Planning and Managing Your Career Path

 Practice Note

Cultivating positive attitudes and taking time to reflect on career goals often help a person get on track when seeking a job.

In addition to hard skills, you have gained soft skills, such as value clarification, self-discipline, ethical behavior, positive attitudes, creativity, and anger and stress management. As you reflect on your skills, both hard and soft, you should analyze what they mean to your career path.

Five Important Questions

Before you venture into the job market as a dental healthcare provider, you must identify your career goals. Obviously you are interested in a facet of dentistry (either clinical or the business office) because you have spent considerable time studying this field. Therefore, you should explore ways your career can develop in this area in the future. A career path is based on careful planning and preparation, but it can be altered by unexpected opportunities and luck. To begin preparation, you should ask yourself the series of questions shown in the job preparation ladder (Figure 18-1). Prospective employers will put your résumé on the top of the job application pile if you spend some time reflecting on each of these questions: Where have I been? Where am I now? Where am I going? How am I going to get there? How will I know when I have arrived?

FIGURE 18-1 Job preparation ladder. Questions to ask yourself when preparing for a job search.

Before going to any job interviews, you should share your thoughts about these questions with peers or spend some time alone reflecting on them. This sharing and introspection can help you to build confidence in your plans and goals for a career.

Where Have I Been?

This question helps you to review your past and identify some of the reasons you arrived where you are. It is your origin and thus forms the foundation of your preparation ladder. Some individuals may find looking at the past depressing, whereas others may yearn for the comfort of the past. Regardless of the impact of your past, reflection is worthwhile. Some personal information is confidential, and certain types of questions may not be asked during a job interview; however, it is wise to be prepared for questions about your past employment. For example, if you have worked at several jobs in the past, you may be asked about your reasons for having changed jobs frequently. You should explain your job history honestly.

Where Am I Now?

This question seems obvious, yet you need to reassure yourself about where you are in your career path. You have just completed a course of study, you are secure or insecure in a personal or family relationship, and you are looking forward to finding a job soon or sometime in the future. Knowing where you are at the present time enables you to continue on your career path.

Where Am I Going?

This is a goal-oriented question that requires you to identify what you want to do. As you progress up the preparation ladder, you must stop to think about what you want in both the near future and the distant future. For some individuals, getting a job and gaining independence are their primary goals. For others, the job may be the means to a future goal. Obtaining a job now, gaining experience, and continuing with one’s education may be several short-range goals that are needed to reach the ultimate goal of teaching, obtaining a business degree, or even going to dental school. Regardless of your goals, you must realize that they may change; remaining flexible in your goals enables you to accept challenges along the way.

How Am I Going to Get There?

This question identifies the route or steps that must be taken to achieve your goals. For some, a job means independence or a sense of security and self-worth. For others, who are pursuing additional education, a short-term job supports a return to school for another degree.

How Will I Know When I Have Arrived?

This is the top rung of the ladder. To answer this question, you must define what success means to you. For some people, the definition of success is always changing. Money, material goods, or a feeling of security and satisfaction can represent success. No one answer is correct for this question. It is an individual response that only you can give.

Taking time to prepare yourself for your future career can influence a job interview. When a dentist or office manager asks you to describe yourself, your background, and your career goals, you will be prepared. If you simply say something like, “Oh, I don’t know, there isn’t much to tell,” this indicates that you have not given your career much thought, and a potential employer might think you feel the same about employment.


Critical Analysis

As you begin the job search, ask yourself, “What skills and characteristics can I bring to a job and a prospective employer?” Take the time to write down your skills, strengths, and weaknesses with a prospective job in mind.


image Practice Note

Take the time to write down your skills, strengths, and weaknesses with a prospective job in mind.

As you begin this exercise, you may find that you seem to concentrate on your weaknesses. This is not uncommon. Parents, teachers, and associates share criticism willingly, thinking that it improves a person, but sincere praise might not be given as freely. Criticism may be so common that, when praise is offered, it might be difficult to accept. Learn to accept praise, identify your positive characteristics, and develop your assets.

This is also a time to be optimistic. Remember earlier in the text when the term locus of control was discussed? The “internal locus of control” was related to outcomes that are within your control. Good outcomes can result from positive attitudes, and optimism is an attitude that helps people to succeed and bounce back from hardship. There are many benefits from being an optimistic person, as shown in Box 18-1.


