Professional Identity Formation

By: Savannah Craig

Professional Identity Formation is a term I was unfamiliar with until it was brought up last week during my PGY-1 Orientation for my General Practice Residency program.

Many of us have a variety of identities (daughter, sister, aunt, son, brother, uncle, etc.), and becoming a dentist requires you to add a new identity to your list. For me, this meant replacing my long-standing identity as a dental student with a new identity as a dentist.

What is Professional Identity Formation?

The idea behind Professional Identity Formation is that new physicians and dentists are developing what it means to be a good doctor and how a doctor should behave.

I found relief in knowing that identity formation is a process, and it is normal to still feel unsteady in this identity. It is not like I woke up the morning after graduation and suddenly knew everything about being a dentist, and that’s a normal experience. 

One of the most challenging parts of Professional Identity Formation is that there is not one correct way to be a dentist. The expectations, experiences, and norms differ for various professionals depending on their training, their beliefs, and the environment they have chosen to practice.

Similarly, all your identities influence each other. The idea of intersectionality and identity comes into play in the formation of your professional identity. All your identities influence each other and shape who you are. 

Formation of Your Professional Identity as a New Dentist

The formation of a professional identity involves internalizing the behaviors, values, and shared beliefs of being a dentist. Having a professional identity is about belonging to a community and acting in the ways of your profession. Professional Identity is about who you are and is an active process of becoming a member of your profession.

Professionalism, on the other hand, is a more passive process where you learn what to do or not do to avoid consequences.

I like to think of the formation of your professional identity as a pyramid.

1. Knowlege

At the base of the pyramid is the knowledge of what a dentist should or should not do. I think the base of the pyramid is professionalism.

2. Competence

Throughout school, we become competent in knowing how to appear as a professional in the field of dentistry.

3. Performance

In clinic, we reach the 3rd level of identity development and begin to perform the behaviors of a dentist with faculty supervision.

4. Action

Currently, as a new graduate, I am in level 4 where I am demonstrating that I am a dentist and I know what being a dentist who practices with honesty and integrity means through my actions. 

Amended Version of Miller's Pyramid of Clinical Competence. Reprinted with permission from Wolters Kluwer Health, Inc.6

Miller’s Pyramid of Clinical Competence. Reprinted with permission from Wolters Kluwer Health, Inc.6

Form Strong Mentorships to Help Your Development

For this reason, I think it is crucial for new graduates to have strong mentorship and new experiences in their first year out of dental school.

Our identity as a dentist is slowly forming by looking to those around us who show us what being a dentist means and welcome us into this community.

While our identities are always changing, I think it is important to ponder what it means to hold the identity of a physician and what roles and responsibilities are associated with that title. 


  • Sarraf-Yazdi, S., Teo, .N., How, A.E.H. et al. A Scoping Review of Professional Identity Formation in Undergraduate Medical Education. J GEN INTERN MED 36, 3511–3521 (2021).
  •  Pathway to Professional Identity Formation: Report of the 2020-2021 AACP Student Affairs Standing Committee
  • Kristin K. Janke, Timothy J. Bloom, Eric G. Boyce, Jessica L. Johnson, Karen Kopacek, Teresa A. O’Sullivan, Heather M.W. Petrelli, David R. Steeb, Libby J. Ross

Photo by EVG Kowalievska

Savanah Craig

Savanah Craig

Savanah Craig is a graduate of Baldwin Wallace University with a Bachelor of Science Degree in Biology. She is currently a 2022 D.D.S. Candidate at The Ohio State University College of Dentistry. She will be pursuing a General Practice Residency in Columbia, SC following graduation. In her free time, Savanah enjoys reading, exploring new restaurants, and traveling.