It’s been many years since I applied to dental school. I’ll admit that orthodontics wasn’t my career choice from youth onward! These days, we seem to groom our kids to decide on their career, athletic and social paths early on; I consider myself fortunate that I grew up in an era when we just tried a lot of things, failed at many, succeeded at a few, maybe managed to find something that we were relatively good at and then pressed on. But times are different now, and whether it be family, our profession or our practice, life seems a bit more programmed these days. Or at least we think it should be.
For instance, many people delay starting a family for fear of becoming too burdened, overwhelmed or financially stressed. We hear about people who “don’t want to bring a young’un into this world” because of one thing or another. Many adhere to a strict formula to make sure that the work–life–family balance stays in place. Waiting until their 30s or 40s to start a family is becoming more common for people who work outside of the home. I tried to strike a balance between the two, and will admit it has helped/forced me to stay and think young.
Career choices aren’t much different. I have parents of 8-year-olds asking me what they should do with their child who appears interested in becoming an orthodontist. When I tell them how I ended up in the profession, they decide that I may not be the person to guide their children on their path. (I may have told this story before, but it was my lab partner in physics who had a father who was a dentist. He suggested that I travel to his office one weekend to visit with them. Less than a year later, I was enrolled in dental school.)
Practice location and business are big decisions
Many orthodontists agonize for months, even years, deciding on the right location, the right building and sometimes the right practice partner. Many times, the selection works out perfectly. Often times, even though the choice may not have worked out as planned, a successful career still results.
Based on my experience, you need to be constantly on the lookout for change in economics, demographics and technology, and willing and able to chart a different course over your years in practice. Yes, your approach to the patients, neighborhood and families needs to be flexible within your comfort and personality profile. In the end, if you’re honest with yourself and your patients, you’ll be surrounded by patients like yourself and staff that shares your and your patients’ values.
Let’s talk about the current situation in education
This pertains not only to professions but also undergraduate degrees and even trade and technical schools. COVID-19 has exposed the nature of higher education like nothing before. What was seemingly a necessary element of passage and maturing is now being handled online for a good portion of students in college. Millennials and their younger counterparts, having grown up in front of a screen, are adapting to this change—probably much better than their parents or educators.
Even professional education, including dental and orthodontic programs, is being hampered. On-location experiences are being replaced with Zoom meetings, simulations, and professors and educators delivering their lectures from the safety of their own houses. We experienced this year’s AAO annual session in virtual time. This is all fine, but the cost curve doesn’t seem to be bending downward … yet.
I predict that a gradual change in the institution of higher learning is on the verge of appearing forever, even if COVID is cured. The student loan crisis was the stimulus that began to change the landscape and our perceptions. Now with excuses to not have to pay for the privilege of attending various facilities, we will witness a change in the business model of higher education. (This is not without the establishment giving it a fight and attempting to protect the status quo!)
It is incumbent upon all of us to reimagine how higher education is delivered to not only undergraduate students but also those pursuing advanced degrees. Heck, if we are on the verge of reimagining policing, I don’t think education will be far behind. Yes, there are those who, despite the benefits of research and invention, will claim that the facilities and system as we know it cannot change. I tend to agree, with qualifications.
As someone who continues to support my alma mater and appreciates the opportunity and privilege to teach, I don’t believe that education is doomed. However, before the past decade, would you have believed that Uber, Invisalign, Airbnb and other scalable businesses could disrupt previously untouchable institutions? If we are really interested in expanding markets, then education of not only orthodontists but also staff will need to get closer to home.
Looking to the future
I envision a day when universities and facilities will serve as the hub for advanced learning that will become more remote and distance-based, with mentorship-type programs conducted by the leaders in the field being offered to those enrolled. This is similar to how orthodontic education was carried out in the early 1900s.
Universities can also help with the frustrating lack of job seekers in the professions by expanding their offerings to supply support staff as well. (As we know, many support and team members in our field earn wages thousands of dollars more than many with four-year degrees.)
Don’t misinterpret these comments to minimize the value of higher education! I congratulate those of you who have put into place training manuals to make potential employees feel welcomed and proud to be in a profession where we touch so many lives and operate in a honest, clean and safe environment. The point is that expanded training beyond the typical high school education may be beneficial to our and other professions relying on interpersonal skills, critical thinking and technical expertise.
There are ample opportunities for the right personalities to become employed in various aspects of the orthodontic practice, whether it be in marketing the business, taking care of the patients or managing the results of our efforts.
To paraphrase Candace Owens during a recent podcast with Ben Shapiro: “I no longer plan; I just do what I’m good at.” So we may all work to advance the training of others to benefit our practice and the life of our patients.