Posted by Grace Chung
The “tooth” is, I never thought I’d end up where I am now – a second year dental student, mom, spouse of an active duty service member, and completely unsure of what path I’ll take in two years when I graduate with my degree. When I started out in the Army, I didn’t think much about where I’d be past my service obligation. I was young, newly married, eager to get paid, and kept my rule pretty simple: I’d stay in until it stopped getting fun.
I didn’t expect that fun to stop so soon – and the blame was not to be placed on the military at all. While I mostly enjoyed my jobs, I realized early on that sacrifices had to be made if you are sharing your life with another person. Although it was never really an option, I had many opportunities to assume more exciting positions or jobs with increasing responsibility, but only with the stipulation that my husband and I would spend some time apart. I was unwilling to do that any more after our first deployment apart, and therefore I spent my entire 6 years of active duty as a (great!) staff officer. Even before we had children, I knew in my heart that only one of us could continue on if we wanted to ensure that we, as a family, could move everywhere together. That being a priority of mine, I decided I needed a career switch at some point to better accommodate our lifestyle and family goals, so I started on the tortuous path of trying to discover what it is I was supposed to do with myself that I could a) enjoy, b) contribute to supporting our family, and c) follow our family from place to place as we PCS.
I think it’s safe to say that many military spouses come across a similar path at some point in their lives. And it’s a tough place to be when you feel like you have so much potential and gifts to offer but you may not be given the chance to use them when your future is so unpredictable. While I always knew being a stay-at-home-mom was certainly a viable (and totally ok!) option – I wanted to see if there was anything out there that I could at least try for to gain a skill set that could ultimately be valuable somewhere. I was in the healthcare services while in the Army, so I was fortunate to be in the company of many doctors, nurses, PA’s, physical therapists, and the like….and of all people I always dreaded going to as a child, it was the dentist that sold me.
The dental profession is HUGE – I had no idea just how big it is. In fact, I didn’t even realize that the person who cleaned my teeth (the hygienist) was a different person that did my fillings (the dentist), who was also different from the person who took my X-rays (the dental assistant). One of the ladies and spouses in my unit told me that she had been a dental assistant back in FT Carson and encouraged me to apply to dental school, with the notion that I could always still become a hygienist or an assistant if I didn’t get in. She also explained how dentistry was great for her family life because of the flexible schedule and the fact that you are really never on call, and she learned to be an assistant without any formal education but instead as “on-the-job” training (which later discovered is very common for many assistants across the country). A dentist I met in the Army concurred that it’s a fantastic profession for balancing family life, and much easier to transfer licensing from state to state than other medical professionals.
So I looked into it – and I liked what I saw. In my mind, it is like this well-kept secret of healthcare professions that is SO adaptable and DO-ABLE for anyone, especially those that may be moving around, that like working with and helping other people, and for those with families to consider. I looked into dental schools in the US and found several that are around major military installations, and discovered that many more schools offered dental hygiene programs, and even county community colleges held 1-year dental assisting programs to better facilitate the job-hunting process. While not every license transfers from state to state, I found that dentistry certificates are acquired within regions (so having a Northeast Regional Board license allows you to practice in most states along the eastern border of the US.)
A big selling point for a career in dentistry is that there are still a vast majority of private practices in this field, so getting a job as an associate dentist, hygienist, or assistant is not nearly as difficult as trying to fit yourself into a salaried position at a large hospital or even getting into the GS system. The GS system has its inherent complexities in terms of how long it takes to get into the system, and every new place you go to, there may be longer indoctrination period before you can even begin working. Most military installations are within a reasonable distance from a city that has its hospital to support the population. So even if you didn’t want to work in the GS system, you still have to apply to a large organization like a city hospital that still (I presume) takes a bit of time to get the process started. I know of some military spouses that have successfully landed jobs in hospitals around post, but I also know of many more who were denied the opportunity to work due to the short duration of their projected working time. On the contrary, I have spoken to several ladies who were hired as dental assistants just by writing letters to all the local private practice dentists in the area near their duty assignment, and because many of them gear their practices towards serving the military, they were often very well received and the job contract was much simpler – just between two people.
I am certainly not saying that it’s impossible or unfavorable even, to work as a civilian health care professional in a hospital setting – I just wanted to shed some light on a different healthcare career field that some may not have noticed because well, most try to avoid the dentist. And by the way, the number of people working in the dental world is expected to increase far faster than the average for all occupations through 2014 (according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics) – it’s a field that will continue to be in demand in the coming years.
So, do I have you hooked? Does this interest you at all? If so, keep reading. I’ll try to condense what I had researched a few years ago when I first began applying to dental schools. Hopefully this will help streamline some information for those who may consider this field of work.
A dental assistant does a lot and fills a variety of roles in a dental office. Some of these include preparing patients for dental procedures, ensuring that the office is sterilized, assisting the dentists during procedures by providing the tools and supplies, helping with oral health care instructions for the patients, and taking x-rays (with some formal education). Dental assistants generally earn a respectable salary, and they can find employment in almost any community. A dental assistant, just like any other job, is one based off experience – so the more places you work, sometimes, the better you are fit to work in another environment because you bring variety and knowledge to a new practice whenever you move.
