“Did you always know you wanted to teach?”
This is a question I am asked very often, and my answer is probably like many of my colleagues, “Absolutely not!”
When I went to dental school, my goal after graduation was to return to Memphis, Tennessee, to practice general dentistry. Little did I know that my career would follow a completely different trajectory.
During my third year of dentistry, I was introduced to clinical pediatric dentistry and also found a mentor in my pediatric dentistry faculty member. After a short time, my choice was to take pediatric dentistry. As I completed my pediatric dentistry entrance exam, I realized that my love of pediatric dentistry was also accompanied by a love of teaching.
The Pediatric Dentistry residency program at the University of Illinois Chicago provides residents with the opportunity to teach in the Pediatric Dentistry Student Clinic during their sophomore year. This exposure to clinical education allows one to discover their interest or lack thereof in an academic career.
In my case, this experience changed my entire career path. I also remember how my dentistry classmates and I used to talk about our desire to have younger teachers and more teachers from different backgrounds. I firmly believe that in order to see the change you desire, you must be willing to set an example and take that first step to bring about that change.
During my residency, I also had the opportunity to obtain a Master of Public Health (MPH) degree in health policy and administration. During my time pursuing my MPH, I was exposed to a wide range of knowledge that changed my perspective on how I can help reduce oral health inequalities and increase access to care for the children who need it most. .
My initial desire to return to Memphis was fueled by my dedication to helping children in the underserved area where I grew up. I soon realized that as a private practitioner I couldn’t influence as many children as I could as an academic. While there are plenty of dental specialties for students to pursue, most dental school graduates will enter the workforce as general dentists. Many general dentists continually report that they do not feel comfortable seeing pediatric patients in their practice, mainly because of the limited education they have received in dental school.
So how do we make students feel more comfortable? We need to provide them with educational knowledge and clinical experiences that will make them feel more comfortable treating children, hopefully increase the likelihood that they will continue this during their practice as a general dentist and ultimately give more children access to dental care. This was one of my main reasons for considering full-time academia.
As you can imagine, I was extremely excited about the opportunity to pursue a career in academia. However, I had to factor in potential hurdles, such as my huge student debt, my limited time in the profession, and my desire to do a full-time clinical practice as well.
As we all know, student debt can really drive a person’s career decisions, especially straight out of dental school or residency. Like many others, I had no idea how to balance my love of teaching with my need to pay off over $300,000 in student loans. I initially decided that I had to compromise. What if I divide my time between part-time teaching and part-time private practice? While this wouldn’t fulfill my true desires of a full-time academic world, it could be a great first step towards building an academic career.
Well, guess what happened?
My institution has been awarded a Title VII HRSA Faculty Loan Repayment Scholarship that would help address my student debt during my first four years of full-time academic experience. In addition, my institution allows one day of private practice each week, allowing faculty members to generate additional income that can help offset the reimbursement gap between academia and clinical practice. So for anyone considering a career in academia but concerned about the possibility of financial hardship, there are countless opportunities out there that can help you manage your student debt and generate additional income.
Aside from the potential financial barriers of a career in full-time academia, I also juggled the idea that I might not be ready to teach right away after my stay. Would I have enough experience? Would I be able to handle difficult cases? Would the transition from co-resident to professor be difficult? My advice to anyone nervous about being prepared is: don’t be! You will have the necessary tools to be a great asset to students and residents, as well as to your colleagues, your dental facility and the dental practice.
The profession needs young, energetic and innovative dentists to take it to the next level. During the first years of my appointment as a teacher, the mentorship has been very valuable. I have interacted with mid- and late-career faculties at my institution, as well as other institutions across the country. I have noticed that our more experienced colleagues are eager to share their successes, failures and their journeys. It is clear that they really want to invest in the future of the profession and they are happy to accompany you on your journey.
Like any profession, academia is a process that involves highs and lows. There are days when I am reminded that there is much more to learn. There are also days when I have to juggle numerous responsibilities, including didactic instruction, clinical supervision, research, and other extracurricular activities. The task is not an easy one, but with a commitment to continuous learning and appropriate support from your colleagues at the departmental and institutional level, you will be set for success.
I am a strong believer in recruiting and retaining a more diverse faculty in dental institutions across the country, but I recognize that there must be individuals who want to pursue an academic career. After four years full-time in academia, I can say that this was one of the best decisions of my career! I can teach, work in private practice and clear my student debt without any problems. I urge aspiring dentists to consider part-time or full-time academic careers; the academic world needs you.
dr. Brittaney Hill received her doctorate in dentistry from Meharry Medical College School of Dentistry. She completed a residency in pediatric dentistry at the University of Illinois Chicago, where she earned her certificate in pediatric dentistry, an MS in oral sciences, and an MPH in health policy and administration. She is currently a full-time clinical assistant professor at the University of Illinois Chicago. She is a diplomat of the American Board of Pediatric Dentistry and a member of the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry, where she serves on the Early Career Pediatric Dentist Committee and editorial board of the Journal of Dentistry for Children.