A little over a month ago, I started working full-time at a federally qualified health center.
I’ve worked in public health for the last six years of my career, and the first three years involved a few short stents in mobile dentistry visiting nursing homes, a number of different private practices, “Medicaid offices” and suburban offices with all the latest technologies. Of all these, public health was my favorite.
However, I knew from dental school that at some point I would like to end up in academia. I used to daydream that one day I would become a “dental school counselor”: having students come to my office to vent about the stressors of school. I thought about all my favorite professors and how their care for me got me through school, and I wanted to do that for future students.
I knew academia was my goal, but I also love patient care. There is a moment, just before you give a patient a mirror to see your handiwork in creating their new smile, when you know they will be so happy. I loved hearing patients say, “No one ever explained it to me that way” or, ultimately, “I didn’t even feel the injection!” I loved all that.
But as I walked to my car on my last day at my previous job, I felt a finality I hadn’t expected to feel. It was a feeling I had never experienced before: relief.
I cried all the way home as I talked to my significant other about how I was going to miss my co-workers, the best team I’d ever worked with, how I’d miss the feel of the drill in my hand, and how I was’ I was not sure that going into academia, even if that was what I always thought I wanted to do, would be what I imagined.
Would it be a situation of thinking the grass would be greener on the other side to be disappointed?
In patient care, the goat stops with us. The decisions rest on our shoulders. The Yelp reviews reflect us no matter who the office was talking about. Our assistants ensure that everything is arranged the way we want it. We’re in control. We like to help our patients. We get a lot of glory and respect (sometimes unfairly) out of it. I was afraid to lose that glory. I would miss having my assistants have things ready and set up for me the way I want. I would miss the queen bee feeling. Yes, I said it.
As much as we talk about how a career in dentistry gives us so many options, most of us end up doing pretty much the same thing: full-time patient care. There seems to be a formula coming out of school: work for a few years as an associate for a large practice, and then move into private practice without really thinking about whether that’s really what’s best for us, our personalities and lifestyles.
In a previous job I was adjunct faculty for a dental school. It was not uncommon to hear graduating seniors talk about private practice by first being someone’s associate and eventually buying the practice. I feel like I can safely say this is all we think is out there or maybe specialized (and opening our own practice). Even when I meet people outside of work, if they find out I’m a dentist, they will inevitably ask, “Do you have your own practice?”
Of course we go into dentistry to do dental work BUT, what makes you a dentist anyway?
I recently spoke to a friend one day and asked, “Am I still a dentist or am I a professor now?” I imagined that in a random situation I would fill out paperwork, and in the section where it asks ‘profession’ I thought ‘I don’t think I can post dentist anymore’.
We really celebrate the dentists who have lucrative practices. We celebrate the dentists with huge staff, multiple locations and the latest technology. We don’t celebrate (as often) the dentists entering public health. We don’t celebrate the dentists who work in prisons. We do not honor the dentists involved in radiology or oral pathology. We don’t celebrate the dentists going into academia. We don’t honor the dentists who partner their entire career.
One of my mentors, where I spent a summer after my freshman year at university, had her own practice for many years. She eventually sold it to become a part-time employee of another dentist. She also worked part-time in a prison, stating that she was tired of the business side of dentistry.
I met a dentist who had practiced for a few years after graduation and realized she didn’t like patient care. She now works for Crest and loves it. How can a new graduate/young dentist explore their career options if we continue to uphold successful private practices as the pinnacle of success for our profession?
Full-time inpatient care is not for everyone. I’m afraid of dental students coming out of school, getting a job as a staff member in an office that just isn’t a good fit for you. Maybe the next office isn’t either, and it’s starting to feel like something is wrong with them. Then they scroll through social media and see how well their classmates seem to be doing and feel worse.
I see myself as an example in my newly burgeoning career in academia and think “am I still a real dentist?”
I recently flipped through a dental magazine with the “40 under 40” of the same name. There were a few dentists who were hailed for their success in public health, but the vast majority owned private practice.
To be honest, I had a fleeting moment where I thought, “I never will.” And yet, in my heart I love what I do; I’m proud of the choices I’ve made in my career, but the list made me feel less than a few minutes.
New Dentists: The degree and diploma make you the dentist, and unless you have a horrific/serious issue that comes up, you will always be a dentist. You determine the trajectory of your career. If you’ve been out and don’t like patient care, do something else. Please don’t look to your peers and feel like you are committed to full-time private practice, the ultimate path of the practice owner to be the definition of success.
Let’s really celebrate the options in our career. Spend some time alone. Maybe this means not talking to dentist friends and co-workers, or maybe going off social media for a while. Take a closer look at your life and career to find out who you are, what your needs are, and what you really want in life and your career. How much money do you really need to be happy and live the life you want?
I had no idea how much patient care affected me until I was in dental school working on the clinic floor, working with students, and I realized I didn’t have a million thoughts in my head. I didn’t understand what it was doing to me until I realized I felt physically lighter and relieved. Like I said, I loved being in patient care.
For me, that old saying of “do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life” came out when I started out in academia. I don’t feel like I’m working. I would even go so far as to describe the feeling as peaceful when I am on the clinic floor.
People say you have to open your own practice to do things “your way” and not be accountable to anyone. That’s fine. We’re not all built to bear the weight of the stress that comes with being a practice owner, and that’s okay.
Life is short, but you don’t know it until something comes up to show you how short it is. A classmate of mine died of cancer last year when he was in his early 40s. Can you imagine if he had spent his years practicing unhappily because he felt his career should have looked a certain way? You are the captain of your ship. Make it a ship that suits your individual journey.
Let’s really celebrate our career and all the options and versions of success it offers us.
dr. Elizabeth Simpson is a general dentist from Indianapolis, Indiana. She attended Tufts University School of Dentistry for her dental education. After graduating, she completed a one-year GP course at Meharry Medical College School of Dentistry. She is now a clinical assistant professor at Indiana University School of Dentistry. She serves on the American Dental Association Council on Advocacy for Access and Prevention, on a diversity task force at the Indiana Dental Association, and a guest blogger at the ADA New Dentist Now Blog.