work with him on a freelance business – we didn’t have the money at the time to start our own business so we pitched an idea to sell shirts through the Try It Awards programme at Queen Mary and initially won £500. We were then encouraged to try for Queen Mary’s Grow It Awards programme in which we had to make a video and pitch it and if you were successful you received £5000 in funding to grow the business you were trying to create. We were successful and Queen Mary actually helped me complete Dentistry as I went on to sell more shirts throughout my 3rd year which funded £9000 of my Dentistry degree.
Do you have any final words to add? As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realised that people are really interested in hearing what failure was like for me. I am trying to be the authentic self that I am and trying to do more videos online and cultivate more of a following in the process. Whenever we get a big moment dentistry wise I want to capture it in video as I want people to learn from the things that we’re doing at the moment. If anyone wants to follow my journey you can via my website, YouTube and Instagram. Overall, I want to create a family of Dentists so that we can learn from each other and have fun doing it!