New dentists weigh career options in tough job market

New dentists today are entering a different type of job market than the dentists of a generation ago faced out of college.

An ever-changing dental insurance marketplace, a rise in the corporate practice model and an economy struggling to pull out of the recession are all factors that have created a competitive job market for new dentists.

“Many of them have this idea that everyone goes into solo private practice after dental school and that’s not necessarily where dentistry is going these days,” said Natasha Lee, DDS, a past member of the CDA Committee on the New Dentist and current member of the ADA Council on Membership. “Because of their student debt, the current economic environment and the tight job market, it’s necessary for new dentists to keep an open mind to various career opportunities.”

Many new dentists believe an associateship is the main avenue for them to start their careers. But Michael Perry, DDS, chair of the Practice Support Center Workgroup and founder and president of Momentum Dental Business Consulting, says some veteran dentists are realizing they don’t have enough patients in the chairs to keep an associate busy.

“It's a business issue. Veteran dentists used to be booked further ahead. With the reduction in purchasing of discretionary services and even many basic services, many solo practitioners are operating below capacity,” Perry said.

Lee says some dentists still aren’t clear on the role of an associate either.

“Some of them aren’t sure how to introduce patients to an associate and delegate the roles and responsibility,” Lee said. “Another factor is that some dentists haven't properly assessed their practices to know for sure that they have enough work to bring someone else in and even if they do, they may find that some patients may be hesitant to be seen by the new dentist.”

Aside from associateships, the “Career Choices” chapter of the Practice Support Center’s Guide for The New Dentist, outlines other employment options for new dentists. Such choices include public health, health policy and management, research, health education or community clinics.

The Guide gives a detailed explanation of what these areas of employment entail and delves into the pros and cons of each.

Public health, for example, is the science of protecting and improving the health of communities through education, promotion of healthy lifestyles and research for disease and injury prevention. Those working in this area improve the health and well-being of people who are often less fortunate as well as improve quality of life, increase life expectancy and eliminate or reduce many communicable diseases.

Many of these types of positions require a master’s degree in public health, but there are exceptions. Some public health career options include dental public health programs that operate at the local and state level including community water fluoridation, local community health clinics, school-based health centers and programs, county health departments, private non-profits, mobile dental facilities, tribal health clinics and the state and federal government.

Employment options in health policy and management include: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; Department of Health and Human Services; National Institutes of Health; state and local health departments; universities; and hospitals.

While this type of work provides an alternative, Lee warns the competition for these jobs has increased in recent years.

“Public health centers used to not be able to attract a lot of new dentists. Now, because of the economic downturn and fewer jobs being available, competition is very high in the public health setting,” Lee said. “They are in high demand because it guarantees a pay check and experience doing dentistry.”

Community health dentists increase access to care in many rural areas as well as low-income urban communities. Dentists have the opportunity to work in clinics either as a dentist or dental director – the latter is still able to practice dentistry while overseeing the administrative and financial aspects of the clinic.

According to the Guide, there are incentives to practice in an underserved area. The CDA Foundation offers student loan repayment grants in exchange for a three-year commitment to practice dentistry in an underserved community and provide 30+ hours per week of hands-on clinical practice. Participants receive a loan reduction of up to $35,000 per year.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services offers loan forgiveness through its National Health Services Corporation. General and pediatric dentists as well as registered dental hygienists are eligible to apply. The American Dental Association also offers resources for student loan repayment.

Another option for new dentists is to work as a faculty member in a teaching setting while working part-time in a private practice. Through this, new dentists can experience the benefits of researching and mentoring, while still maintaining a patient-base in a practice setting.

The Guide lists the following benefits of working at an educational institution:

  • Salary and benefits included with employment, such as vacation time, retirement plans, health insurance, continuing education and professional liability coverage, tend to be attractive and competitive.
  • Faculty members may produce scholarly articles or publish research results in academic journals or peer-reviewed publications.
  • Help mold dental professionals from the very beginning; teaching not only clinical excellence, but also the principles and ethics that make dentistry a valued and respected profession.

Lee says that while there are opportunities in the educational settings, dentists can sometimes find it difficult to juggle the responsibility and financial aspects that go into teaching and practicing at the same time.

"Being a part-time teacher and working in a private practice is an option, but when recent grads are living pay check to pay check to pay off their debt, it’s not always an option for them,” Lee said.

In light of several obstacles facing dentists today, it is crucial to keep an open mind related to dental job openings. Perry stresses the fact that the reason for the tight job market is two-fold and that it is important for new dentists to understand that.

“We have a double whammy going on in the marketplace. The economy in general is slower. Couple that with a reduction in dental insurance reimbursements, and you can see the problem,” Perry said.

To view more career options in the Guide for the New Dentist, visit cda.org/newdentist.

For a listing of job openings, visit the classified section of cda.org.