I considered writing this post about obtaining the ideal associateship. I quickly realized, though, that “ideal” is misleading and different for everyone. Our goal should be a successful associateship — one that creates success for both the associate and the practice. This looks different across the board, but in my experience in several different environments, the following have been keys to success — or causes of failure.
Begin with the end in mind. For many, your first job will not be your last job. For others, you may find your forever practice immediately. Either way, your discussions when entering an associateship should involve the end of your associateship, whether that is a buy-in to the practice or your exit from the practice for another opportunity. You need to have a clear understanding of how an exit would look if it occurred. Inquire about previous associates and ask how and why they left. This is not a bad thing and shouldn’t necessarily reflect poorly on the practice. If this is something that is discussed and understood, and both parties agree, there is nothing wrong with an associateship being your stepping stone to future ownership somewhere else or on your own.
If there is an opportunity for buy-in or buy-out, that path and timeline should be established in writing in the associate contract. Things could change, but if you truly feel the practice is one you will want to purchase, I encourage you to have a contract that outlines how that will occur. Some associateships won’t be the right fit, and an associateship is as much your opportunity to evaluate a practice as it is the practice’s opportunity to evaluate you. Think of it more as a dating–engagement–marriage scenario!
Continuing education is imperative. I learned more in my first four years of practice than I did in the entire four years of dental school, and my dental education was phenomenal. Dental school is not the end of your learning. Practice will teach you an immense amount, but you must continue your education. For me, this was a vital piece of an associateship. I wanted to not only be able to continue my education, but also be encouraged and supported to do so.
Continuing education can be costly, and you may have to take time out of the office to participate in a course. Weigh this into your compensation, and even negotiate a continuing education plan or stipend into your contract. Also, network, join study clubs, go to local meetings and get to know dentists outside of your office. This should be something your associateship encourages and supports.
Learn the business of dentistry. You will enter practice as a well-educated clinician. You will not enter practice with a true understanding of the business of dentistry. Finding an environment in which you can learn and understand the business of practice is imperative. Insurance claims, payroll, employee handbooks, scheduling for success, managing your search engine optimization and more — these are things that never entered my mind in dental school. Yet they’re all a part of my weekly routine in practice.
An environment that encouraged me to learn and take ownership in these items was vital for my growth. It is important that you know how an office operates and be given the opportunity to be involved in and learn the business to be truly successful. Not everyone wants to be part of the business of the practice, but how are you to know you are being compensated properly if you don’t even understand how money comes into and leaves the practice in which you are working? Explore these items early in your discussions.
Be flexible. To some, this may sound simple, but consider this: Your perfect associateship may not be just one. Most students look for a single, full-time opportunity when looking for an associate position, but think about stepping out of the box and exploring the idea that sometimes working two or even three places “part-time” may actually afford you more in all of the above facets and beyond. When you are in more than one environment regularly and you allow yourself to embrace that, you may actually learn more.
Dentists tend to live in their own bubbles in their offices, sometimes falling into the trap that their way is the best way to do something. This is human nature. But as a young dentist, I can honestly say that I have learned more by exposing myself to several different practice modalities (some simultaneously) and, more notably, I have been able to decipher what truly works for me in a practice.
~Dr. Becky Warnken, Marquette ’13
This blog post is the second in a series focused on career paths you can take after graduating dental school, as part of ASDA’s inaugural Career Week. Explore residency, specialties, associateships, buying a practice and non-traditional careers via webinars, blog posts and social media content all this week.
About Becky Warnken
Dr. Becky Warnken, Marquette '13, maintains a multi-location practice in Tampa, Florida. While she was a student at Marquette, she served as chapter president and was a member of the 2012-2013 ASDA board as the District 7 trustee. In 2015, she was chair of the National Leadership Conference Planning Committee. Becky is currently a member of the Florida Dental Association Committee on Continuing Education and Conventions and is the 2021 program chair for the Florida Dental Convention. She also serves on the Florida West Coast District Dental Association’s New Dentist Committee. When she is not practicing dentistry, she enjoys spending time outdoors with her husband and their two sons.