Box 18-1

Benefits of Optimism

• It enables you to generate an alternative, more hopeful explanation for difficulties experienced.
• It reduces your level of stress.
• It increases longevity.
• It promotes happiness.
• It forges persistence, which is an essential trait required for achieving success.
• It creates a sense of fulfillment and satisfaction.
• It promotes healthy living.
• It creates a positive anticipation of the future.
• It allows you to deal with failure and mistakes constructively.
• It makes you proactive.
• It enables you to deal with the constant negative thoughts that arise.
• If increases the likelihood of effective problem solving.
• It creates a positive attitude.
• It increases your level of motivation.
• It promotes laughter.
• It welcomes any form of constructive change.
• It creates positive expectations.
• It sets your mood for the day.
• It promotes positive relationships.
• It builds resilience in the face of adversity.
• It promotes self-confidence and boosts self-esteem.
• It improves your social life.
• It increases your spiritual development and awakening.
• It increases your mental flexibility.
• It is therapeutic.

From Job readiness for health professionals, St. Louis, 2013, Elsevier.

Identifying Personal Assets and Liabilities

How do you begin to do this? First, identify your positive characteristics and your skills. Next, identify your liabilities, but analyze how these weaknesses can be overcome. For example, if you are prompt and seldom absent and if you pay attention to details, you have characteristics that employers seek in a new employee (Box 18-2). You may find it difficult to use a specific type of software, or you may have a problem remembering all of the American Dental Association (ADA) insurance codes; however, these skill deficiencies can be improved with experience. If a prospective employer asks about any weaknesses, you could explain that, although you have had difficulty using a specific type of software, you would like to improve this skill and are willing to spend some extra time on your own to do so. This is a positive attitude that shows an interest in improving yourself rather than demonstrating an attitude of not caring.


Box 18-2   Desirable Characteristics of a New Employee

• Promptness
• Initiative
• Dependability
• Creativity
• Flexibility
• Self-motivation
• Enthusiasm
• Honesty
• Sense of humor
• Good general health
• Willingness to accept change
• Good listener
• Willingness to work with a team
• Effective organizational skills
• Knowledge of automated equipment
• Use of proper language skills in verbal and written communications
• Attention to detail

Likewise, a person in the clinical arena of the office may find using a specific type of instrument intraorally quite difficult. Again, a willingness to overcome this weaker skill will illustrate an eagerness for improvement.

Marketing Your Skills

A well-educated and experienced dental healthcare provider with the appropriate credentials has valuable bargaining power for obtaining a job that requires the desired skills and provides adequate compensation. Stating that you are a graduate of a dental assistant, hygiene, or business program is a credible assertion; however, supporting this claim with valid data that demonstrate the positive effect you can have on the practice is likely to win you the job.

As you discuss your skills either in the interview or in the letter of application, use action words that end in “-ed,” such as implemented, applied, or educated. These words describe activities or actions that you have taken. Terms like go-getter and people person are vague and do not really mean anything.

Supporting Your Skills in Marketing

Administrative Assistant

Often a dentist will claim that he or she cannot afford a well-educated administrative assistant. Your response might be, “I don’t believe that you can afford not to have a well-educated administrative assistant.” Consider the following rebuttals to the dentist’s reluctance:

• Credentialed administrative assistants have proved by some form of study and perhaps by a test given by a valid national dental or business board that they have a basic understanding of dental knowledge and business procedures. Delegating business functions to an inexperienced person with no formal knowledge of business principles or the standards required by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is opening the door to potential penalties and litigation.
• Losses caused by errors in records management, claim form management, appointment scheduling, payroll, accounts receivable, banking, accounts payable, or patient communication can be significantly reduced if a qualified educated administrative assistant is put in charge of those elements of the practice. Although an initial orientation period is necessary in any office, an educated administrative assistant is already aware of the procedures and terminology used in business and dentistry.

Clinical Assistant

A similar situation can occur when the dentist makes this claim to a clinical assistant who is a graduate of an accredited program and who has met the state licensure requirements for advanced functions. This assistant should explain how she or he can increase productivity. Studies in the past have indicated that a skilled clinical assistant at chairside can increase productivity by more than 30%. An assistant credentialed in advanced functions can increase productivity even more, because this allows the dentist to proceed to another patient while the expanded-function dental assistant performs specific intraoral duties.

Dental Hygienist

The dental hygienist needs to promote himself or herself by indicating that he or she is able to perform the basic skills allowed in the state as well as additional skills that can be legally performed. These include the use of computer software, an intraoral camera, and digital radiography; the making of bleaching trays; the placement of antimicrobial agents; and, if certified in that state, the administration of local anesthesia and nitrous oxide. These tasks all become great time savers for the dentist.

