Dentist

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Owen, 55

How did you become a dentist?

Some people know from birth what they want to be. Others, like Owen, were guided by positive role models and circumstance into the right career. He "didn't particularly fancy the idea of being stuck in a dark room with a pile of paper and a pen," so he studied dentistry. His family dentist [Neville] was friendly, "and there seemed to be worse things to do than be like Neville."

At that time, dentistry, veterinary science and medical students did first year together, covering chemistry, biology, anatomy and physiology. Heavy study loads and strict deadlines demanded a good memory and hard work, and gave graduates a sense of responsibility: "You would really prefer your dentist to have the attitude of, 'Yes, we can fix that now,' rather than, 'Sorry, it's too hard, can you come back next week?'" A good dentist also needs business nous and people skills, both for working with patients and with support staff.

What does training involve?

The five-year degree involved essential training at the dental hospital. "The only way to deal with someone throwing up while you're trying to make a denture is to have it happen to you," Owen chuckles. Outside experts would also come into classes to demonstrate practical skills, something which happens less these days due to funding cuts. But Owen says students today could work part-time for a dentist to gain this broader experience.

What options are available for work?

When Owen graduated, there were two options: "the school dental service, which everyone regarded as a joke, and private practice, where you simply looked for another dentist who would employ you." Then you'd buy into the practice, or set one up.

These days, public health dentistry has boomed, and is a highly regarded career choice. There's also been a gender shift, with over 55 percent of graduates being women now. Owen says women are more likely to accept public health sector positions in the long term, which has helped its expansion.

What are some of the pros and cons of the job? What is a dentist salary like?

Currently there's a dentist shortage, so it's easier to sustain your own practice. On the downside, you need expensive instruments to start and maintain a business - Owen points out, "A basic surgery equipment set-up costs $50,000, for example, and trendy tools like lasers are up to $100,000!"

Starting salaries are higher in private practice, and Owen finds working there less stressful. He also prefers the variety, doing cosmetic work like veneers and crowns as well as working on acute (medical) cases; though it's mainly routine cleans and check-ups, plus dentures, fillings and extractions.

What does a typical working day involve?

Earlier in his career, Owen spent time as an honorary dental officer at the local hospital, working at nights and weekends, "to help put people's broken jaws back together". Now he works around 35 hours a week, including some evenings and weekends, and also needs to do 20 hours of self-funded dental education annually to stay registered.

Each morning Owen reviews the patients he's seeing that day, checking their histories for possible problems. Then he'll take appointments, sometimes prioritising emergency work, such as children's sporting injuries. Some cases can be treated with education and counselling - like the man who had stripped the enamel from his teeth by constantly sipping sports drinks - while others need intervention, or support if repair isn't possible.

What sort of skills and qualities do you need?

Owen is enthusiastic about gum health, and also works with people with special dental needs, such as those with disabilities. He says the most important skills a dentist needs are listening skills and patience, plus a sense of responsibility: some patients will want something done that isn't in their best interests, even if it's profitable for the dentist. And his favourite task? "People would say I'm a sick puppy - it's making someone a really nice set of dentures," he laughs.

Find out more about this career path at myfuture.edu.au (new window) (Note: free registration is required to access the myfuture site).