Finding the Right Situation for You
by Dr. Wade I.
Like many dental students, I was obsessed with “getting through” dental school. Graduating was by far the top priority. The added strain of NERBS was a major concern, but I worked and studied hard, so I was confident that the boards were just another test that I would pass. Additional stressors that tormented my fellow dental students and I were the endless possibilities that lie ahead of us: Should I go into an associateship? Start from scratch? Enter a residency? Where exactly do I want to practice? It was absolutely overwhelming.
I had the good fortune of finding the answer to those questions very early in my dental career and, I must admit, it saved me from some major anxiety. Many of my colleagues, however, were not as lucky, and fell into some very unfortunate work situations. To avoid these pitfalls, I encourage you to start the planning process early.
Undergraduate college classes ended in May and so my wife and I decided to use the May to September timeframe to pick where we wanted to live. Having spousal support on where you are going to live is crucial. If your spouse isn’t happy with the area, you need to find another area. We traveled and stayed in different towns, and both agreed on central Pennsylvania as a great place for us to settle down. After that was decided, my next obstacle was to find a dentist interested in welcoming a new associate who would eventually be permitted to buy-in to the practice. I assure you this was not an easy task.
I began by sending letters to every dentist in the area I wished to work. My letter offered that I was about to begin dental school and that, upon my graduation, I was definitely moving to the area, thus I was looking for an opportunity. To my dismay, I only received one response. Even worse, I realized after only a few phone conversations that this opportunity was not going to work. My luck, however, was about to turn around. I received word from a friend that a dentist in the area was looking to retire.
When I finally spoke with the dentist, he informed me that he was starting to plan his retirement, although his actual retirement was several years away. He seemed to ask the right questions, I seemed to give the right answers. We began what I lovingly refer to as a “3-year dental courtship” of one another. I went to his office several times during school breaks to get a feel for his practice philosophy and how he interacted with his staff (I also had the opportunity to screen for NERB patients!). We had several dinners where both the doctor and I, and our spouses, got to know one another. Eventually we became very good friends. Once we were both satisfied that we could work well together, we began contract negotiations. Contract negotiations are truly the first test of a working friendship.
We agreed to hire the Blair, McGill, Hill Group as a transition mediator. After each draft of the contract was reviewed, the dentist and I sat down to discuss each phase of the contract. After some give and take on both sides, we eventually agreed to the terms of the contract. The contract negotiation took a full year. It was signed and in place prior to the NERB exam in April of my graduating year.
Our contract is very detailed, and for that I’m very happy. Everything is spelled out so there is no room for different interpretations. Any contract you agree to should be this way - leave no room for doubt or it could really cost you time and money. The Pennsylvania Dental Association (PDA) will review your contract and point out red flag areas that you need to be fully aware of before you sign. This review is a great benefit provided to PDA members.
Many of my colleagues began this process of figuring out what they wanted to do right after they took the NERB exam. Can you imagine entering into a working situation when you are not sure if you can get along with the other dentist and staff members? Some of my friends signed the first contract they were offered, with expansive restrictive covenants and no clear career path. These colleagues are now having a miserable time.
If you are going to begin practicing as an associate, my advice is to start planning early. Settle on a place to live, start searching for a practice, and then develop a friendship with a dentist to determine if he or she is someone you can practice with. With those parameters in place, the contract negotiations should go smoothly. Starting early also affords you the time and opportunity to go down several different paths so you can ensure that you find yourself a healthy and happy situation, which above all, is most important.