5 Tips to Find the Right Dental Associateship for You

An illustration of the first day in the office

Whether you are looking for your first dental job or ready to move on, associateships are on your mind. But what type of practice is just right for you? What should you look for? What should you watch out for?

Half of all associateships fail for one reason or another. Sometimes the practice wasn’t ready, other times the dentists realize that it just wasn’t a good fit. By putting more thought into your associateship search, you can improve your chances of success – which is better for you, the practice, and the patients.

Find a practice that shares your goals

Before you even begin your job search, check in with yourself. Think about your long-term goals and visualize your ideal situation. Ask yourself:

Do I want to eventually buy part or all of the practice? Make sure the owner wants to sell part/all of the practice to you!

Do I want to learn the business side of dentistry? This is a great step if you want to eventually own. But again, ask whether the owner is willing to support your efforts. Will she let you sit in on meetings with the accountant? Will she pay for you to attend relevant continuing education courses? Will she gradually transition some of the business management responsibilities to you?

Do I want to manage staff? Learning how to manage staff is crucial for future owners. Look for opportunities where you can manage a team and be part of the hiring process. See: how to become a team leader when you're new to the practice.

Do I want to just “do dentistry”? If you want to focus on the dentistry, make sure you will not be expected to take on practice management tasks.

No matter what you want, write down your vision! A written list (even a single sheet of paper) will help you evaluate opportunities as they arise.

During the interview process, discuss your goals with your potential boss to make sure you are on the same page. It never hurts to ask for what you want – and the owner may be very receptive to helping you build a career. Make sure these decisions and promises are reflected in your final contract, particularly if you are agreeing to eventually purchase part or all of the practice.

Make sure the practice is ready for you

Owners sometimes jump into hiring before they really prepare the practice for an associate. Do your homework before joining to check the practice’s readiness. (And check out this post, What Went Wrong: The Practice Wasn’t Ready for An Associateship, for more tips.)

You might be nervous about asking a potential boss how healthy their practice is, but it shows you will be a proactive employee dedicated to the practice’s success. Here are some questions to ask:

Are there enough patients? Ask why the owner is hiring. Is he so slammed he needs help, or is he planning to scale back his own hours so you can have a full schedule? Do some research to see how many dentists are in the immediate area. A dentist needs about 1,500 people in the local area to succeed, so calculate the local population compared to how many other dentists are nearby.

Does the practice plan to recruit new patients? Discuss how you will do that, such as expanding hours, accepting additional insurance plans, or launching a marketing campaign. Decide how you will divvy up all those new patients! This should be detailed in your comprehensive integration plan.

Which patients will I see? How will that affect my bottom line? Your patient mix can affect your paycheck. For example, if the practice is going to increase the number of PPO patients, the lower reimbursement rate will affect the adjusted production and collections. Take time to understand how you will be paid – especially if it is a percentage of adjusted production or collections – and how the patient mix affects your salary. See the What You Need to Know Before Signing That Contract ebook for additional tips for protecting your interests while evaluating a contract.

Are the practice’s finances in good shape? A healthy practice has strong collections policies – vital if your pay is tied to collections. Are fees on par with the local area? Are the expenses in line with industry norms?

Is staff on board with the change? Ask to meet designated staff before you join. If your joining will mean extended hours for the practice, will staff be expected to work evenings or weekends? Are they ok with that? Unhappy staff can make or break the transition’s success.  See: how to retain staff during a practice transition.

Keep your options open

Sometimes the perfect opportunity pops up where you least expect it. Use the list of goals you created above as a guide, but keep an open mind.

You have more flexibility early in your career than you will later! Avoid putting down roots that may limit your choices. It is much easier to break an apartment lease than to sell a home. Be open to relocating rather than letting your commute tolerance dictate your future. (And know how to discuss relocation with your partner.)

Think about using this time to experiment. Do not write off a small town or another state just because it is not part of your plans. It just might turn into the perfect forever home, with a lucrative practice that offers ideas work-life balance. And if not, you can apply your learnings and move on!

Also consider trying different types of dental practices. For example, if you enjoyed interning in a large practice, still give a small practice a try – it might be a better fit.

Listen to your gut

The first practice you interview with may be the perfect one. If it isn’t, never fear! It is far better to wait a bit for the perfect practice than to settle for something that is not quite right – and then feel you need to search again in two years. See: 3 ways to determine if that's the right practice for you.

Look for a practice that shares your philosophy of care. If you like having a few minutes to chat with patients, you will not be happy with a practice that values volume and efficiency over relationships. Discuss a few hypothetical cases or review some charts with the owner to see if you have similar approaches.

And listen to that inner voice. Did you connect with the owner and discover a shared love of cooking shows or an interest in volunteering? Or did you find yourself thinking, “I’m not sure I want to work with this person every day.” Pay attention to those thoughts.

Don’t write off ownership

If you ultimately want to own a practice, you can! A mentorship-to-ownership scenario can let you build your skills and learn the business while you ease into ownership. Even if your potential boss is not interested in selling, discuss your interest in eventually buying. You may find an owner happy to mentor you until you can find or build your own practice.

When the time comes, find a practice where you can succeed. When you are just starting out, that may not mean the largest or flashiest practice. Rather, find a practice where you can maintain or grow production. Look for opportunities where the practice could expand hours, maybe in an underserved area. Read more about how to look for a practice with “good bones."

Also explore your financing options. Student loans will not prevent you from taking out a practice loan – after all, banks see dental practices as stable investments. Some states will even help if you are entering an underserved area! Explore the various state and federal programs that might help you pay down your loans.

Finally, make sure you are considering ownership for the right reasons. Do you really want to be your own boss, or do you (or your parents) think you should? Ownership can be wonderful if you love working independently, solving problems, running a business, and managing staff – but it can be difficult if you would rather just focus 100% on doing the dentistry.

If you're interested in ownership, check out our guide to getting your finances in order.