Dental school is an exceptional experience: In a scant four years, we’re taught the biochemistry of the human body, the mechanical engineering of dental materials, the physics of the gnathological system and the aesthetics of a beautiful smile. That’s a lot to absorb in such a short time, not to mention having to execute all of the above to a criteria of 25 microns. Truth be told, it’s impossible to master all things dental by the time we graduate. As my dental professor told me on my graduation day, “You are no longer dangerous. Now go learn how to be a good dentist.”
Truer words were never spoken. I graduated with a dental degree and enough knowledge to not be “dangerous.” I had many years of continuing education and on-the-job practice before I considered myself a “good dentist.” Fortunately for me, I had exceptional mentors who inspired me to seek improvement and ask for help when needed.
Today, I’m in a position to meet and work with many talented new-graduate dentists from different schools, and the one thing I always encourage them to do is to pursue a lifelong journey of continuing education and improvement of their clinical, personal and business skills. I also always encourage them to ask for help. If I could offer any advice to the new dental graduates out there, it is this: Do not be afraid to ask for help. Be fearless, not fearful.
There’s no shame in your game
If you get nothing else from this article, please understand this: There is no shame in admitting that you don’t know everything. How could you possibly? We all understand this and remember that we were once in the very same position that you are in now. You are a doctor. You earned the degree and the respect that comes with it. We are colleagues. I will learn from you as you learn from me. I don’t know any better than you; I just have 20 years of experience—experience that you’re working toward having each day that you practice.
Talk to your employer if you are an associate. If you’re practicing alone, reach out to more seasoned colleagues in your community. Ask them how they’d handle a difficult clinical case, a challenging patient, a less-than-ideal outcome. It is no longer a professorial relationship. You’re not in dental school—you’re a licensed dentist. There’s no reason to be embarrassed or afraid about asking for help.
I know nothing about the spawning habits of the North American rainbow trout. I know nothing about downhill skiing. So if I were to plan a fishing or ski trip with my family, I would reach out to experts in that field and ask for their help. Is that embarrassing? Is that shameful? No, it’s efficient. It’s the wise thing to do. I will have a better experience when seeking help. Does it mean that I can’t fish or ski? No. I will learn, and I will get better; eventually, it will be second nature to me.
The same is true with dentistry. Can you surgically place implants? Can you predictably find MB2 on a maxillary molar? Can you identify the wear patterns on the dentition and properly diagnose the occlusal scheme for a full-mouth rehab case? Probably not quite yet. But ask someone who will help you learn. Dedicate some time to mastering these skills and soon they will become second nature to you.
Focus on one or two things at a time
At about five years out of dental school, many of us come to the realization that we don’t know much about dentistry. A lightbulb comes on and you realize the depths of dentistry out there waiting to be mastered. The exceptional dentist commits to a lifelong pursuit of clinical excellence.
To maximize your chance for success, limit yourself to one or two things at a time and master those before you move on to the next. If you’re in a practice that utilizes CAD/CAM technology, then perhaps your focus is on the newer restorative materials and nontraditional preparation designs. Your priority could be learning the ins and outs of adhesive dentistry and how to predictably execute your composite restorations so that they outlast the average 5.7 years currently achieved in dentistry.
If you’re challenged by case acceptance and getting your patients to say “yes” to your treatment, myriad courses and books out there can help improve your communication skills and connect with your patients. There are business management skills to assist in practice efficiencies.
The point is to focus on only one or two things at a time so that you can really dial in and see the results. Once a new skill or practice is mastered, then you can choose another. In this way, your skills improve incrementally but you’re constantly learning and challenging yourself.
Find your tribe
The single most beneficial thing that happened to me in my dental career was finding a community of like-minded clinicians and experts I can go to for advice and guidance. Historically, dentists have practiced alone in their own practices where they were the doctor, boss and owner. Now, whether in a solo or group practice, it has never been easier to find your tribe. Dentaltown and other online communities are wonderful places to meet other dentists and engage in conversation. Social media platforms like these allow you to communicate and share cases, and get feedback or ideas on your phone or computer.
Local study clubs, organized dental organizations and clinical institutes offer a plethora of resources and information in the vein of continuing education, meetings, social gatherings and internet forums. Twenty years ago, Howard Farran started Dentaltown so that no dentist would ever have to practice alone again. And we don’t. There’s no excuse for dentists to be in this battle by themselves. Personally, through Dentaltown, I’ve met lifelong friends I speak to daily. I have a support system, an ear to listen after a hard day, and friends to lean on when I’m struggling with a practice dilemma. And I have the confidence that my tribe has my back and will continue to help me grow into the dentist and clinician I want to be.
It is so important for you as a clinician to reach out to your peers and colleagues. Ask for clinical guidance. Ask for support. Ask for someone to listen to you vent. This is not dental school; this is your career. There is no better time to practice dentistry in a collegiate and supportive atmosphere. Embrace this exciting time in dentistry. Believe it or not, we are all here for your success and accomplishment.