Other factors that might be considered when a hygienist is marketing himself or herself include the following:

• An educated person remains in the profession longer than an inexperienced person because the former has made a commitment to the profession through the educational process.
• Mature students who return to school from other careers, such as homemaking, teaching, and nursing, can bring with them many life experiences that are valuable assets to any one of the healthcare provider positions.

You must develop a caring, positive attitude about your ability to become an asset to the dental office. It is your responsibility, however, to live up to the claims you make. Your skills, knowledge of dentistry, investment in your education, and credentials are all tools that can be used to achieve compensation commensurate with that of other allied health or business professionals with similar backgrounds and responsibilities.


image Practice Note

You must develop a caring, positive attitude about your ability to become an asset to the dental office.

Job Priorities

Each person dreams of his or her ideal job. However, many people are so excited to be given an interview that they take the first job offered without considering their goals, needs, and priorities. Before applying for a job or preparing for a job interview, decide what you need and want in a job and what your basic philosophy is about your career.

Determining Your Career Philosophy

As mentioned previously, before seeking employment, you should determine your needs, clarify your life goals, and then develop a philosophy that is consistent with them. Unfortunately, a dental healthcare provider may accept the first job offered with little consideration given to how his or her philosophy coincides with the philosophy of the prospective employer. Carefully evaluate yourself, establish some realistic goals, and then ask yourself the following questions: Are my professional, moral, and social values compatible with those of my prospective employer? With what type of work environment do I want to be associated: a solo practice or a large group practice? Which of my skills in dentistry or business do I want to use to the greatest extent? What are my strengths? What are my weaknesses? How can I compensate for my weaknesses? What do I want to be doing in 5 years and in 10 years? How important are salary, hours, and location?

Once you have written down your philosophy of life and enumerated your goals, remind yourself that these goals will be ever changing. You will undoubtedly reevaluate your philosophy as you gain confidence from your new experiences.

After you have reviewed the various factors involved in job selection, determine your top five priorities for a job, and then rate each job offer. A decision-making grid such as the one shown in Table 18-1 may be helpful for this purpose. The job offers are listed in the left vertical column, and the priorities are listed across the top. Starting on the left, the priorities are given a point value based on your personal needs. Each job is evaluated, and the points are totaled. If a tie occurs, other characteristics may be considered.

TABLE 18-1

Job Decision-Making Grid


Remember, you may need to do more than one or two interviews to find the job that satisfies your goals, needs, and priorities. Remain steadfast in your job search.

Determining Your Worth to a Practice

Although many elements may be considered important when deciding whether to accept a job offer, salary and benefits are the primary factors in job selection for most people. The difficulty often arises when a dentist asks you during an interview what salary you expect. You need to prepare yourself for this question and not simply say, “Oh, I don’t know, what have you paid your other assistants or hygienists?” You need to have a firm understanding of the cost of living in your area, the comparable salaries for similar responsibilities and educational attainment, the local and national salary data available for reference, and what you are really worth in terms of your skills and knowledge. The following discussion provides ideas for formulating a benefits and salary package that could reasonably be suggested to a prospective employer. Box 18-3 lists several benefits that are commonly offered to employees.


Box 18-3   Potential Job Benefits

• Dress/uniform allowance
• Retirement plan
• Health insurance
• Vision insurance
• Dental care/insurance (for self and family)
• Profit sharing
• Child care
• Membership in professional organizations
• Travel and expenses for professional meetings
• Special bonuses for holidays or production achievement

Salary is often a difficult subject to bring up, yet it must be discussed openly before you accept a job. You need to know the beginning salary, how salary increases are obtained, and when salary increases are awarded. An employer must expect to pay a fair salary that is based on education, experience, credentials, and merit performance. The salary should be competitive with other allied health professionals who have equal responsibilities, yet it should also be cost-effective.


image Practice Note

An employer must expect to pay a fair salary that is based on education, experience, credentials, and merit performance.

The economics of dentistry vary widely across the country, depending on the specific position, its responsibilities, and the geographical location of the practice. Salary data may be obtained from the American Dental Association (ADA) website (, the American Dental Hygienist’s Association website (, and the American Dental Assistant’s Association website ( The Dental Assistant National Board website ( also has information for dental assistants about studies completed regarding salaries in various areas of the country. Information may also be found in the Occupational Outlook Handbook produced by the U.S. Department of Labor.

