Embrace the Life Stages of a Dentist

  • by Eric S. Studley, DDS, and Ivy D. Peltz, DDS, M.S.Ed., Ph.D., MAGD
  • Jun 12, 2018

A professional career is like a lifespan. You start as a novice — dependent on others for education and mentorship — and end as a master — eager to impart your knowledge but ready to move on. Just like a lifespan, a dental career has stages. Success throughout these stages is dependent upon healthy and supportive personal and family relationships, thoughtful financial management and involvement in one’s community. Each life stage requires a different focus, and, with proper attention and planning, each stage can help develop the next.

Student Practitioners: A New Beginning
As a student practitioner, you are simultaneously overly confident and unsure of yourself. You still believe that success in your program means you know enough, but you also are teachable and impressionable.

In order to succeed as a student practitioner, you must be studious and industrious. You must have the ability to remain focused. But, more than that, you must be a critical thinker and an evidence-based decision maker. Critical thinkers are open-minded and inquisitive, and evidence-based practices help them distinguish supported evidence from preconceived notions or biases.

Appropriate goals for student practitioners:

  1. Define your vision.
  2. Soak up all perspectives.
  3. Remain open, using critical thinking and evidence-based decision making to determine which perspectives will work best to fulfill your vision.

Novice Practitioners: Knowing What You Don’t Know
As a novice practitioner, you’re anxious and unsettled. You have a vague idea where you would like to wind up (successful and retired), but you have no idea how to get there. You start off insecure but quickly begin to gain confidence until, after practicing for about five years, you suddenly realize how much you still don’t know. You’re not quite as inquisitive, and you’re less and less impressionable.

In order to succeed as a novice practitioner, you must be driven. You must realize that it will take a while to build your vision, and that you must be patient, determined and willing to do everything from washing the floors to painting the ceilings. You also must make sure your vision is still aligned with your current goals and desires. Maybe you thought you wanted to own a practice, but now that you see what’s involved, you’d rather remain an associate. Maybe you’re still determined to own a practice, but you now realize that, in order to be successful, you will need to learn business practices and develop leadership skills.

Appropriate goals for novice practitioners:

  1. Redefine your vision.
  2. Identify your knowledge gaps.
  3. Force yourself to fill those gaps.

New Practice Owner: Feeling Growing Pains
As a new practice owner, you feel an enormous amount of pressure. You were working as an associate, earning a nice, steady income, but then you realized that you could do everything better. So you created or purchased a practice of your own, and now you’re just beginning to understand the depths of your responsibility to others. You’re also beginning to feel isolated in your role.

In order to succeed as a new practice owner, you need to demonstrate leadership skills and take on multiple roles. You have to make financial decisions like a CEO, enforce OSHA and HIPAA rules like a compliance officer, determine the best EHR system for your practice like an IT guru, and review employment contracts like an attorney. If you don’t have the capacity to take on each role, you must employ experts who can. At the same time, you must continue to care for your patients and produce enough dentistry to fund the entire enterprise.

Appropriate goals for new practice owners:

  1. Focus on professional and personal growth.
  2. Build a trusted team of expert advisors.
  3. Hone leadership and practice management skills.

Exiting Practitioner: Going for the Gold
At last, your stress level has diminished. You’ve gained wisdom and expertise. You’re confident in your practice. You provide nicely for your family. But you’re getting a bit bored. You still love it, but you can tell your passion for dentistry is beginning to wane, and you’re beginning to wonder what’s next. You still have untold growth potential, both professionally and personally.

In order to succeed as an exiting practitioner, you must begin your succession planning sooner rather than later. The time to begin a relationship with your successor is when your practice is at its peak. You’ll worry that you can’t support an associate yet, but an associate actually will bring value to your practice. You need a fresh pair of eyes, some new technology and an overall rejuvenation.

Appropriate goals for exiting practitioners:

  1. Create and institute a succession plan.
  2. Mentor junior colleagues.
  3. Reinvigorate yourself.

Retired Practitioners: Life After Dentistry
The moment you’ve been waiting for is finally here — you’re about to retire. But now what? Your career has given you a sense of purpose and self-worth for longer than you can remember. If you stop practicing and are no longer interacting with patients and staff members on a daily basis, what will sustain you?

To be a successful retired practitioner, you must have a sense of self. You must know what makes you happy and what makes you feel fulfilled. And you need to continue to grow. There are many outlets for your remaining energy, both within and without the dental profession. You can teach or mentor someone. You can become more involved in organized dentistry. You can immerse yourself in hobbies. You can spend more time with family. You even can pursue another career. The options are endless.

Appropriate goals for retired practitioners:

  1. Remain involved.
  2. Engage in meaningful activities.
  3. Continue to try new things.

Not everyone goes through every stage, and the sequence may vary from practitioner to practitioner. Rather than fight or ignore the changing life stages of a dentist, you can embrace them, acknowledging and understanding the unique sets of characteristics, requirements for success and appropriate goals of each.

With acknowledgement to Dr. Frederic I. Nelson, DDS.


Eric S. Studley, DDS, and Ivy D. Peltz, DDS, M.S.Ed., Ph.D., MAGD, are general practice directors and clinical associate professors at New York University College of Dentistry. They are also cofounders of Doccupations.com, an algorithmic dental job-matching website.