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Considering a career in dentistry?

We chatted to Sal, a general dentist working in a private practice.

FN: Why did you pick dentistry?

I only ever had any interest in a medical profession. I really struggled choosing between studying medicine to be a General Practitioner and studying dentistry. I did work experience at hospitals and GP clinics, and most of the work for doctors was prescribing medications and writing sick notes. I felt that dentistry had a quicker pathway to independent practice and I didn’t love the idea of spending over ten years at university. So I studied dentistry at university and am working as a general dentist now in a private practice.

FN: What does your day-to-day look like?

Yesterday, I started off with an extraction so I had to go in early to prepare as removing a tooth can be quite a complex procedure. The goal with extractions is to make sure I don’t have to perform a follow-up surgery due to complications, usually with roots. Another procedure I may do is a crown – the other day I had one scheduled for 3pm. I really enjoy the precision of a job well done, but these procedures can also be insanely stressful.

For the rest of the day, I usually have regular patients in for check-ups, cleanings, fillings and routine things like that. Or I may be having a consultation with a new patient. These appointments make up the bulk of my day, which some people may not realise.

Yes, sometimes I do crowns and more complex procedures, but most of the time its cleaning, fillings, cleaning, fillings.

FN: Do you enjoy these routine parts of the day?

I don’t mind the cleaning, I remove plaque off someone’s teeth and it kind of crumbles away, which is so satisfying. But fillings… fillings are just boring. Most general dentists like fillings at first but they become really monotonous as your career goes on because we usually do more of these than any other type of procedure. I’d much rather do a crown any day of the week.

FN: What’s challenging about being a dentist?

Being a dentist can be stressful at times. If you work full time, you’ll most likely be seeing patients one after another, from 9-5, Monday to Friday (some practices are open on Saturdays and for emergencies on Sunday too).

It is tiring and depending on your practice, you may not have any time in between appointments. Inspecting people’s mouths and teeth requires a lot of concentration – even a millimetre mistake could cause major problems. Also, people may not think about this, but your arms get sore! Think about the tools your dentists use and imagine doing that for 8 hours straight.

And then there’s conventions that we need to attend. Dentistry is continuously advancing, with new techniques, materials and technology developed frequently. Some things you learnt in uni won’t be used within a decade after graduation.

FN: How well were you prepared for the job when you gradated your dentistry degree?

I felt clinically competent as the degree taught me everything I needed to know and I graduated with a significant amount of practical experience. But dentistry is really competitive in Australia and lots of new grads invest in further courses such as Invisalign or implant restorations to stand out. I didn’t know this when I graduated and reflecting, I think it may have set me back compared to my peers. It took me a few months to find a graduate job.

Funnily, however, most dentists don’t spend much time trying to improve their people skills. I think these skills are just as important as clinical skills to your professional development.

FN: Why are people skills important for dentistry?

A lot of patients have anxiety about going to the dentist and sensitivity towards that is very important. Some patients are recovering from addiction, some have self-image issues regarding their teeth or mouths and others are seeking support and information on quitting smoking. The job requires quite a large amount of empathy and communication, so being good with patients is really important.

It’s a sad thing to think about, but in my opinion,

a bad dentist who is great with patients will go further than a competent dentist who is hated by patients.

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I think a lot of new grads/dentists in general often ignore this fact.

FN: Is there anything someone should be doing while studying dentistry?

I think shadowing many different dentists, preferably including as many different dental specialists as you can, is really important. Most people don’t really know what dentists do all day, despite seeing them yearly for most of their lives. This will help you figure out if it’s for you, as well as give you an idea of whether you want to specialise or not.

FN: What can dentists specialise in?

Specialities that that most people are familiar with are orthodontics, oral surgery and public health dentistry. There are lots of other specialities, such as periodontics (treatment of diseases), prosthodontics (reconstruction of teeth) and oral and maxillofacial surgery (surgical treatment of diseases, injuries and defects).

Specialities are a bit tricky because there’s usually a crossover with general dentists like me. A general dentist has knowledge in most of those areas but a specialist will have more experience as they have to complete a residency program for a few years. For example, I can perform minor procedures, I just can’t say that I “specialise” in them without doing a residency program. And, of course, when the procedure is very complex, I will refer a patient to a specialist.

FN: What’s the pay like?

The pay can really vary. The top-end earners are dentists who own their own practice and they can make well over $800k a year. If you’re working for one of these dentists in a practice, you can probably expect more like $100k-$200k a year, depending on your hours and how many patients you see. I believe the average salary for a grad sits around $80k. It definitely pays well and there’s a lot of room for salary growth.

A lot of people are tempted by the salary, but you have to remember that the degree is long and expensive – the student debt can rack up (in the hundreds of thousands) and take a long time to pay off. So don’t just do dentistry because of the salary!

How to be a dentist:

  1. Finish Year 12
  2. Each university has different requirements but you may need to study maths, biology, chemistry and/or physics in high school. Refer to your university website for pre-requisite subjects.
  3. Study a five-year Bachelor of Dental Science or Bachelor of Dental Surgery degree that is accredited by the Dental Board of Australia.
  4. Or study a three-year Bachelor of Science followed by a four-year Doctor of Dental Medicine that is accredited by the Dental Board of Australia.
  5. Upon graduating, you are a fully qualified dentist.
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