Almost There! How to Prepare to Transition from Dental Student to Associate

An illustration of dentists with a patient in a dental chair

Whew! Give yourself a great big pat on the back. The last four years have been TOUGH!

You may have passed your national boards and your requirements are almost complete. You feel as prepared as possible for your licensure exams — maybe you have even already passed them already!

Before you jump on that flight to the Caribbean, take some steps to ensure you are prepared for the next step in your career. For most new graduates, that will be some sort of clinical position, usually as an associate.

So how can you make that transition from student to professional as seamless as possible?

Step 1: Continue to improve your hand skills and speed

Many recent grads worry, “How am I going to increase my speed and justify my salary? Especially since I had to hand off all my patients to other students who need the requirements.”

It’s common for graduates to lack the clinical experience to act quickly. After all, you’re used to the much slower pace of your school’s clinic. Never fear, though: you will build speed — and confidence — with increased situational exposure.

The very best way to do this is to practice, practice, practice! Use this time between exams and your first associateship to continue to work on your clinical speed and confidence. Doing so will help set you apart from other new grads in the job market. (It will also give you a great answer when a potential employer asks, “What have you been doing to improve your skills?”)

Even if you have already transferred all or most of your clinical patients to an underclassman, there are things you can do to work on your clinical speed and competence.

Practice on extracted teeth. Grab some extracted teeth, take a radiograph, and do caries removal. Use caries detector to ensure complete decay removal. This will increase your tactile sense of healthy vs unhealthy dentin. Go ahead and place a restoration, and again, take a radiograph! You will see if you have achieved a dense fill. And finally, those same extracted teeth are fabulous for refining your endo skills — which are generally very valuable to employers.

Make and mount some models. Practice equilibrations, making temporaries, and placing matrix bands. And if you already know which matrix system is used in the practice you will be joining, get yourself prepared. Take those models, prep them for single and multiunit restorations, and make the temporaries. This process will allow you to work on occlusion and evaluate your margins while increasing the speed at which you can get these procedures done.

Work with classmates and mentors. Keep meeting regularly with your fellow students and professors to treatment plan difficult cases. Go to specialty clinics and look for multidisciplinary cases. See if you agree with the treatment plans and try to come up with acceptable alternatives; after all, there is more than one way to a great result! See if you can join in on treatment planning sessions with D3s, who will appreciate your input and guidance as they begin to amass their requirements. The more you can expose yourself to different situations, the more confidently you will approach your associateship.

These are just a few ideas. The key is to look for opportunities to continue to improve — especially if there are areas that you feel a bit shaky on. Using this time wisely will pay off down the road.

Step 2: Find the right practice

You’ve worked hard to get to this point, so don’t settle for just any old practice. Instead, take the time to find the one where you and your career can thrive.

That means doing your homework:

See also:

3 ways to determine if you’re choosing the right practice

How to tell if that nice practice is right for you

5 tips to find the right dental associateship for you

Step 3: Develop your leadership skills and confidence

As a student, your clinical professors were literally watching over your shoulder as you worked. Treatment planning could take hours upon hours.

Now, as you begin your associateship, you will be expected to have all the right answers while handling not two, but at least five or six treatments a day — all while managing your auxiliaries.

While it takes a certain amount of “fake it till you make it,” there are many ways you can build your confidence and leadership skills — namely by following Steps 1 and 2 above.

Improving your clinical competence helps tremendously. The more times you have seen a situation, the more confidently you will approach it in practice. Similarly, take the time to prepare before each patient. Review the next day’s charts and ask for clarification from your senior doctor or auxiliaries. Lead a morning huddle with your team to review the day’s schedule so that you’re not walking into the operatory cold.

If you have shadowed your new practice at least three times and observed how the staff works, you have already begun to build relationships with your new colleagues. Plus, you will know exactly what is expected of the staff before, during, and after a procedure. Your new boss should help set the right tone among staff and patients.

Another key is to work with your new boss to develop a comprehensive integration plan. This plan will bridge the time between accepting the position and your start date, ensuring that you’re ready to start strong. A good integration plan will ensure you can hit the ground running. Staff will be ready to work with you, and patients will be enthusiastically introduced to you.

See also:

Starting an associateship? Own the operatory from day one!

How to become a team leader when you’re new to the practice

Your checklist for a successful first week

Take a breath

Once you’ve begun taking these steps, go enjoy that well-deserved vacation! You’ll be able to relax, knowing that you are as prepared as you possibly can be.