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Should I Look for Another Associate Job?

This is probably the number one question I get asked by young dentists.

So you’ve been working as an associate in an office for a while.  The job has its ups and downs like anything else.  But you’re starting to ask yourself the big question: “Do I have a future here?”  Whether you’re looking for a buy-in, buy-out, or just a steady paycheck, you eventually wonder if this is the place you should call home.

There are three criteria I use to evaluate an associate position.  Just remember “OMG: Office, Money, Growth”

(1) Office

The group of people that surround you at work have a significant impact on your mental and emotional well-being.  It’s a big deal if you find yourself surrounded by rude, back-stabbing, Debbie Downers.  Also, you have to wonder about the leadership of the owner that allow such a negative environment to exist.

The other measure of an office is the physical appearance.  There are a lot of practices out that year that could use a serious face lift.  I once worked in a place that was so outdated, I was embarrassed to bring new patients there.  It may sound superficial, but I think it is very important to invest money in the decor and technology.  It’s nice to walk into an office that has contemporary design, digital radiographs, and an operatory that isn’t older than you.

Questions to ask yourself about the office:

Do you have a positive working relationship with the other dentists in the practice?  Are the assistants, front desk, and hygienists cooperative or competitive?  Does the office have nice equipment or is even the most basic procedure challenging?

(2) Money

Well, this one is pretty obvious.  At the end of the day, you need to be paid well for your time and expertise.  I’ll talk about the different ways associates can get paid in another post.  But the bottom line is that you should be able to live comfortably and trust the owner.

Now “living comfortably” means different things to different people.  Someone who is single and lives in a small apartment has quite a different standard of living than a someone who is married with three kids and a mortgage.  In addition, the standard of living in Manhattan is quite different than that of rural Montana.  So to make sense of this, go to your dental society meetings and chat with other young dentists.   That is a surefire way to find out if you are being shortchanged.

Trusting the owner is also important.  I know several young dentists who have to go over their production and collection numbers with a fine tooth comb.  Make sure your payment arrangement is relatively simple to figure out.  If you need advanced calculus to figure out your pay stub, that’s a red flag.  Another red flag is if you frequently find discrepancies in your compensation.  Mistakes can and will happen, but frequent mistakes should raise an eyebrow.

Questions to ask yourself about money:

Are you able to support your lifestyle?  Do other young dentists get paid a lot more than you?  Are you promised a periodic bonus check based on production/collections that never seems to arrive?

(3) Growth

An often overlooked but crucial part of your compensation is your education.  No one graduates from dental school or residency with all of the answers.  No one.  Your first few years in practice will be an excellent learning experience.   You will get better and faster with procedures by simply doing the same procedures time and time again.

But if there are dentists in the practice who share their wisdom with you, your growth will be exponential.  If you couldn’t tell by the other posts on this website, I’m a nerd for dentistry.  I read books and articles on our profession for fun.  Big nerd.  But you can’t learn everything from the written word.  Attending lectures and hands on demonstrations are essential.  Even better than that is to have one-on-one face time with a mentor within your practice.

If you are learning about clinical dentistry and/or practice management from another dentist in your office, that can be worth a lot more than a fat paycheck.

Questions to ask yourself about growth:

Are you picking up good habits?  Is the business of running a practice becoming less of a mystery?  Do you have the ability to treatment plan more complex cases with a senior dentist?  Are you perfecting your craft or doing the same thing you did in school/residency?


If you are an associate in an office that meets all three criteria, congratulations.  That must be a great gig.  I’d say you should stick around.  Perhaps there’s one assistant you don’t care for.  Or perhaps you wish you had a little more money in your paycheck.  Yeah, nothing is perfect.  But don’t get hung up on the imperfections.  You are working in a great office and you should talk to the owners about your future with the practice.

If you are an associate in an office that meets none of the three criteria, get the heck out of Dodge.  Start looking for another opportunity immediately.  That may seem obvious to some of you, but I know many young dentists that stay in a bad associateship because they think they don’t have a choice.  But we always have a choice.  Get involved with your local dental society and ask around for job opportunities.  Check out craigslist.  Please don’t stay in a bad relationship just because you think you can’t do better.

If you are an associate in an office that meets some of the three criteria, then you have some thinking to do.  This is a very personal decision.  Maybe the office stinks and you’re learning nothing, but the paycheck is AMAZING.  Or perhaps your growth as a dentist is terrific and the paycheck is decent, but you are miserable every day because of office drama.  Write down the pros and cons using my categories as a guide, then make a decision.

If you are really stuck with a tough decision, feel free to contact me and I’ll be happy to give you some specific advice.

And please take advantage of the outstanding materials produced by the American Dental Association to aid young dentists in the first exciting years of practice.


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