Be a dentist, you'll be a success...?
February 23, 2011 12:49 PM   Subscribe

Should I go to dental school?

I have worked as a dental assistant for about four years now. I enjoy the work. I'm considering going to dental school, because the idea of a dental career seems rather appealing to me. I like working with my hands, would prefer to run my own business, like the emotional connections I have with patients and am fascinated with the science/craft.

Being a hygienist has also crossed my mind, but it seems too limiting when there are crowns to be made and root canals to be done. (I'd also prefer not to find myself in a "pink collar" job with the workplace misogyny that can go along with it.)

The only problem is, I'd have to do a pre-med/pre-dental post-bac to cover my prerequisites, and then apply to dental school. I have a degree in physical anthropology and a small number of science courses under my belt, but not nearly enough to qualify.

All the time and loans involved makes me wonder if professional degrees like this aren't just for rich kids who don't have to worry about going into debt, or students who are such fantastic scholars that they can get a break on tuition.

Does this sound like something I would horribly regret?
posted by overeducated_alligator to Education (14 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Seconding The World Famous--I don't know any "rich kids" who became dentists, but it certainly does mean taking on a lot of debt.
posted by Sidhedevil at 12:59 PM on February 23, 2011

If your main concern is debt, you could consider joining the military or the UPHS. I have heard that they always need dentists. You could also look into loan forgiveness programs through the Indian Health Service and possibly other Federal or state agencies.
posted by charmcityblues at 12:59 PM on February 23, 2011

My student dentist at USC is going to be working in Federal penitentiaries to have some of his loans forgiven and one of his classmates is joining the Navy. I think there's plenty of work-arounds available. Most of his classmates aren't rich, aren't planning on going into cosmetic dentistry and the women I've met in his program are planning on having kids.
posted by Ideefixe at 1:03 PM on February 23, 2011

I have a friend who is a 33 year old dentist in Minneapolis. If you want me to put you in touch MeMail me.
posted by josher71 at 1:08 PM on February 23, 2011

One of my family members is a dentist. He is very business savvy and intelligent and has been building his practice since the 1980s. He is now very wealthy and has been working 30-hour weeks for about 10 years. Seems like a lucrative career if you get lucky.
posted by gagglezoomer at 1:27 PM on February 23, 2011

Best answer: There's a reason that a lot of dentists fund film projects. They make LOTS of money. My own dentist is a second-generation dentist, about my age (early 30s), and I believe this was his first private practice. He has a state-of-the-art "green dentistry" office in a fairly well-to-do area of town, complete with beautiful woodwork and a great design presence on everything they do. I have to imagine that wasn't cheap.

One of my dentist's current hygienists comes from what sounds like a similar background to you. She's going to dental school in the fall. I'm genuinely excited for her; she's very dedicated to the field, and it certainly doesn't hurt that she's a minority woman going into what has historically been a very white male field.

Here's the thing: you can tell that both of them love what they do, even though it's the kind of thing that other people find gross or boring.

Do you really want to do it? It sounds like you do; you have a connection to several aspects of the work, and you would probably get pretty fulfilled if you were drawn to it in the first place.

Do it.
posted by Madamina at 1:39 PM on February 23, 2011

All the time and loans involved makes me wonder if professional degrees like this aren't just for rich kids who don't have to worry about going into debt, or students who are such fantastic scholars that they can get a break on tuition.

Rich kids don't become dentists. Dental school tends to be geared towards middle class kids who, like you, realize that they like working with patients and recognize an opportunity to run a lucrative business. The reason dental school costs a lot of money is because it pays off.

Though an old dentist of mine served in the National Guard to get a tuition break.

Because you have access to dentists that you see and work with on a regular basis, why don't you ask them about the financial math involved and see if it would work out for you.
posted by deanc at 1:43 PM on February 23, 2011

I would warn, though, that you should do something because you like it. Some people are able to successfully compartmentalize and disassociate their work life from the rest of their lives when they work a job that they're doing just because they recognize it as a good opportunity. Others become slowly frustrated over time, trying to figure out ways to cut their hours to a bare minimum, concentrating on their hobbies or spending money foolishly to distract from their job, and they become much less successful.

