Swords Orthodontics
17 Main St, Swords, Co Dublin, Ireland

A Career In Dentistry?

Although I’m not originally from Dublin, since I took over at Swords Orthodontics it has been important for me to be part of what’s going on locally when the opportunity arises.

Stephen Murray from Swords Orthodontics discusses a career in dentistry
Stephen Murray from Swords Orthodontics discusses a career in dentistry

I was recently asked to take part in a “Careers Evening” at Ardgillan Community College- thanks again for that, it was quite an honour. Although there would be careers advice at school and various universities and further education providers could advise students what grades they’d need if they had to go through third level education to follow a career, the idea of this evening was to have dozens of people from every possible career option to be available to explain to students what their work involved on a day to day basis, and this would help them make choices about what they’d like to do when they leave school.

It’s well over 3 decades since I was in their position, choosing O Levels (these exams don’t even exist any more) and A Levels, and now I’ve been a dentist for a bit more than a quarter of a century. About 2/3 of that time has been as a specialist orthodontist.

Although all orthodontists are also dentists, most dentists will never specialise in orthodontics and they will work in any number of the other fields of dentistry – and possibly specialise in other areas like oral surgery. Oral surgery was my area before orthodontics, but even at that it’s more than 20 years since the last time I sorted out a broken jaw - and the other areas of dentistry are even further away from my regular work, so I decided I’d ask my colleagues for their own thoughts on dentistry as a career choice.

I was very surprised with the answers.

What follows are direct quotes, each from a different colleague who has worked in dentistry for quite some time after graduating. I won’t attribute any of them to the dentists that said them, and I don’t think any of my colleagues can be identified from them so I’m sure they won’t mind my sharing them here. I am doing so because I think it might be useful to any student thinking of dentistry as a career choice to be aware of some of the aspects of what’s involved. For better or for worse, for richer or poorer.

