Finding your perfect match as an associate

Photo of Kaylee Salesky, D.D.S.

Blogger Kaylee Salesky, D.D.S., is a 2021 graduate of the University of Washington School of Dentistry, where she was president of the American Student Dental Association. She now practices as a general dentist in her hometown of Kennewick, Washington. She recently became a practice owner of Henager Black Salesky Dentistry.

There is no better feeling or accomplishment than finishing dental school. We all work tirelessly for hours a day just so we can make it to “the good side” or the days of working as a “real” dentist. But is working as a “real” dentist truly “the good side” when you land yourself a horrible associateship?

When I started looking for my position, I greatly feared that I would be taken advantage of, get hired to do hygiene, feel overworked, and/or that I wouldn’t make enough money to pay my bills. What I ended up finding was quite the opposite. In fact, I found a practice that was such a good match and supported me so much that I became a partner just shy of working for one year (and this was with a simple associate contract that had no written intent to buy in). It’s because of this success that I feel obligated to share what helped me find my perfect match. As they say on TikTok, happy new dentists “don’t gatekeep.” Here are my top five tips to successful happiness as a new grad dentist.

1. Research the office.

This seems like a no-brainer; however, it is crucial, and it needs to be done in a strategic way. Look up their Google reviews, ask the nearby dental colleagues for input, talk to past and present employees about their experiences there, etc. Avoid making judgment on websites, social media presence or office decor. These are all things that can eventually be changed. This may even be to your advantage if you feel that you can market yourself as someone who can modernize the practice. I was drawn to my office because I consistently heard of the two doctors’ incredible reputation and how proud their patients were to be seen there. Also, there’s a wine cellar in our office, so I was already convinced. Do your research.

2. Get to know the doctor(s).

This can actually be simpler than what people think. I met the doctors I work with now once at a state dental meeting and once for an interview. Those interactions were enough to get the right information about who they were and what their priorities were as both providers and bosses. Things to listen for are what qualities they’re looking for in a new doctor, the mission of their practice, history of past associates/partners and future practice goals. Big selling factors for me were the doctors’ loyalty to each other and their practice (both had only ever practiced there and had been partners for over 28 years), high-quality dentistry was a requirement, their involvement in organized dentistry, they only had one previous associate, and they expressed their desire to mentor me. Write down your priorities for a practice and make sure your future place of employment has the same. A secret tip I have for people who want mentorship in their associateship is to consider how the office is set up. Our computers are all in the same little office, which makes it so easy for me to ask questions, collaborate on treatment plans and force my friendship on the other doctors. Easy access to your mentor doctor is key.

3. Why a new associate?

Why is the office looking for a new doctor? The most important question. If a practice needs a new doctor because they have gotten busier, have they had an associate before? If not, how many patients are on their waitlist? No waitlist and/or the doctor continuing the same hours are red flags. Something else to consider is if a practice has had several associates leave before being there for two years or more, why did those fail? If those associates are practicing in the area and did not move many miles or even cities away to practice, then that is a red flag. Look for the practices that have a doctor who is retiring soon (a set date is the smartest way to do that), have history of associates working for many years, have intentions of bringing you on to eventually buy in (also smart to have this dated), and have a history of loyalty to both their staff and their previous doctor partners. History repeats itself. Make sure the practice shows a history you could see as your future.

4. Evaluate diagnosing, treatment plans and systems in the practice.

It’s often because of disagreement on treatment planning that many associateships fail. It is very difficult to practice with someone who is either more conservative or more aggressive than you. Some ways to evaluate this are asking doctors their philosophies on MOD composites versus crowns (or how they decide between the two), crowns versus onlays, when they consider treatment planning a Class V filling, or any other topic that comes with discussion. Some dentists may have you come in and do an example treatment plan for them to see if you align. If there’s a way to compare diagnosing before committing, I highly recommend it.

5. What is the five-year plan for the office?

What is the future of the practice? Future hopes and plans are what drove the doctor to look for a new doctor. Find out what those are. Do they align with yours? Make sure when you go to an interview that you are also prepared with your five-year plan. Know if you want to be an associate or if you plan to own, what type of procedures you are willing to do or not do, what type of continuing education you want to invest in, etc. As a new grad, it’s easy to be swayed into ventures or experiences you don’t feel comfortable doing because you don’t feel qualified enough to make demands. Even though I feel strongly that this is the time to challenge yourself, you still deserve to have standards and expectations. Come up with a list of things you require, things you can compromise on and things that are absolutely off-limits for you. For me, I required that I would be allowed to do Botox/fillers, I would compromise and do root canals if I needed to, and doing hygiene was absolutely off-limits. Make your list and stick to it.

Becoming a dentist is a dream come true. Unfortunately, it’s situations like bad associateships that can turn that dream into a nightmare. I hope these tips help you find the perfect match and keep your big dreams alive.

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