Set Reasonable Expectations for Your First Dental Job (and Whatever Comes Next)

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Rounding the corner into your last year or semester of dental school? If you’re on the job hunt, you’re probably wondering what that first job might look like.

Just like in every other field, you may not find the “perfect” forever job right out of the gate. It often takes a few years of working in a few different scenarios before you can learn what type of practice is right for you.

Some people love a bustling, busy practice with a dozen doctors working side by side, each focused on a couple specific treatments. Others prefer to do a little bit of everything and work solo. There’s no right or wrong – it’s a matter of preference.

However, you can help set your priorities by exposing yourself to as many types of practices as possible. Whether through mentorship, shadowing, or volunteer work, try to spend some time in a variety of practices – large and small, solo and corporate, urban and small-town, general and specialized. Doing so can help you figure out what “feels” best and what you can reasonably expect.

As you begin exposing yourself to more types of practices, pay attention to what is and isn’t appealing. And then, as you step into that first practice, keep a few things in mind.

Be willing to learn

As a dental student, you have spent years acquiring knowledge. But the early years of your career come with a steep learning curve as you increase your speed and build your hand skills. That’s absolutely normal! It will go better if you think of this period as the next phase in your education.

Accept that it will take time for you to come into your own as a dentist. Learn from everyone around you, including the experienced hygienists and dental assistants who have seen it all. Seek out a mentor, either within or beyond the practice. (Dr. Sara Makary has advice on finding a mentor, as does our recent Mentorship webinar.)

Your manager or practice owner can be an excellent mentor and will respect your commitment to improving. Make sure to show up, be diligent, and work hard. Ask for two short meetings a day, just the two of you: one first thing in the morning to discuss the day’s cases, then another at the end of the day to review any challenges and prepare for the next day. Though these meetings may be only 10-15 minutes, they can guide your learning.

Don’t rule out buying – and keep an open mind

Yes, you can get on a practice ownership path right out of school! In many cases, this associate-to-owner path can be a win-win for all involved: an owner who is a few years from retirement mentors someone into the practice (in clinical AND business skills) while the incoming dentist learns from an expert.

If you would like to own a practice eventually, consider taking this path. But at the same time, don’t rule out practices that don’t immediately fit your vision.

That means you shouldn’t dismiss a practice because the waiting room is ugly or the equipment is older. Look for a diamond in the rough. If a practice is well located and financially sound, you can customize it to your liking and undertake the cosmetic or equipment upgrades with time. And it’s even better if you work in the space for a year to learn the flow of the place – you may discover a better layout or realize that the well-maintained equipment still has plenty of life. (See tips on recognizing what the “good bones” look like.)

Consider going small-market

There’s life outside the city – and it usually comes with a better work-life balance! I sigh when I see dentists rule out small-town practices without a second thought, as they’re often missing great opportunities.

Small-market practices tend to be more profitable because they can operate with much lower overhead. Land is cheaper, and there’s often no need to advertise. That might mean you can buy both a practice AND a house, work part-time, or live comfortably on a single income.
Plus, many smaller communities are considered “underserved,” which might make you eligible for loan repayment programs through the National Health Service Corps (NHSC) or similar state or local programs. Local banks may be more willing to work with a buyer who ensures a dentist stays in town. In such a case, you’re providing care to loyal patients. 

Use the resources available to you

Most importantly, know that you don’t need to navigate this alone!
ADA members have access to a whole range of resources. The ADA Accelerator Series has webinars and other resources dedicated to giving advice on financial, leadership, and work-life balance.

Good old-fashioned networking can help too, as your fellow dentists are often happy to share their experiences or advice. Ask them why they practice as they do, what the like, what they would have done differently along the way. Your alumni network can be a great place to start these conversations, as can local dental society meetings (even virtual!). Simply reach out, introduce yourself, and ask for a 15-minute informational interview. Pre-COVID, these were often over coffee; today, they may be via Zoom.