5 Musts for a Successful Dental Career

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Dentistry offers so many possible career paths. You can practice nearly anywhere, in offices of all sizes and configurations. Do a little bit of everything or master a specialty. Work with toddlers or senior citizens. Choose public health, the military, research, academia, organized dentistry — the possibilities are truly endless.

No matter your path after dental school, I’ve landed on five things that dentists need for a successful, satisfying career.

1) Establish (and respect) your own vision and criteria for success

Too often, doctors listen to colleagues or podcast hosts or family members and make decisions that are not in line with their own vision for success. This can lead to a situation where the doctor is conflicted and ends up unhappy or burned out.

For example, I knew a doctor who had a productive three-operatory practice where she was making a very nice salary and still had time for her growing family. After listening to a number of podcasts and friends, she decided that the ‘right’ next step was to expand the practice. She built a new nine-operatory space and hired an associate. Soon, she was busier than ever — and no longer happy! She did not enjoy having a large staff and the increased responsibility of the larger office. She realized that her vision of success was fulfilled by her small practice where she ran things according to her preferences. The new situation stressed her out and she regretted making the change, even though the practice was thriving.

Knowing yourself and your definition of success are vitally important to your long-term happiness. Trust your gut when making decisions about your next steps.

2) Save for retirement today — and avoid a retirement plan that relies on the sale of your practice

By saving for retirement early in your career, you will ensure a stable, sizable nest egg to rely on in the future — no matter what that future holds.

Take it from me. I did not plan on having a health condition that would force me to leave clinical dentistry sooner than expected, with what should have been my most productive years still ahead of me. However, since I started saving for retirement when I was in my early 20s, I have been able to pursue other paths without worrying about my eventual retirement.

In addition, I know that dentists who have achieved financial security apart from the sale of their practices are typically happier with the transition process. They can focus their energy on finding the right person to care for their patients instead of needing to sell the practice to the highest bidder.

See: Life Happened and I Had to Sell!

3) Live below your means in both your practice and your personal life

This profession offers every dentist an opportunity to live a very comfortable lifestyle. Save 10% of your income EVERY paycheck. Put the maximum into your retirement account(s) and establish an emergency fund that is immediately accessible should you need it. Be responsible with your personal finances so you will have the freedom to live your life the way you want to, focusing on things consistent with your personal vision.

Read: how some dentists are pursuing the Financial Independence, Retire Early (FIRE) lifestyle.

In your practice, make purchasing decisions thoughtfully. Confirm that your purchases will contribute to the practice’s success by either increasing the quality of care or positively impacting the bottom line. Remember that equipment suppliers make large purchases VERY easy, so be certain that the equipment contributes to your overall vision in a way that makes sense. Otherwise, you may go into debt only to have a very expensive ‘toy’ that doesn’t deliver the expected ROI.

4) Provide the highest quality of care 

This is self-explanatory: dentists have a responsibility to the public and the profession to always put the patient’s oral health first. NEVER knowingly violate this. Provide the highest quality of care you are capable of for every patient, given the situation and knowledge you possess at the time of treatment.

See: What Went Wrong: The Quality of Care Wasn’t Up to My Standard

5) Treat every patient as you would want to be treated

Treat everyone with respect and provide great quality, and you will be financially and personally successful in all you do. Do not allow personal prejudices to sneak into your treatment planning or attitude towards individual patients.

I learned this lesson early on when a new patient walked into the office who, quite frankly, smelled terrible. He was dressed somewhat shabbily and his oral condition was quite compromised. After a thorough exam, I presented three different treatment plans with very different price points. After reviewing the options with him, he proceeded with the highest priced plan. It turns out he was the very successful CEO of a construction firm and had been to two other dentists who, in his words, treated him “like he was a piece of dirt.” He appreciated the level of respect that everyone in my office showed him and became one of my best patients.

Every dentist I know has a story like this, so be sure to be on the lookout for the very human tendency to allow prejudices to sneak into your (or your staff’s) interactions with patients. You can never go wrong by simply treating people as you would like to be treated yourself.