Realize that these studies often present a median national hourly salary with no benefits included. It is sometimes stated that some dental healthcare providers make higher hourly salaries than others. When salaries are discussed, care must be taken to determine that all factors related to the salaries being compared are the same. Some dollar value must be given to each of the benefits to determine the total salary and benefits package. Determine whether the job responsibilities are equitable. Education, experience, credentials, and performance evaluations are factored into the salary. Some value must also be placed on the job environment. It is possible that a person could take a job because its salary was so much better than another offer. However, this person may soon find out that the environment is hostile and not friendly and thus realize that perhaps a dollar amount should have been placed on the environment. Maybe this person should have accepted the job that paid a dollar less an hour but that included a more pleasant work environment.

Remember, no skilled administrative assistant, clinical assistant, or dental hygienist in today’s market should be making a salary that does not reflect an honest respect for the individual’s productivity. It is wise to ask for a contract or an employment agreement that verifies in writing the conditions of employment. These conditions might include the salary scale, an explanation of the merit performance evaluation, the required probationary period, and how the benefits package is to be administered.

Potential Areas of Employment

For the dental healthcare worker, there is a myriad of opportunities for potential employment. These can range from a small solo practice to a large clinic. They can also include the public or the private sector, practice management consulting firms, dental manufacturers, job placement, and teaching.

Private Practice

One may seek employment in a private practitioner’s office, a group practice, or a clinic with several dentists. The practice may be a general dental practice, which means that all phases of dental treatment are rendered for a patient, or it may be limited to one of the dental specialties recognized by the ADA (e.g., endodontics, orthodontics and dentofacial orthopedics, oral and maxillofacial surgery, oral and maxillofacial pathology, pediatric dentistry, periodontics, prosthodontics, oral and maxillofacial radiology, and dental public health).

In private practice, the administrative or clinical assistant may find a position that is limited specifically to clinical assisting, office management, or laboratory duties, or it may involve a combination of all of these responsibilities. Private practice affords many opportunities to work closely with the dentist and the patients as well as the diversification of duties, individuality, and considerable personal responsibility. As the value of a highly skilled dental assistant continues to increase, compensation and benefits in this area will continue to rise.

A similar situation may be available for the dental hygienist. In some situations, a hygienist may find that, to work a full-time load, it may be necessary to work in two different practices. This takes special skill in that the hygienist must learn policies from both offices and maintain confidentiality for both practices.

Institutional Dentistry

As federal, state, and local governments demonstrate increased interest in the delivery of dental care, more facilities are being established to provide more dental services for the public. One institution that should be considered as a source of employment is a dental school. Schools offer many areas of potential employment, such as working with undergraduate or graduate dental students at chairside, supervising clinical activities, and managing business functions. Other institutions are a part of the civil service programs and offer employment in prisons, public clinics, and Veterans Administration hospitals. Additionally, hospitals—some of which are associated closely with dental schools—offer employment in various departments. The dental healthcare provider working in an institution has the opportunity to work with a larger staff than is possible in private dental practice. Diversification of duties, participation in newly developed techniques, potential advancement to several levels of supervision, and possibly more liberal vacations (in learning institutions, vacations are often coordinated with school calendars) may be available in this setting.

Insurance Offices

Work in insurance offices is especially appealing to the person who aspires to perform various business tasks and become involved in management. With the increase in dental insurance coverage, more companies are seeking highly qualified dental healthcare providers to work in management positions because a broad knowledge of dentistry is an asset to their business. A position in insurance may also involve public speaking activities and travel.


Hospitals and dental schools hire many dental healthcare providers to work in research laboratories. Individuals who enjoy working with data, mathematical computations, and details and who enjoy being independent often seek positions in research.

Dental Manufacturers

An area of potential employment that should not be overlooked is with dental manufacturers, which employ dental assistants and hygienists for sales and teaching. Such employment would limit contact with dentistry to a specific type or line of products, but it also offers a great opportunity to travel throughout the country and meet people.

A form of manufacturing would also include software and business system companies. These companies offer the same opportunities as those mentioned previously, and they also offer a special opportunity for the person who is interested in the business component of the dental office.

Management Consulting Firms

Experienced dental assistants and hygienists with a broad knowledge of clinical and business concepts are turning their interests into profitable businesses. Many highly qualified administrative assistants have joined management consulting firms or created their own companies to assist dental practices with increasing their productivity through more efficient practices and marketing.


