Pounding years when typical nights often include more hours of study and work than of sleep do finally end. Our commitment to a profession and our determination to succeed and excel in our chosen field eventually culminate in graduation from dental school — certainly one of the proudest moments in our lives. Our families cheer us on; we smile and wave and perhaps secretly wonder if we are truly worthy of the shiny new honorific “Doctor.” We look forward to some uninterrupted sleep! With graduation also comes a new era in life and the new challenge of managing a professional career. Like the majority of my classmates and other recently-minted DDS-es, immediately after graduation, I took up a job in a private dental office as an associate dentist.
Fast forward two years after graduation from dental school, I was convinced that I needed to establish my own dental practice. Yes, I must give this a try — despite the unflinching regularity of all the student loan payments: a merciless schedule that doubtless would not respect my gutsy and self-reliant choice to risk things out on my own. I would sacrifice the comfort of a stable paycheck. Only when I was running my own practice, I knew, would I be able to do the cases I most enjoy; be able to set my own schedule; have the flexibility to attend the best continuing education (CE) courses and grow my skillset.
Many recent graduates who become associate dentists can be lucky to find a good mentor in their employer’s office. However, the busy schedules of the senior doctors may make it difficult for them find adequate time to oversee your professional growth – no matter how good their intentions. I find that the very best senior professionals, those who have the most wisdom to share, are typically those with the most popular, busiest practices (no surprise!). Most skills that we learn post-graduation must be acquired via CE courses. And as with any skillset in life, we either grow by using the skills consistently, or the skills become rusty if unused for a long time. Another factor to note is that small dental offices typically link an associate’s compensation directly to the percentage of income produced by the procedures performed by that associate. It is obviously in the best interests of the employers to assign certain types of smaller, less interesting and less lucrative cases to the associates, and to cherry-pick the bigger cases for themselves, which can limit the overall professional growth (and income) of the associates.
When I was not able to experience the entire spectrum of cases that a typical general dentistry practice sees, I decided to make a switch and move to “corporate dentistry,” in hopes of a more fulfilling career. Things seemed better; however, the pace of the day is much different in a small, private office as compared to that in a large, corporate office. When I worked in corporate dentistry, I was unable to find the right amount of time to connect with my patients and to get to know them and their specific dental needs. No matter how hard I tried, I was not able to fit in as an employee. After all, dentistry is an art, and everyone has his or her own unique style and practice philosophy.
Aside from professional satisfaction, I realized that the real-world math involves taxes, rent, car loan, insurance and student loan payments which left only a small portion of steady paycheck for myself. I wanted to improve my standard of living from what it had been in grad school: after all, there had to be some tangible reward for slogging away so many of my prime, youthful years pursuing a serious education. Right?
I spent the next three months researching and reading various blogs and articles in order to understand the process of going solo, and to identify the key factors necessary to begin the process. At the end of everything, I obtained a $650,000 bank loan, one requiring no down payment on my part, and this loan amount was approved on top of the $150,000 remaining balance on my student loans. I was surprised to learn that banks actually compete to give out a practice loan because they consider it one of the safest business investments.
I found that some colleagues, who might like very much to make a choice similar to mine, just haven’t researched their options, and they put off their decision simply because somehow the idea is ingrained in them that they need to have a great deal of money already saved up in order to make this kind of professional move. Another factor that I would like to highlight is the option of buying an existing clinic – the advantage of which is that it’s likely to be such a well-oiled machine that the novice dentist will not need to expend much effort on administrative set-up and follow-through. Of course, you can be as involved in administrative tasks as your interest’s decree, but you can also choose to focus your most productive time on your professional practice: dentistry!
Yes, there were many times I doubted my decision and believed that I had taken such a bold step a few years too early in my professional career. This decision, however, was like just like any other decision we have to make in life: marriage, buying a house, and so on; you have to take a leap of faith and trust yourself. As months passed, the jitters also passed and things started to fall into place. I made many rookie mistakes, but I could never have learned unless and until I threw myself into the arena, and this would not have happened during any number of years I might have spent practicing as an associate dentist.
Today, one year after the purchase of my own practice, I stand proud as the owner-dentist of my dental clinic in Beaverton, Oregon. I have great fun bonding with my patients, my employees, and my community — who are absolutely fantastic people. On the professional development side, my being able to do dental implants using a 3D cone beam scanner in my office is an extremely rewarding experience. The accelerated pace of learning that my independence has made possible, and the joy of a fulfilling career, are unmatched — and I am okay with taking home a smaller paycheck for a few years as I build the practice. My practice.
Dr. Rohini Agarwal is New Dentist Now guest blogger and a member of the American Dental Association. She graduated from Boston University Henry M. Goldman School of Dental Medicine in 2014 and has since been practicing in suburbs of Portland Oregon. Dr. Agarwal is passionate about oral health education among kids and loves to be involved in local community events.