Tips from top dentists on dental school, leadership, and more

By Dr. Alisa Johnson

Dental school: “It’s a marathon, not a sprint”

It’s about working smart and being efficient, not just working hard. With the amount of material and courses, it’s important to develop a system to get and stay organized. At dental school orientation, the pace was likened to “drinking from a fire hose,” which can be daunting but is possible with good time management. Figure out your study style early on and always do as many relevant practice questions as you can find, old boards materials are a great resource for key topics. When you find study methods or strategies that work, stick with it but also remain flexible and open to new ideas or suggestions from others including friends, faculty, or mentors. Surround yourself with supportive people who will help you persevere and thrive.

Residency: “Focus on quality over quantity”

Choose a program based on the opportunities it offers in terms of procedures, patient population, and specialty programs if you plan on specializing. One doc shared, “Choosing a GPR for me was about medical complexity because I knew that’s what I wanted to focus my career on. People should pick programs where they can develop skills they’ll use forever.” It can be extremely beneficial to pursue an additional one to two years of GPR or AEGD experience to work more independently, yet still with some guidance to develop skills, speed, communication and treatment planning skills. It also takes time to master indirect vision and train your brain to work in the mirror. Don’t be afraid to try new things — materials, processes, and procedures — as much as possible to figure out what works best in your hands. Make the most out of your time by working under the direction of different faculty members or attendings to learn from their experiences, good and bad. Be prepared, but also recognize when you may need more guidance on a particular procedure or topic. One doc shared an important tip, “It’s more important to ask patients to close rather than open.” The takeaway here is to make sure to look at the big picture. What’s opposing the tooth? Is there enough space for the treatment you’re planning before you propose options to the patient?”

Along the same lines, a residency program offers a variety of experience and this exposure to different procedures and techniques can be good in determining if specializing is the right choice for you. Whether you decide to pursue a specialty, private practice, research, or work in a hospital or public health setting residency, training can develop your confidence and foster professional relationships that will positively impact your career moving forward.

Relationships matter, a lot, and networking is relationship building. Many opportunities exist for networking during dental school/residency and participating in dental society events, and conferences can be a great resource to connect with future colleagues and job opportunities. 

Associateships: “Stepping stones in dentistry”

Associate positions can be viewed as “stepping stones” and temporary positions for income while you pay off your debt, or can also be a foot in the door of a future partner or ownership opportunity.

Mentorship opportunities from a doctor who is patient, willing to share advice, and review cases is an asset and something to look out for when considering different options or offers.

Don’t rush the decision. It’s worth taking time to see if you and an employer are a good fit for each other before accepting a job. This can be done by spending time in the office to get to know firsthand the culture, staff dynamics, and how the office functions day-to-day to determine if this is a good fit for the wants and needs of yourself and the owner.

An important aspect of an associateship is the ability and opportunity to learn and build your skills in patient care, treatment techniques, and business. The dentist(s) should be open, honest, and willing to offer mentorship, especially if there is interest in a future buy-in or buy-out. Maintaining clear and consistent communication, verbally and in chart entries, helps foster a positive working relationship and benefits the doctors along with the team and patients.

Ownership/Leadership: “Leading the team by example”

Ownership is the financial part of owning a practice, including the structural building, equipment, and patient goodwill, and the management/planning for the financial success of that practice.

Leadership is the management of the people portion of the practice. You’ve heard of “Happy wife, happy life?” Well, a “Happy team, happy dentist, happy patients,” is what leadership means in a dental practice. It’s about hiring the team that reflects you and your image, how you treat, train, and coach your team. This ultimately relays into your patients’ experiences, their impression of the practice, and their referrals.

Leadership is setting standards and leading by example. Your team needs to know where they are going, and the dentist needs to have a direction and plan to do so. I’ve found that this has been the longest, most difficult thing that I have worked to improve throughout my entire career. It comes down to how you communicate and relate to people, and understanding how others want to be communicated with. It’s also about showing your respect and appreciation for your team in how you talk with them, as well as providing fair compensation.

Balancing career and family: “Surviving and thriving”

Work/life balance can be difficult, especially during different stages of your career. It can be a challenge logistics-wise to get married or start a family during dental school or residency. However, with determination and support, it’s definitely possible and a lot of fun. Working as an associate for several years can be a good fit early on for some docs, allowing you to leave at the end of the day without the stress of running a practice and business management tasks to worry about once at home. Remaining flexible while also setting boundaries so work commitments do not spill over into personal or family time can help maintain balance and quality of life.

It is important to manage time in such a way that you are able to be successful and reach your goals while prioritizing your own health and well-being. This includes self-care, which could be in the form of regular massages or setting aside time weekly to work out or visit with friends. You have to fill your tank before you can keep pouring into and caring for others.

Note: A special thank you to Dr. Tammy Perison, Dr. David Moore, Dr. Archana Johnson, Dr. Robinson Vega, and Dr. Ashleigh Maciejewski for their contributions.

Dr. Alisa Johnson graduated from the University of Rochester with a BS in Biology with Distinction in Research and a minor in business. She continued her education at the University at Buffalo School of Dental Medicine. Upon graduation in 2019, she completed a GPR training program at the Erie County Medical Center, where she broadened her skills in oral surgery and restorative dentistry. She enjoys many aspects of the profession and is a member of organized dentistry at the local and state level as well as the ADA. In her free time, Dr. Johnson enjoys traveling and spending quality time with her family and friends.

Note on photo: “Collected Advice” by awezmaz is licensed with CC BY-SA 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit

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