Some of the most frequently asked questions I receive from young people: What is it like being a dentist? Should I go to dental school? My answer: On many days, dentistry is a very rewarding profession. I enjoy the balance between cultivating lasting personal relationships with my patients and providing quality clinical care. However, you must do it because you love it and highly consider these things before making the commitment.
Dental School Debt is a Substantial Burden
The American Dental Education Association reported the average educational debt for all indebted dental school graduates of 2017 was $287,331. The average debt for private dental schools was $341,190. As in our case, it’s not unusual for dental school graduates to leave with more than $400-500K+ student loan debt.
Last year, Student Loan Hero posted an article asking “how much student debt is too much?”. The first point stuck with me. Don’t take out more loans than your average starting salary. Great advice, but in reality, it is nearly impossible for a dental student without the help of family/private loans, U.S. military scholarships, National Health Service Corps scholarships, etc. Upon graduation, my student loan debt was roughly 4X a dentist’s average annual starting salary.
I wish I had compared private loans with federal loans for dental school. That being said, it’s important to note that federal loans qualify for income-driven repayment plans and loan forgiveness. What I hadn’t realized until I graduated was the interest rate on the majority of my federal Direct PLUS loans was a whopping 7.9%. The following table shows the loans I took out to pay for dental school:
Now that I am paying my loans (which I recently chose to refinance), I am much more conscious of the cost of my degree. When prospective students ask me about dental school, I can’t help but immediately bring up the burden of student loans. My response is always: Be aware of debt. Be passionate about dentistry. And finally, be prepared to work for a long time paying it off.
Once I felt the pressure to work as much as possible to pay my loans, the fear of losing my physical health started to creep into my mind. There is an ever present question: What would I do if I injured myself and couldn’t make a dentist’s salary to pay off my loans?
Dentistry is Physically Demanding
As many times as I shadowed dentists and talked to people about dental school, I never understood what a physically demanding career it is. Let’s be honest, dentistry looks easy enough. However, after only four years of practice, I can tell you that the majority of my classmates and colleagues have complained about neck, back, or shoulder pain. It always makes me wonder how my childhood dentist practiced into his seventies. There are certainly ways to protect ourselves such as wearing loupes with magnification and practicing proper ergonomics. However, working eight hours a day in a very small space, on even smaller teeth, doing very small and precise work can be physically challenging on our eyes, hands, wrists, arms, shoulders, necks, and backs.
In a study by Great-West Financial in 2014, they found 1 in 4 dentists under the ADA Members Disability Plan were disabled long enough to collect benefits at some point before retirement. This doesn’t necessarily mean they were disabled by the practice itself, but it does show that 25% of dentists were unable to perform their work and collected benefits. It can be unsettling to work in a career that relies so heavily on your physical well-being. I often catch myself being protective about my right hand and arm, even just with daily chores. For this reason, many dentists protect themselves with disability insurance.
- On a side note, disability insurance is one of many additional expenses in dentistry including our dental license, DEA license, malpractice insurance, health insurance, continuing education, etc. The majority of dental positions in private practice do not provide any benefits.
Dentistry is Emotionally Demanding
Finally, I wish I had considered the emotional toll of dentistry. Every week there are undoubtedly several patients who say they don’t like the dentist and expect you to cause them pain. There’s a large population of patients with very high anxiety that require the utmost patience and TLC. They expect to have a bad appointment, which is frequently related to negative childhood experiences.
What patients forget is the reason many of us pursued this career is to take people out of pain and to restore self-confidence and function. Although it’s stressful to manage high anxiety patients, it is extremely rewarding to provide a pain-free experience and ultimately flip their attitudes about dentistry.
The other emotional stressors include financial stress, debt burden, business operations, litigation, and staff management among many others. With dentistry, the same components that make it appealing (i.e. being your own boss and running a business) can also induce the most stress.
Dentistry Places in the U.S. News Top 10 Jobs Annually
Ultimately, like any job, it’s important to have work-life balance. Dentistry can be a very long and rewarding profession, but it’s important to make all of the appropriate considerations before deciding if dentistry is the right career.