You sound like you actively like working on people's teeth, so you're probably in good shape, but doing something just because it's a good opportunity and you're qualified for admission isn't the only reason you should do it. You are going to have to spend most of you're day doing it, after all.
posted by deanc at 1:55 PM on February 23, 2011

My dad is a dentist and teaches at a dental school, and I also have a cousin who's a dentist who did an intensive year or so of science classes to get his pre-reqs (he was a liberal arts major). I'm happy to answer any questions you have if you MeMail me.
posted by leesh at 1:57 PM on February 23, 2011

Best answer: Slate had a multipart series on dentistry in America. I could give you my opinion, but it's largely informed by that journalism.
posted by endless_forms at 2:13 PM on February 23, 2011

Best answer: I don't think doing your prereqs as a postbac will take too long. I'd guess the degree you already have covers all your core requirements (english, math, maybe some science.) IIRC the number of science prereqs you need is only 8 courses (2 semesters each of bio, chem, physics, organic.) So if you already have some done, you maybe only need to take 4 or 5. Which could be done in one semester full time, or one year part time. You could probably still keep working, at least part time. I was in a kinda similar situation when I wanted to apply to med school, I had gotten a degree in something unrelated and ended up having to do 4 or 5 of my prereqs during the evenings/summers when I was getting my MS. it got a little crazy for a while but I absolutely do not regret it at all. i don't think you would either, especially because it seems like you're doing it for the right reasons (you know what the job is like day in and day out and it appeals to you, you want to be in charge of your own business, you like the patients, etc.)

i thought the same thing about professional programs at first: how can i even imagine going into so much debt? does everybody just have rich parents or what? i was afraid of being the only broke one- i'm so not. it turns out to be a real mix. yes, there are some people in my class with rich parents who are covering all their expenses. then there are people like me who live off loans and still work on weekends sometimes. it sucks to know that i'll be graduating with more debt than many of my classmates, and sometimes just picturing that number makes me feel a little sweaty and dizzy. but i also know that i'll be able to pay it back. the same goes for you. don't let that be what holds you back. in my opinion, the people who should not go into professional programs are simply those who choose to do it for the wrong reasons (such as, for money, or because their parents did it.) they end up unsatisfied with their careers, and resent the time and money they spent pursuing it. since you are doing it for the right reasons, i think you'll be able to deal with the stress of completing your prereqs and taking out loans to cover your education. i really think you should go for it.
posted by GastrocNemesis at 2:51 PM on February 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

My father is a professor at a dental school. Dental schools don't do rankings, unlike law schools. Also, the ADA closes dental schools if they find that nationwide, they are graduating too many dentists, unlike law schools where they graduate more lawyers than there are jobs which is why so many lawyers are unemployed.

I'm not a dentist but I'm under the impression that if you're willing to move, there are jobs for dentists. Some have a harder time getting jobs in major cities but there are jobs for dentists.

Anyway, I say go for it! You can do so much good and it sounds like you're doing it for the right reasons. If you're concerned about debt, try state schools. There are options and it sounds like you know what you're doing. Best wishes!
posted by kat518 at 5:17 PM on February 23, 2011

Best answer: The degree will massively pay itself back, and give you a potentially much more fulfilling career, I think, than just being a hygienist. Far from being a bad idea, it sounds like a perfect fit given your interest, experience and skills. Don't let the debt scare you - it's an investment in your career that will pay great returns.
posted by Dasein at 7:33 PM on February 23, 2011

My father's a dentist and he enjoys it for many of the reasons you list (self-employed, works with his hands, etc.). The one thing I'd say to remember, however, is that when you're self-employed, part of your job will be devoted to non-dentist things. That may include hiring staff, handling budgets, ordering inventory, doing payroll and so on. Also, the work doesn't always end when you leave the office. There are emergencies that come up (people breaking their new crowns, etc.) that need to be handled in some way as well.
posted by fishmasta at 10:09 PM on February 23, 2011

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