What You Should Know Before You Become A Dentist

Being a dentist is a challenging, but rewarding profession. Every profession has its positives and negatives and like any other profession, you should consider both when deciding if a career in dentistry is right for you. The negatives of being a dentist are often overshadowed by the positives so that pre-dental students sometimes have a misconstrued notion of what it is like to be a dentist.

I know when I decided to become a dentist the only negative thing I heard about dentistry was that dental school is expensive, but everyone always told me I will be able to pay off my debt quickly and it was nothing to worry about. Times have changed though since those days and those that told me that didn’t face the hardships of dentistry that I am facing in this time period. Tuition has increased drastically and dentists are not paying off their debt as easily or nearly as quickly as they once did.

It is challenging being a dentist and there are many more challenging tasks that a dentist faces these days besides paying off debt. I’ll go over both the pros and cons as well as share more information related to the field of dentistry to try and paint a more realistic picture of what being a dentist entails to help you make the right decision in regards to becoming a dentist or not.

Pros

Respected Profession: Dentistry is a highly respected profession. A dentist is a community figure that is highly respected and trusted by the community in which he/she works. Dental patients rely on and trust their dentist to provide them with the best possible healthcare.

Ability to Help People: Dentistry is a service oriented profession. You will spend all of your time helping other people which is extremely rewarding to you as a dentist. You can make significant improvements in people’s lives by restoring their smile, teeth, self-confidence, self-image, and ability to eat and speak properly. There is instant gratification for you as a dentist when you are able to relieve the pain from a toothache or place a beautiful crown which enhances the esthetics and function of the patient’s teeth.

Stability: Dentistry is an extremely stable career with one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country. Oral healthcare is always necessary and always in demand, but as the baby boomer era of dentists’ retires, the want for cosmetic dentistry increases, and as people live longer the demand for dentists will only increase in the future resulting in more jobs available and a very stable profession.

Income: Dentistry provides a healthy income with a median salary of $146,340 in 2013 according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. As a dentist you are able to help dictate how much you make by how much you work and your business model. If you own your own private practice then you can work as much or as little as you’d like and run your practice however you’d like which will influence how much income you make.

Balanced Lifestyle: A career in dentistry can provide you with a balanced lifestyle between your work, family, and social life. If you own your own practice then you can choose how much you work in a week. Most dentists work full-time, but some will work only 3 days a week or some will work more than full-time by working evenings and even weekends.

Self-Employment: Dentistry allows you to be your own boss if you choose to do so by owning your own practice. You can determine how you want your career in dentistry to be. You have much more freedom and can essentially make all the decisions with very little managed care in dentistry which is not common in the other healthcare professions.

Cons

Education: In order to become a dentist, you will spend at least 7-8 years in school following high school. It is not a requirement at every dental school to have a Bachelor’s degree to enter dental school, but it is highly recommended and nowadays schools do not typically accept students without one. So you will spend your first 4 years of study at a university earning a Bachelor’s degree in whatever major you choose. There is no specific major for dental school, however, most pre-dental students choose a Science major. There are specific classes that are required prior to entering dental school and each dental school can vary on what they require and what they recommend, but for more information about courses to take during your undergraduate studies then click here.

Following graduation from a university, you will enroll at a dental school after taking the DAT, interviewing, and getting accepted. Dental school is a 4 year doctorate program (3 years if you go to University of the Pacific). It is a very stressful and demanding program. Upon graduation, you’ll receive your DDS or DMD degree, depending upon which degree your school awards. There is no difference between the two and they’re both earned with the same education criteria.

After dental school you will be a dentist. You have the option of going on to post-graduate programs such as a 1 year General Practice Residency or Advanced Education in General Dentistry programs to gain more experience and enhance your clinical skills as a general dentist. You can also elect to specialize in one of the fields of dentistry which these post-graduate programs range from an additional 2-6 years, depending upon the specialty, of schooling in order to complete.

Time: Besides spending at least 7-8 years of your life in school in order to become a dentist you will spend many hours doing demanding and exhausting work on your patients throughout your career. Most dentists work full-time and some will even work evening and weekends. The nice thing about dentistry is the flexibility in your schedule you can have if you own your own practice. You could work less than full-time and not work evenings or on the weekends, but most dentists do due to debt, expenses, etc. As a dentist though, you are responsible for the oral healthcare of your patients and when patients call your emergency line with a severe toothache on a Saturday night at 9PM then you are responsible for them. You must provide a way for them to receive treatment so plan on spending plenty of additional time outside of your normal business hours treating and assisting patients as well.

Debt: No one understands what a lot of debt is better than a dentist. It is almost comical to hear people going through undergraduate studies or other graduate programs complain about their debt, because dental school is one of if not the most expensive graduate programs. An average dental student will graduate with around $250,000 in debt from dental school. The most expensive dental schools will put you at around $500,000 in debt upon graduating from them.

