Key advice from recent graduates
Transitioning from dental school straight to practice can be a daunting endeavor. As dental students, we’re pulled in every direction, fed an immense amount of knowledge in a short period of time and are conditioned to apply new treatment concepts daily. It seems impossible to master everything as you prepare for your new career after graduation. Entering our final year at University of the Pacific, my classmates and I must seriously consider how we want to set the foundation for our professional careers. For those of us planning on practicing general dentistry, we must choose to augment our education and experience with a one-year GPR or AEGD or go straight into private practice.
In 2018, there were 6,305 dental school graduates, a number that has continued to grow over the past 15 years. The ADA estimates that 60–65% of them will go straight into private practice after graduating.1–3
I was interested in learning more, and interviewed four recent graduates and focused on their experiences and what lessons they learned while delving into private practice immediately after graduation:
Dr. Michelle Fat graduated from University of the Pacific (UOP) in 2019 and now works in two private practices and teaches UOP first-year dental students in the simulation clinic once a week.
Drs. Micaela Dea and Kristi Pedersen both graduated from the University of Washington School of Dentistry in 2019. Dea practices in two general dental offices in the greater Seattle area, while Pedersen is an associate at Renton Dental Arts, a group practice south of Seattle.
Dr. Alex Stanton graduated from the University of Washington in 2018. He started at a full-time private practice associateship, moved to two part-time positions, then transitioned to a full-time private practice position in San Diego.
The recent graduates had different experiences right out of school, but all agree that the transition from dental school to private practice had a steep learning curve. (Dea described it as “drinking water out of a fire hose.”) While none of the doctors chose to enter a dental residency, Pedersen advised that the income differential may be beneficial only if you’re entering a quality associateship with a positive learning environment. Fat agreed that the decision depends on each person’s goals and comfort level upon graduation.
Finding your mentor
The new practitioners agreed and strongly advised that when looking for an associateship position, dental students should put careful thought into finding a mentor.
Pedersen noted that dental students are conditioned to a clinical setting where appointments are longer, faculty are constantly by their sides and the liability is low. Therefore, associates should prioritize finding an environment best suited for their transition into private practice.
Part of this involves finding a mentor and communicating what’s important to you in your career development. Whether you’re working in corporate dentistry, group practice or solo private practice, identify your goals and look for a position and mentor accordingly. Do you want to do a full scope of practice such as endodontics, extractions and implants, or focus on restorative dentistry? Is your future practice and potential mentor in line with your goals? Pedersen said these are all questions that new dentists should consider before searching for a position.
The first step to finding a mentor is determining what you want in your career, then finding an experienced practitioner who exemplifies these goals. Fat suggested that students establish a dental network by staying connected with classmates and faculty members, joining study clubs or engaging in organized dentistry. Dea established her dental connections through a study club and research on the UW alumni website. Pedersen was in a bowling league with a dental assistant who worked at Renton Dental Arts and informed her of an opening. Stanton used Craigslist, dental societies and established relationships with supply representatives who communicated with him when jobs became available.
Fat has many built-in mentors—her grandfather, aunt, mother and father are all in the dental profession—and advises dentists to find mentorship in a variety of outlets. She has maintained relationships with faculty members she connected with in school, some of whom she now works with at UOP, and continues to ask them for guidance with issues that come up in her practice. For instance, she appreciated her practice management professor’s class so much that she continues to email her whenever she has a question.
She also has found success in staying connected with her colleagues and graduated classmates to learn from each other’s experiences in practice—both positive and negative.
The same can be said for social media: On Dentaltown’s message board forums, for example, you can connect with doctors from around the world, most of whom are willing to answer questions and engage with colleagues.
Pace yourself and keep learning
In dental school, the curriculum teaches students to be as conservative and deliberate as possible in patient care. The recently graduated doctors emphasized that you should trust your skills and understand that speed in clinical skills comes with time. It is tempting for young dentists to rush the process and focus more on their efficiency rather than on their skill set.
Pedersen found success in padding her schedule at the beginning of practice to focus on technique and developing a relationship with her dental assistants early on. In addition to knowing her strengths, she also knew her limitations and asked for help from her mentors or colleagues when necessary.
Fat said students may feel very capable and excited in the last year of dental school because of their interesting cases and how far they have come since starting in the clinic. However, she advises new graduates to remember that when going into practice as an associate, you are starting from the bottom again and you have to be patient as you work your way up. As a new associate, you may do more hygiene and have smaller treatment plans than you expected. New dentists should use this time to learn how to work with their assistants, get to know the patients and build rapport, and to understand the office flow.
Every practice has a different method of practicing. New dentists should be eager to learn from every person in the office, including dentists, receptionists, dental assistants, hygienists and especially patients, who may have been coming to the office for years.
Fat also noted that while dental students may work on complicated and multidisciplinary cases in their last year, they must remember that as general dentists they are held to the same standard of practice as a specialist. Therefore you should continue to learn and refine your knowledge by practicing techniques after hours, taking CE courses and attending study clubs. All these efforts will ensure confidence and competence before applying your new skills in the practice.
Dea also noted that while dental school may give you a strong foundation, there were some concepts taught in lectures that she did not have the opportunity to put into practice in the dental school clinic. These procedures mostly involved equipment and materials that make dentistry more efficient, such as CAD/CAM software for 3D dentistry.
She learned more about these techniques on her own or with the help of a mentor and co-workers. Students should pursue electives and CE courses or seek help from faculty mentors to sharpen their skills on the newer and more advanced technologies. This will serve you well in practice and make you more marketable as an associate.
Dea also felt that she learned more about practice management in her first year of private practice by asking questions and observing her mentors than she had in her four years of dental school. (Dentaltown’s message board forums have an entire practice management section in which not only dentists but also consultants weigh in with readers’ questions.) While many schools try to address practice management, if it’s your goal to run your own practice, she recommends augmenting your knowledge through on-the-job training or with continuing education.
Communication is key
In addition to enhancing clinical skills, Stanton advises that new dentists work on refining their communication skills with patients and staff. The patient’s perception of you is based more on how you communicate and interact with them than on your clinical skills. This includes your confidence, communication, patience, and ability to translate procedures.
Stanton sought this out by educating himself in psychology, finding a mentor he thought demonstrated good communication, and tracking his patient satisfaction and treatment acceptance to assess his progress.
These three considerations should be helpful in deciding if an associate position is the right fit for you:
Is there at least one mentor in the practice whom you can learn from?
Do you see yourself fitting in
with the work environment and the people in the practice?
Is the practice busy enough
to provide the amount of experience and income you are looking for in your first year?
Stanton said new dentists should seek positive answers to all three questions; however, he believes that mentorship is the most important consideration for your learning and development.
The final lesson
Dentistry has a reputation for promoting a balanced lifestyle. However, in the first years of practice, associates should expect long hours and hard work that will eventually provide that balanced lifestyle. This may entail working multiple jobs to gain the experience and salary you’re looking for, doing more hygiene than you may like, working long hours or weekends to establish your patient base, or transferring to a new associateship when you realize your current one isn’t serving your goals.
Through my conversations with these recent grads, I learned that it’s imperative for new dentists to identify their ambitions and values and seek the support, guidance and education necessary to enhance these exciting first few years of what will hopefully be a fulfilling lifelong career.
1. Education. ADA Health Policy Institute FAQ – Dental Schools and Students. (2019).
2. Applicants, Enrollees and Graduates. American Dental Education Association. (2018)
3. Smith, C. (2019, January 18). Decision in a Sea of Dental Residencies • Student Doctor Network. Student Doctor Network.