Tips When Looking for a Dental Associate Position

By: Dr. Bri Torgerson

Navigating associate positions can be intimidating. If you’re like me, you can be confused and lost in the vastness of contracts and office nuances that exist for Associate Dentists.

I’m excited to walk you through everything I have come across in the many offices I have worked in.

I’ll expand on some things you should be looking out for as far as both red and green flags.

My First Dental Associate Position

My life after dental school has not been one that I would have ever forecasted for myself.

Before dental school, I worked for a dental office as a Treatment Plan and Benefits Coordinator.

I felt like I had found my dental home, so when I was offered a position as an Associate after graduation at the same office I was elated.

This plan had been put into place almost immediately after I even got into school.

I nurtured that relationship and continued shadowing and trading in vacations for trips to volunteer for them.

When I graduated, however, not all that glittered was gold. After 90 days, I was fired from my dream job.

I felt like I had lost the vision for my future and had no idea where to even begin on finding another job. I hadn’t job hunted in almost 6 years so it was a lot to take in.

Knowing When a Dental Associate Position is Not Right for You

The first thing I did was remind myself that I am not what happens to me. How people treat us is not a reflection of us, but a reflection of them.

If you ever find yourself in a position where you are doing your best, have actively made changes within yourself to correct what you are doing wrong in the situation, and are still banging your head against a wall – you need to move on.

There will be people and offices that are just not the right fit and no matter what you do, if it’s not right, it’s not right.

If you are going through or have been through a hard time with an office, you are not alone in this fight and I am genuinely sorry that you are going through a hard time.

I pray my story and the information I can share in this article can aid you in not only finding a new position, but also encourage you to give yourself some mercy and grace in finding an office and, inevitably, finding out who you are as a provider.

Knowing What to Look for in a Dental Associate Position

In the many offices I’ve been at, something that has remained the same is the standard I’ve set for my moral compass.

You need to decide what you can do and still be able to sleep at night. How you treat patients and the treatment you provide to them should not change between offices.

1. Technology

Some offices may be able to provide you with certain technologies to offer patients for different experiences, but that shouldn’t change your morals.

2. Honesty

To me, it is more important to find an office that is honest and forthcoming, that allows you to treatment plan with full autonomy than it is to find an office that has the newest tech.

You will be happier in the end. If you can find both; even better! 

3. Learn the Day-to-Day of the Office

Make sure you do a shadow day, not a working interview, a shadow day. This is important. You want to see how the owner and their staff operate day-to-day.

What does an actual day look like to them? How do they treat staff and what is expected of each member of the office?

Coming in for a day or two to shadow will give you a better idea of not only how the office works together and also how the owner or other associate dentist who is currently there, treatment plans, this is also important.

Why I Wish I Did a Shadow Day

I once drove 5 hours to meet a dentist and she was so nice. I took the temp job, worked with her, and saw her patients while she was there. The inevitable happened: I didn’t agree with her treatment plan.

Listen, this happens, dentistry is subjective and there are multiple ways to achieve the same goal. I know I am a more conservative dentist. I believe in maintaining healthy tooth structure and believe in preserving natural dentition as much as it is possible.

What I was not expecting was that she would be so offended that I didn’t do as she told me to do (she was upset I didn’t just do that treatment she planned instead of creating my own treatment plan for my new patients), and fired me after one week.

It was hard to do a shadow day because I lived 5 hours away, but I still wish I had done one.

I interviewed at an office once when I first moved to Florida. They wanted to do a working interview and, at the time, I had naively agreed. I showed up and found out that the owner wouldn’t even be there that day; she was moving that day.

I immediately made up an excuse and never bat an eye about it. Doing a working interview is only okay under the pretenses that you will be paid for the work you will be doing and ONLY if you have your license and malpractice insurance policy active.

Do not, I repeat, DO NOT work without your license or insurance!!

You worked hard for a decade to get to where you are, don’t blow it on someone who could clearly care less if you lose it immediately. 

4. Have Someone Review the Dental Associate Contract

Once you have shadowed, or done some per diem work, and you are interested in the office and the kind of work they do, have someone review the contract.

I had a lawyer review my contract once and I learned a lot from them enough to where I generally review my own now.

The first few times, I know it is expensive, but I would absolutely have someone take a look at it.