  1. “Tell them all how wonderful dentistry is and how miserable medicine will make them.”
  2. “I would tell them that it is an excellent career if you have the vocation to help others. I would add that it is stressful in general and not for the light hearted. For me in particular, it has been an amazing career, but I am getting a bit tired of it recently. You need a real vocation. The only thing that saves my days is to feel that I am helping the patient, even if they don’t value it that much. Also, I think that dentistry should be a 20-ish year career. After that length of time, I see my friends are fed up with it.”
  3. “If you’d have asked me 10 years ago, I would have given a very different answer! Personally speaking, I’m lucky to have found myself in an area of clinical interest that I really enjoy. I’ve been fortunate to have had a great exposure to this through (two other dentists in that area). No doubt about it, I much prefer it to general practice. As regards career choice, if I was to do it all again, would I choose dentistry? Hard to know, Stephen. There was nothing really ever in my mind as to what I would PREFER to study. By and large, Dentistry has been good to me, so I can’t really complain! There’s obviously stress associated with it and working with the general public.”
  4. “I’ve had a very satisfying and happy career – at least so far. There are many facets to dentistry and we have various challenges which keep the stimulation alive. Relief of pain is a major job satisfaction for me. To be able to manage fearful patients and turn their attitude around is another plus. Unlike physicians, we work with our hands and I’ve always liked this aspect of the profession. We’re also exposed to new technologies and new advances which are also interesting and keeping up to date reduces any danger of boredom. If you are interested in generating wealth, I’d advise people to keep away from it, but it has given me a good standard of life. In short it, can be a rewarding, fulfilling career, especially of you like human interaction and keep up to date!!"
  5. “Don’t do it if you are female…unless you have alpha male tendencies, or come from money, or are married to the practice manager who will do the hiring and firing and staff pensions.”
  6. “I would say that it is brilliant for a woman as there is equality with men. It is also great as you can work part time and have a family. On the negative side, it has to be one of the most stressful jobs out there as you are working with people who are often scared and in pain and on top of that you have to perform to a tight schedule, never mind make money which can be difficult if you are running a practice that is mixed with GMS (the General Medical Services scheme). I’d have given up years ago if I hadn’t found a specialty area of dentistry.”
  7. “My comments refer to private practice, since that’s where most dentists end up working. That of course may not be entirely the future with the rise of corporate dentistry. I consider dentistry to be an extremely demanding career involving as it does expertise and skill in the art and science of dentistry but also one needs to be a good with people –both patients and staff. While practising dentistry one is also running a business, managing people, keeping up to date with employer legislation and developing professionally. All this with a warm and engaging personality (just learn that is a way to avoid getting sued). It’s a physically and mentally demanding career with no holiday or sick leave, no bonuses etc. As the saying goes, old age is not for wimps, well I would say Dentistry is not for wimps. Now on the upside, I’ve come across dentists who can work a part week and get well paid. Not that many jobs allow part time work. There’s an academic career, and a health service career, but the future of a health service job is not sure with all the cutbacks. It’s a career you can’t readily take a break from, that’s a big negative. It’s a degree that is extremely narrow and hard to see how one could use it anywhere other than in the practice of dentistry. IN the demanding world in which we now live and practice, I would consider it a career not for the faint hearted. I myself have known three suicides. I think that’s pretty high. Of course, it’s acknowledged that the dental suicide rate is higher than the general population….People who’s parents are dentists will readily understand what the job entails, but the others should do a lot of research prior to selecting dentistry”
  8. “Dentistry has changed a lot (since this dentist began their career) with much greater demands and pathetic health service fees with very strict rules to adhere to and the dental council hovering – stress city. I would not recommend it as a career.”
  9. “What attracted it to me (sic)? Intrigue, curiosity, precision, sterile environment, pt care/ reassurance, solving their problems. No family in dentistry and definitely no family encouragement, they thought it was a tough and arduous career...ahem, they may have been correct! So,  20 to 25 years later....General  dentistry is tough .... Physically demanding, unusual not to suffer from musculo-skeletal problems, noise pollution, hazardous biological and sharps environment, definitely underpaid relative to other similarly skilled areas, the mouth is a difficult area to work in small, dark and moist when we generally would like the opposite...imagine doing a large dop (distal occlusal palatal –basically a very big filling) composite in LR7 (lower right back tooth) with macroglossia (an unusually big tongue) and strong cheeks and a gag reflex! I notice many of my dental class ( 25 year reunion this year) can manage just a  4 day week ....this is in stark contrast to Stephen in Swords who can manage to work robot hours. I think it's difficult to be a winner in general dentistry and know few who truly love their job (a career in academia seems more satisfying). You need to have very strong extra-curricular activities to balance the highly charged 9 to 5 day. I remember when I worked in one place (a year after qualifying) for a while, every third patient had to be almost hypnotised to get them to even take a seat in the dental chair...sweating and trembling as they hovered over the door threshold...when I did vocational training in another location, I hadn’t really come across anything like that. I think the private nature of dentistry in Ireland meant that often patients stayed away until their pain actually drove them to seek help and then fear of whatever it was came bubbling to the surface...I had no intention of soaking up that emotion up for the next 40 years. Would I do it all again?A specialty, most definitely. Dentistry probably not. I did occasionally feel cheated in my 20’s when all my friends were out 3 nights in a row and I was invariably studying for an exam of some sort,  but I did complete all the study in my 20’s so it wasn’t a complete waste and met some really nice people along the way.”
  10. “It requires a lot of hard work. You need to have a real desire to be a part of health care.”
  11. “it’s a satisfying job with empathy for anxious patients. There are possibilities for specialisation such as orthodontics, children’s dentistry, oral surgery, implantology etc. Great 5 years of study in university with classes limited to small numbers.”
  12. “Do law first, maybe English or even history and if they find nothing better to do then have a crack at dentistry. Make sure to get a part time job.”
  13. “Dentistry is really enjoyable, relaxing, stimulating was of making a fine living but changes (in technology) may make us redundant in the future, so it’s enjoyable but the times are a changin’…”
  14. “I would not advise dentistry for all the reasons we have previously covered*. As a career nowadays it is (rubbish) for most.” (* This is a colleague who has discussed many aspects of dentistry in the past including “I think medicine and dentistry as careers aren’t what they were but that trend has been ongoing for 45 years. I predict though that dentistry will nosedive in the next 10 years due to the dominance of corporates, or McDentistry”.)
  15. “To tell you the truth, I don’t know if I’m in the right career. I have been very disillusioned with it, I’ve lost a lot of confidence in myself, I’m not sleeping and I’m seeking counselling.”

I think the last comment struck me hardest. Dentistry isn’t simply a job, it’s a career. There’s an episode of Star Trek that explains the difference, but essentially a career is what you are, not simply what you do. It defines you, you don’t walk away from it at 5pm and you live it for years.

 Some people enjoy their work, and if you don’t then it will be very difficult to stay at it day after day after week after week after year after year. As one of the other comments mentioned, dentistry has traditionally had a high suicide rate and many of the comments agree that even when it’s going well it’s demanding and difficult.

My team were concerned that I might have put people off going into dentistry as a career. I think it is better not to start it than find out that you don’t enjoy it, but don’t have the motivation to leave because you’ve put so much effort into it – because that equation gets harder to solve with every day that goes past.

For my part, I know that I enjoy what I do. I also know that I am lucky in so many ways, so I am very grateful for it.

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