Dental Staffing

Graduation Looms... Now What?

OK, you’re graduating, now what? I naturally thought I was supposed to work in private practice without considering anything else. Perhaps that was because I wasn’t aware that there was anything else. Whether you’re an assistant, hygienist, dentist or technician, there are many options and they all have their advantages and disadvantages. Since I've worked in several dental venues, I'm going to share some of my experiences and give you some food for thought.

1. Private Practice

Assuming the role of the private practice owner is extremely hard work. The dentist owner is the manager, HR, payroll, and the primary producer with all the responsibility for everything. Therefore the best advice I have for anyone considering a purchase or starting their own practice is to find a good office manager. Be sure to find someone with a lot of experience and strong references. When I go into a dental office and ask to speak with the OM and I’m told there “isn’t one”, I cringe. Trust me when I tell you there is no better investment than a long-term, loyal OM. Your job is to turn the handpiece; let the OM take care of everything else.

  • Hard work
  • Must have experienced Office Manager

2. An Employee in a Private Practice

The dental associate position may be the route for someone looking for a mentor. When the workload gets too heavy, owner dentists hire associates. Obviously, this can be an opportunity to get some experience, become a partner or purchase the practice when the owner retires. I’ve worked in two such practices and they were very different. One practice owner treated me as a partner; he was very respectful and often asked me for my advice or opinion. The other, not so much.

Experience One: My first experience was great because we all had good benefits such as uniforms, medical insurance, retirement, C.E., vacation, and sick pay. All employees had an equal voice at staff meetings and those meetings had a theme such as a hayride, bonfire, barbeque, or an elegant dinner at the doctor’s home. The only downside I recall was the conversation I had with him regarding his inability to say: 'thank you' and to demonstrate appreciation. Stressful.

Following my opening, he said: “They’re paid very well, so I don’t do that.” Naturally, I had to explain he’d be surprised to find that appreciation is an employee's greatest desire, while money is fourth or fifth. The next day he ordered roses for 14 team members with a note to each one expressing his appreciation of what he saw as their strongest contribution to the practice. Awesome!

Experience Two: These employees were extraordinarily talented both individually and as a team, but the dentist was arrogant and criticized them regularly. I remember I was working on one of them and another employee was assisting me. At some point I said, “thank you” and they both started laughing and I was a little embarrassed as I wasn’t sure what was so funny.

They looked at me and one of them said: “what’s a nice girl like you doing in a place like this?” because over about 18 months, I witnessed this dentist suffer much hardship. His wife divorced him, his OM resigned, then one assistant, followed by another. Shortly thereafter his hygienist left, his then-girlfriend broke up with him and then I left. Ouch!

Dental Professionals: Dental Assistants, hygienists, and technicians looking at employment in private practice should do their due diligence. Don’t just settle for an interview:

  • interview the team
  • ask for a three-day working interview (paid of course) and
  • a 90-day review
  • discuss your concerns because the practice will do the same
  • your happiness with your work environment is no less important than your
    work performance.

3. Corporate Dentistry

Dental corporations can be found throughout the country, giving you the opportunity to move if that’s something you’ve considered. The advantages of corporate practice are huge such as paid vacation, PTO, retirement, medical, dental and vision insurance and this can overshadow their limitations.

I was employed by a corporation that packed my schedule so heavily, they worked me into the ground. A colleague of mine worked for the same corporation and she mirrored my experience.

Recently a colleague called me looking for a new position because his present position wasn't working well for him. He reports the pay and benefits are great, but the OM has all but abandoned her managerial duties. She receives a bonus when she keeps spending under control but they regularly run out of necessary supplies. There are staffing issues that he termed “toxic” because of the ongoing fibbing, exaggeration and blaming by team members daily.

Corporate asked him if he would handle it and his response was “if I wanted to ‘handle’ the staff, I’d still be running my private practice. I signed on to this corporation so I could do dentistry, not manage the office!”

4. Indian Healthcare

Having taken a position fresh from school and recently as an experienced clinician, employment with Indian Healthcare was very positive. The salary was generous, and the benefits were great. I had excellent team members and I worked very closely with the medical staff. Had I not decided to move to a warmer climate, I’d probably still be there.

  • Very positive environment
  • Generous salary
  • Great team members

5. Military and Prison Dentistry

If you’re considering work in a military setting, the wages are typically lower and it’s very regimented, but a good work environment for those who do better with routine and order. Prison dentistry is interesting and provides many benefits. It, too, is very regimented; you’ll never work overtime in a prison setting or at a military dental clinic because when the clinics are scheduled to close, they close. However, both venues require a lengthy, detailed application and background process for obvious reasons.

  • Lower salaries
  • Routine and order
  • Good benefits
  • No overtime
  • Lengthy application process

6. Nursing Home Dentistry

In this venue, the dentist and assistant travel from location to location caring for residents who are confined to nursing home facilities. It’s a good job for dental professionals who don’t like the hustle and bustle of a busy dental practice.

  • More laid back with less hustle and bustle
  • Daily unloading and loading of the mobile dental units
  • Lack of modern dental equipment
  • Must emptying and clean the suction device at the end of each day

7. Academia, Research, and Forensic Dentistry

Academia, research, and forensics round out our list of opportunities. Most often, if you desire to teach at an accredited dental institution, you’ll be required to have a bachelor, masters or doctorate degree. Most dental research takes place at large universities or through large corporations that produce dental materials, such as 3M. Forensic dentistry usually isn’t a full-time position. I knew the forensic dentist in my home town.  She owned her own practice, but did forensics on a part-time basis.

  • Academia: more schooling
  • Research: best living in a large city
  • Forensics: not a full-time position

You don't have to settle for the first thing that jumps in front of you. Take your time, even though you’re ready for someone to 'show you the money.' Remember, work is where you’ll spend most of the rest of your life.


"Only I can change my life. No one can do it for me."
- Carol Burnett