There are many things that we are not taught about the normalcy of certain terms and vocabulary that we aren’t familiar with that are best reviewed by the eyes of a professional. 

Don’t be afraid to ask them questions, either. Review the contract yourself, as well, even if you’re also having it reviewed by an attorney. Come prepared with notes in the margins and an open mind but write down non-negotiables.

My List of Non-Negotiables in Contracts

One non-negotiable for me is working four days a week versus five. I have a troubled past with my mental health and I value my time away from my craft.

It doesn’t mean I don’t work, I do social media work and content for igniteDDS, FIGS, and Cocofloss, and work on furthering my presence in the social media realm, and held a job at Orangetheory Fitness for years while working, as well.

I know what it’s like to feel burnt out and be unstable mentally and emotionally and I have found that I perform at my best when I work four days a week in a dental practice.

Some other non-negotiables include: being able to have full diagnostic autonomy, must provide health insurance, and not having pay withheld after a contract ends (yeah this happened to me at my first job after I lost it.

I had no guidance and blindly signed a contract that withheld $5,000 from my last paycheck in order to pay for redos for UP TO NINE MONTHS), a notice of longer than 45 days, paying for the majority of lab costs out-of-pocket, excepting HMO and Medicaid plans, and being paid on production versus collections.

I could go into specifics on why I have set these basic parameters for myself (and when I would be more lenient on some of these; HMO and Medicaid if you work for a government or VA/ hospital are pretty standard and very much okay) if you all want but for now I will leave these up as is as a generalization.

5. Have Another Dentist to Work With

Another big component of an associate job, for me, is to have another dentist to work with. I  thought I would love working alone but I realized I actually love working and collaborating with other dentists.

Dentistry is humbling and if you don’t show some humility, there is a rise before the fall. I did very well in school, so I thought I’d do well as a real-world dentist, too. Until I  didn’t.

I started extractions I couldn’t finish. I started root canals I couldn’t finish. I started esthetic cases that I hated. I have always thought I would be okay by myself as a new grad, but the reality is, I needed (and still love having) another dentist in the office.

I need a role model. I need guidance. I still do! I love hearing other dentists’ input. I love hearing about their creative ways to go about a complex treatment plan. I love seeing if they have any experience with a situation I am currently in.

You can learn so much from others and it’s absolutely okay and encouraged to have a mentor you know and trust. Not everyone is the same, some people really have thrived with little to no guidance and if that is you I really love that, but from most people who I have spoken to, they have found value in a mentor that is incomprehensible.

Learning does not stop when you get your diploma.

Private Practice vs. DSO

So now you may be wondering, “Okay, Dr. T, but should I work for a private practice or a DSO?  Which is better?”

I have worked in both private practices and DSOs and I can absolutely tell you that it does not matter which one you work for, what matters is the ownership and how that office is run.

The DSO I worked for allowed me to treatment plan how I see fit, gave my days off when I requested them, allowed me to work four days a week, gave me my non-negotiable items, and I had an office manager who respected me as a doctor at the practice which was a lot more than what I had received at the private offices I had been at.

This doesn’t mean private offices are bad. My point is that some offices are good for you and some are not – don’t be stubborn about what you will or won’t do.

I was so anti-DSO until it was the only office I actually felt was somewhere I could learn and grow as a dentist without judgment.

To me, it didn’t matter which one it was, what mattered was the fit.

I hope you have learned something from this month’s topic or at least that it may have sparked some curiosity in you about contracts, terms, associate positions, and DSO versus Private.

Photo by fauxels

Dr. Bri Torgerson

Dr. Bri Torgerson

Hi! I’m Dr. Bri Torgerson. I’m a General Dentist and I’ve had a long journey to dental school, through dental school, and life after dental school. I graduated from undergrad at Minnesota State University, Mankato in 2014 and dental school at The Herman Ostrow School of Dentistry of USC in 2020. I love my Faith, traveling, baking, cooking, volunteering, coffee, and being with my family including my basset hound, Wilbur. My favorite teams are the Minnesota Vikings, the St. Louis Blues, and the St. Louis Cardinals. A career goal I have is to do a mission trip once and year. One of my life goals, outside of my career, is to visit every National Park in the United States.