Tack on an average person’s debt from their undergraduate studies, a car, a house, etc. and your debt quickly rises. Now if you want to own your own practice you can either buy an existing practice or build your own. Prices of a practice vary, but you can probably plan on dropping around $500,000 for a practice. Are you getting overwhelmed? It’s very burdensome and stressful to have that much debt so make sure dentistry is something you love before jumping into it.

Stress: You are probably already a little stressed after reading that last point. Debt is a major factor of stress in dentistry. There are also plenty of other factors such as managing patients and staff, running a business, dealing with managed care, competing with other dentists’, and not having many benefits of your own, such as personal time off, due to the high costs of maintaining a practice.

When treating patients there are many variables that contribute to the stress of being a dentist. You spend your entire day working and focusing in a small confined area. The work you do is very tedious and precise. Some patients have a limited capacity to open their mouths, some have tongues the size of car hoods, some salivate or bleed like fire hoses, some wince in pain at the sound of a drill, some gag at the sight of a mouth mirror, some pass out, and some will throw up on you.

You have to keep up with your schedule, which is very precise as well, and one patient that shows up late or an unexpected occurrence during treatment can cause serious delays and kinks in your schedule and much unwanted stress. There are plenty of factors that cause stress in the life of a dentist. You need to be able to handle and cope with the high levels of stress and still manage the stress that you face outside of dentistry.

Physically Demanding: Dentistry is very physically demanding, although many people would probably not think so. Doing precise and tedious work in a tiny area with your hands and having your eyes focused on a small area through loupes for long periods of time are reasons why dentistry is demanding physically. It is tough on your back, hands and shoulders. If you have poor ergonomics in dentistry you will feel and see the results of that in a short amount of time. Carpal tunnel syndrome, chronic back problems, and hypertension abound with dentists. You’ll probably have to find a good chiropractor at some point in your career.

Costs of a Dental Practice: Just like the expenses of dental school are extremely expensive, maintaining a dental practice is also very expensive. Dentists do have a good income and have stable careers, but they aren’t making as much as patients or people often perceive. Patients will complain about paying $1000 for a beautiful crown, but they have no clue that most dental practices have an overhead between 50-70% with most of them between 60-70% and sometimes even higher than 70%.

Most of the money coming in never ends up in the pockets of the dentist. It goes to pay for supplies, staff salaries, taxes, maintenance, insurance coverage, CE courses, new equipment, etc. Dental equipment is extremely expensive; that in house milling machine the dentist just used to make your crown costs over $100,000. Every instrument, piece of equipment, even materials can be very expensive to purchase. Companies are continuously releasing new dental materials, instruments, and equipment and you’re always feeling the pressure to purchase the latest and greatest item. It’s challenging to stay ahead and maintain a modern and high quality practice.

Competition: The competition for acceptance into dental school is increasing by the year. It is difficult and very competitive to get into dental school, because more and more students are applying each year. Dentistry remains as pretty much the only area in healthcare that hasn’t been fully taken over by managed care. More and more students each year are wanting to get into dentistry, because it offers them more freedom and flexibility to do what they want for their career as a dentist. You are expected to go to a good university, have a high GPA, and get better scores on the DAT now when applying.

Once you’re out of dental school you have to compete with fellow dentists for patients. Everyone wants to live in urban areas so nearly every major metropolitan area is well beyond its optimal dentist to people ratio. You’ll have to make sure to allocate a decent amount of money into marketing in order to maintain a practice that is successful.

Managed Care: Dentistry is one of the only areas in healthcare that hasn’t been tampered by managed care. Managed care meaning when organizations like the government or an insurance company manage health care. Just like Obamacare and insurance companies have been ruining the healthcare system this could happen with dentistry in the not so distant future. As of now there are still quite a bit of liberties with managing your own practice, but insurance companies already dictate a lot of the treatment that your patients will receive and government or insurance companies could be taking a more active role in managing dental care in the future as they have done with medical care. You might not be able to own your own practice anymore if that happens.

Vulnerability to Infectious Diseases: As a dentist you are susceptible to illnesses and infectious diseases every day as you treat patients. Patients will show up with a cold or a contagious illness and you’ll be prone to getting it as well. Dentists also work with many sharp instruments such as: needles, scalpel blades, burs, explorers or scalers to name a few. If you accidentally have a needlestick or poke yourself with a sharp instrument then there is always the risk of contracting a blood borne disease such as HIV or Hepatitis C if the patient is a carrier. You become at risk for these life threatening diseases if this happens. The risk of actually contracting the disease is very low, but it is still possible and has happened so its a risk that a dentist faces.