Numerous colleges and universities have developed occupational education programs that include dental assisting and dental hygiene. A graduate of a dental assistant or hygiene program who is a Certified Dental Assistant (CDA), a Registered Dental Assistant (RDA), or a Registered Dental Hygienist (RDH) may transfer into a baccalaureate degree program. Anyone who has broad experience in dental assisting or hygiene, who is highly motivated to teach, and who is patient and objective should perhaps contact a college or university about entering its program. Other sources of information include the American Dental Assistants Association ( and the American Dental Hygienist Association (

Where Do You Begin to Find Employment Opportunities?

After surveying some of these potential areas of employment, where do you begin looking for the right job? Many prospects are available, and several different avenues may be used.

School Placement

The school placement office and its faculty members are often notified regarding job opportunities in the area. Instructors frequently know employers who are interested in hiring new graduates, and they also know their students’ qualifications and abilities. Most schools spend considerable time and effort obtaining information about potential job opportunities, and they take a great deal of pride in placing their graduates.

Often a dental assistant finds a job opportunity during a clinical rotation or an externship. This is ideal in that the assistant will have completed a clinical rotation in the office, so he or she will be familiar with the staff and how the office functions; the staff will also have gained some relationship with the student during the externship experience.

Newspaper Advertisements

Both local and out-of-area newspapers have classified sections that list available jobs. Advertisements in the classified section state the qualifications required and other details about the job, including whether it is for an administrative or clinical assistant (Figure 18-2). However, in some cases, the employer does not give the name of the practice or the telephone number but instead places a blind ad asking the applicant to submit a résumé (Figure 18-3). This type of ad should not be overlooked, because it becomes the employer’s first means of screening applicants.

FIGURE 18-2 A, Job advertisement for a clinical chairside assistant. B, Advertisement for an administrative assistant describing the position and the type of dental practice. C, A job application for a dental hygienist with specific skill requirements listed.
FIGURE 18-3 A sample blind advertisement.

When composing a letter of application and a résumé, always remember that although first impressions are not necessarily the most accurate, they often are the most influential. A little more initiative is required of the applicant to construct a résumé than to pick up the telephone and call for an interview. The letter of application and the résumé give the prospective employer an opportunity to evaluate the applicant’s keyboarding skills, communication skills, and neatness.

Employment Agencies

Both free and private employment agencies are available. Most states provide an employment service, and applicants may register with this service at no charge.

Private employment agencies, which are service enterprises, provide many good job opportunities, but they do charge a fee. Before registering with an employment agency, always check its reputation. This can be done locally or through the National Employment Association in Washington, DC. In many states, dental healthcare providers have begun their own employment agencies; this type of firm is more likely to work with applicants with a dental background as determined by the agency’s screening processes. After selecting a reputable agency, the applicant should find out about testing and placement procedures.

Professional Organizations and Journals

Local dental societies and dental assistant organizations frequently maintain employment placement services. By checking your local telephone directory or the Internet, you can quickly establish contact with one of these organizations. State and national professional journals generally have a classified section devoted to job offerings for dental assistants. Many of these jobs offer unique opportunities and possibly even relocation. State and local dental associations often allow new graduates to publish their contact information in the association’s newsletter or journal free of charge.

Internet and World Wide Web

The Internet is a group of computers connected all over the world that allows people to communicate with each other. For example, on the Internet, you can obtain information about companies and dental offices worldwide.

If you are interested in working with a large dental manufacturing company or a dental school, you can use the Internet and the computer files of the World Wide Web to find information about them. Many major companies and dental schools post company profiles and employment opportunities on the Internet. More dental practices are using this method to seek potential employees. Many websites are available (e.g.,,, that can provide information for your job search or allow you to post your résumé.

Personal Networks

Networking is the process of identifying and establishing a group of acquaintances, friends, and relatives who can assist you in the job search process. This approach is one of the best strategies for finding a job. In fact, some studies have shown that as many as 80% of jobs are obtained through some form of networking. Friends, relatives, business associates, local dental assistant societies, dental associations, dental supply houses, and dental schools all offer myriad contacts; these contacts can then provide potential contacts in the profession, which may lead to a job opportunity. If a friend is leaving a job and knows that you are interested in the same area of dentistry and available to work, a good recommendation from him or her is always welcome.

How do you go about networking? If you have a part-time job or had a clinical rotation in an office or clinic while you were a student, let the dentist or other staff members know that you are ready for a full-time position. If these individuals know you are interested in a full-time job, they can talk with friends in the community about your skills and often can serve as an excellent reference for you. You may want to consider a social networking website such as Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, and others that provide an opportunity to interact with a network of friends, personal profiles, groups, and other professionals worldwide.

Preparing Employment Data

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Mar 21, 2015 | Posted by in General Dentistry | Comments Off on Planning and Managing Your Career Path
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