Transitioning to practice
Leaving dental school and venturing into the work world is a big step. Throw in a pandemic, and the shift forward becomes somewhat murky.
In such unprecedented times, Texas A&M College of Dentistry alumni offer insight, advice and options on how to tailor the transition, COVID or not.
During our 2020 graduates’ last semester, student leaders turned to Dr. Danette McNew ’88, adjunct assistant professor, for post-dental-school advice. Her mini-lecture, “A Small-Business Owner: Private Practice Responsibilities,” started out with the usual information but quickly turned to fielding questions based on COVID-19-fueled uncertainty. Stay-at-home/stay-safe orders had kept students from pursuing next moves more typical for graduating dental students.
“Apparently it’s tremendously scary because they are going through COVID-related implications, so they didn’t really have the opportunity to meet with dentists or go to our Dallas County Dental Society meetings or anything. They just felt so isolated,” says McNew, recipient of the college’s Excellence in Clinical Teaching Award in 2019. “I feel for them. It’s a crazy time.”
In the information session, McNew says she went over several more viable options adjusted to reflect the times. For example, she recommended delaying going into private practice unless graduates enter an associateship with an established practitioner. But even pursuing that may have its limitations for the time being.
“I explained to them, ‘How would they find an associateship right now if they don’t feel comfortable going out into public and meeting someone?’” says McNew, immediate past president of the Texas A&M College of Dentistry Alumni Association.
Dr. Aaron Crossley ’18, who just two short years ago completed the college’s orthodontic graduate program, says his transition was much easier because he was able to visit prospective associates’ offices. He hand delivered resumes, hoping to meet and connect with possible mentors. Had he graduated this year, however, it would have been another story, he says.
With that in mind, McNew offered these outside-the-box suggestions for recent graduates:
“This might be a good time to get into a temp agency” until we are past the pandemic, she says.
“Usually a temporary agency would need experienced dentists/hygienists to jump into a dental practice and pick up the slack. But at this time, the corporate and private practices are at a slower pace and that would be very conducive for a less-experienced dentist to get their hands active,” she says.
“I’m not a big corporate practice person, but I do know it has its advantages. And this may be a great time to be in corporate practice. It would have to be slower because of all the PPE controls as well as how we are working with patients to limit interaction in our offices. So what a great opportunity for a young dentist to start getting their hand skills refined with a corporate practice that already has patients,” she says.
Continuing education online
“I told this year’s graduates that this was a great opportunity to take advantage of online education and training. Many courses were free online during this time and professional venues were giving education away at no charge.”
When the timing is finally right and COVID is in the rearview mirror, both McNew and Crossley say they would highly recommend taking the route they did: Start out as an associate and then transition to private practice.
Crossley gives this advice for graduates mulling over their long-range, post-COVID goals:
He remembers literally doing the legwork early on. Once he had researched the best potential private practices, he called ahead to see if these practitioners were in the office. Then he did “the old-school thing.” He put on his best business casual and visited their offices, updated resume in hand. If the doctor was available, Crossley got the chance to introduce himself. If not, he left a resume behind. And it worked.
“The opportunity to eventually purchase Dr. Richard McFarland’s Flower Mound office literally fell into my lap. And the reason why is because I was willing to go out and introduce myself to doctors in person,” says Crossley, who began working as McFarland’s associate in spring 2018. “I don’t think enough can be said about the value of doing that. You need to be a people person in this field.”
While applying for jobs online was another avenue he explored, he says the in-person introductions made all the difference.
“I got an associate’s job that others wouldn’t have if they had only sent a resume digitally,” he says. “I believe, even considering the current pandemic, things are improving enough where a graduate could go in person to many offices wearing a mask to drop off a resume and potentially introduce themselves to the doctor.”
He shares another factor that greatly increases graduates’ chances for landing that plum position: Don’t underestimate the power of the dental school’s reputation, especially in Dallas.
Work as an associate
When McNew graduated, she says she worked three days a week at her father’s Dallas dental practice while readying her own in Rockwall. Once her new practice was ready, she transitioned to three days a week there. She also taught at the dental school twice a week. Years later, her dad closed his office and the two worked together again at her Rockwall practice until he retired.
Crossley says going to work as an associate first was the best decision, giving him insight into the day-to-day operations of a business. That stepping stone helped him transition to his own practice.
Buy an existing practice
Just two months before opening a new practice in Frisco, Crossley got an unexpected surprise. McFarland shared his plans to retire and offered to sell Crossley his practice. Despite never having that idea on his radar, Crossley agreed to buy McFarland’s practice even though he was nearing the grand opening of his new practice.
“My wife and I thought and prayed and talked to a lot of people about it and felt like we could do both. So I bought his practice in June 2019. My office in Frisco opened in August. It was an insanely busy and hectic time,” he says.
Crossley credits being on the same page with McFarland when it came to treatment approach, and he inherited a supportive staff with whom he had already established a great rapport. Should recent graduates ever consider buying an existing practice, Crossley says they should look for potential problems before making such a monumental decision.
“If you’re going to go into an office blind, you don’t know what types of liabilities, like old patient treatment plans you would have never agreed with. And staffing issues are the biggest issue I hear from other people,” he says. “If the doctor you’re taking over from treats completely differently than the way you treat, it’s going to be a really rough two years as you’re transitioning out of all those patients.”
Start a practice from scratch
If Crossley could have a do-over, perhaps it would be finding more time to work on marketing for his new practice. Hiring a consultant to decide the best approach—like mailers or which type of online advertising is most effective—would have been beneficial. But he ran out of time. That was definitely the downside of buying an existing location right before opening a new location. On the flip side, his Flower Mound staff was instrumental in helping him ready his new Frisco location in August 2019.
“If you want to start from scratch, I wouldn’t be scared to do it. I think it’s a little bit harder coming straight out of dental school. But for the residents in any specialty, or after a short time working as an associate, you get to the point where you feel very confident with what you do clinically. You’ve had a lot of business classes, too,” he says.
Hire a real estate broker
Choosing the right location for a new practice takes a lot of forethought and expert input. Crossley hired a real estate brokerage firm to find an area that was underserved for orthodontic treatment, had a good median income and relevant demographics that make for a successful business.
“For us, where we picked our spot in Frisco, it’s been unbelievable. Maybe half of our new patients are just drive-bys or they live really close to the office,” he says. “There’s basically two square miles of no orthodontists, which is unheard of in Frisco. So we just got lucky and got to go in there. Hiring the broker to help choose the right spot for us has been invaluable.”