Emotionally Demanding: Dentistry is not only physically demanding, but emotionally as well. You’ll have a patient show up almost daily and tell you they don’t like the dentist. Patients aren’t usually happy, have anxiety, or express discomfort while getting dental treatment. People hate waiting and if your schedule gets thrown off by a patient that showed up late then the rest of your patients will take it out on you. People don’t like being in pain and will be rude and disrespectful to you at times. People will be upset with treatment that fails or when something goes wrong.

There is no guaranteed perfect treatment in healthcare, there are plenty of variables that are beyond the control of a dentist, yet the dentist will pay the price for it emotionally and financially at times when something does go wrong. All of these things create a significant emotional demand on you as the provider. As a dentist you want things to be perfect and you do your best for every patient, but sometimes you can’t make patients happy or some things are beyond your control, so it is straining and challenging to handle these occurrences when they do happen.

Business Management: Running a business is difficult for anyone, especially for a dentist. Imagine spending 4 years in your undergraduate focused on a science major and then 4 years of dental school focused on dentistry and then you graduate and are expected to know how to run a dental practice without any knowledge of how to run a business. Dental school will spend about 1/50 of your time in dental school talking about practice management. You won’t really get anything out of this and it is essentially up to you to figure it out once you’re on your own. It is difficult to do the business side of the practice, but also do all the dental work as well. A dentist wears many hats: he’s a business owner, an entrepreneur, and the main employee providing the dental care.

You also have to manage your staff. Knowing when to hire and fire staff, how to keep them happy financially, provide them with benefits, and dealing with attitudes is frustrating, stressful, and demanding. It can be very difficult dealing with all different types of people and personalities while trying to keep everyone happy and productive. You will have to be able to balance multiple roles as a dentist.

Lack of Benefits: It is not very feasible to take long vacations while working as a dentist, because you still have to pay for the expenses of a practice even when you aren’t there. There are daily expenses that have to be paid whether or not the practice is even open, so taking time off not only prevents you from making money, but it also costs you money which makes your vacation much more costly. Most dentists can’t take more than two weeks off in a row without working which even that can be extremely costly.

You don’t receive designated benefits from an employer. The only benefits you get are the benefits that you give yourself. If you don’t invest and save wisely over the years, you could end up working much longer than you’d want just to have something to retire on.

Miscellaneous Facts

There are various random facts about dentistry and here are examples of the good and bad ones associated with it.

  • Top 10 Careers: A dentist is consistently ranked as one of the top 10 careers in the country due to its comfortable income, low unemployment rate, and good work-life balance.
  • Suicide: A not so great statistic about dentistry is that dentists consistently have one of the highest rates of suicide among any profession. Dentists are under extreme amounts of stress from working long hours, complaints from patients, and debt. Researchers have suggested that: stress, physical and emotional demands, patient complaints, perfectionism, debt, ease of access to various drugs, and higher rates of mental illness due to stress are all factors that attribute to a higher suicide rate among dentists.

Overview of Dentistry

A dentist is a healthcare professional that holds the title of doctor, Doctor of Dental Surgery (DDS) or Doctor of Dental Medicine (DMD) – both degrees mean the same thing and are earned by the same education. It is up to the dental school to decide which degree they will award at their school.

Following dental school, a new dentist has multiple options to choose from. They can continue their education and pursue a post-doctorate program or residency for advanced training in general dentistry or one of the 9 dental specialities. The specialty areas of dentistry are: Oral & Maxillofacial Surgery, Oral & Maxillofacial Radiology, Oral & Maxillofacial Pathology, Orthodontics & Dentofacial Orthopedics, Endodontics, Periodontics, Prosthodontics, Pediatric Dentistry, and Dental Public Health. These programs and residencies range from an additional 1-6 years of advanced training following dental school.

If a dentist does not wish to do any advanced training then they may begin working in a variety of different areas as a general dentist. These areas include: academics, research, military, public health, corporate dentistry, private practice, group practice, international health care, or hospital care. There are many options to choose from and you can decide your own path in dentistry and what type of patients or area you want to treat and work in.

Dentistry is a great profession and a very rewarding one as well. I know I have weighed heavily on the negatives of the profession, but in my opinion the positives outweigh the negatives. It is important though, like any career choice, to understand the profession and what it entails so that you make sure you are committed to it and, therefore, committed to your patients as you are responsible for their care and well-being. It is a great responsibility to have and although it can be extremely burdensome at times it is very gratifying and rewarding to provide quality care that can drastically change lives for the better.

If you are ready to start preparing for the DAT exam, check my guide on how to best prepare. You’ll also want to check out the best DAT study materials to make sure you’re prepared as possible.

Also, here are some links from the American Dental Association (ADA) as well as the American Student Dental Association (ASDA) that will provide you with additional insight and information related to a career in dentistry.

What can a career in Dentistry offer you? – ADA

Careers in the Dental Profession – ADA

Life of a Dentist – ASDA


 

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