The steps to becoming a dental assistant vary. Some people first volunteer at a dental office to shadow an assistant, and then learn “on the job”. Many community colleges offer a dental assisting program that can be 1 year long, or condensed into just a few months. In the end, most dental assistants choose to pursue an official certification from the Dental Assisting National Board (DANB) – this exam is accepted in 38 states as a qualifying certification to practice, and certainly helps boost your resume when transferring from state to state if applying for a private practice job. Passing this exam signifies that the dental assistant meets the highest level of professional competency for potential employers. You can take this exam after finishing a dental assistant certification course, or, for those with unaccredited training (on-the-job), you must have 2 years of work experience prior to being eligible to take the DANB.
Regulations vary from state to state, and some states recognize just a few subsections of the DANB exams for certification instead of the whole exam. Either way, certified dental assistants will undoubtedly receive a higher salary and probably can find jobs more easily, but it is not a mandatory certification to obtain to be a dental assistant.
For more information on becoming a dental assistant, you can visit these sites:
Becoming a dental hygienist in today’s world is an excellent option. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, dental hygienists will grow 36% by the year 2018 and is also one of the fastest growing occupations in the country. Dental hygienists are the folks that you see when you go in for a “cleaning”. They are experts at clearing your teeth of plaque, debris, and tarter, and they also administer cavity-prevention treatments. They are also responsible for providing hygiene home-care instructions for the patients, and they assist the dentist by helping to treat gum disease. They also are able to take x-rays and help the dentist by administering the diagnostic tests for the dentist’s evaluations. In some states, hygienists are allowed to administer anesthetics and even place temporary fillings for teeth.
To become a dental hygienist, you must complete an accredited dental hygiene program, and there are about 300 or so programs currently in the U.S. You must have at least a high school degree and submit college entrance test scores to become accepted (SATs / ACTs). Some schools require at least one year of college as well. Most programs will offer an associate’s degree upon completion of the program, but some offer certificate, bachelor, and even master’s degrees. Some schools vary, but my research showed that most programs were 2 years long (some offer a 3 year, less condensed program as well.)
The course work for a dental hygiene program is very thorough and not to be taken lightly – they include subjects that are holistic in medicine (like pharmacology and nutrition) and not just teeth-related. A dental hygienist is certainly a member of the clinical society of medicine and the wealth of knowledge and skills they have are most definitely respectable. With that said, it’s do-able! Most dental hygiene students I have met in my school are those that made career switches along the way, came back to school after staying at home for a while, or just wanted to try something new. Many juggle their dense school work with their family lives, and they all seem to do very well with the support of each other.
All dental hygienists must be licensed by their practicing state. Usually it’s a combination between a written and clinical examination (with the written part through the American Dental Association’s Joint Commission on National Dental Examinations, and the clinical portion run by the state or regional testing agencies). However, for the state requirements, many states fall under one regional test that covers several states. See below under “Dentist” for more on this.
For more information on becoming a dental hygienist, you can visit these sites:
Employment of dentists is also expected to grow by 21 percent from 2010 to 2020, just alongside the predicted growth of hygienists and assistants. The dentist is responsible for diagnosing and treating disease, injuries, and malformations of the teeth and mouth. A dentist can perform anything from simple cleans and fillings to complex surgical procedures in the oral cavity, and they can further specialize into fields to become orthodontists, oral maxillofacial surgeons, endodontists, periodontists, prosthodontists, radiologists, and several more.
The road to becoming a dentist can be a long one depending on where you are in your educational timeline, but it’s do-able at any phase of life and certainly if you are determined. All but one of the ~40 dental schools in the US are 4 years long, and most require at least a bachelor’s degree to apply. For all schools, an applicant must take the Dental Admissions Test, which covers basic sciences as well as math, reading comprehension, and a perceptual abilities test. The prerequisite coursework varies from school to school, but generally all schools require college courses in the sciences (biology, chemistry, etc.) with some requiring more advanced studies in anatomy or biochemistry.
Upon completion of dental school, you obtain either a D.D.S. (Doctor of Dental Surgery) or D.M.D. (Doctor of Medical Dentistry). In order to become certified, a dentist must pass the National Board exams, which is unique to dentists. However, like dental hygienists, they also have to take state or regional licensure exams to practice in that state. However, as I mentioned before, many states fall under the umbrella of a larger regional licensing requirement, so you may not necessarily have to re-take an exam every time you move. For example, the North East Regional Board (NERB) offers dental hygiene as well as licensing exams for dentists, and they cover 20 states, including some that aren’t even in the north east (Nevada and Hawaii are covered under the NERB!). This certainly makes it easy to move from state to state without necessarily having to re-take a licensing exam.
After obtaining your dental license, you are free to practice in any state with the exception of NY, which requires you to do a 1-year general practice residency at one of the very many hospitals that offer it. With this exception, there is no requirement to do a residency following dental school and many do graduate and then pursue work.
For more information on becoming a dentist, you can visit these sites:
For general information: http://www.dentalsite.com/dentists/densch.html
For information on the Dental Admissions Test: http://www.ada.org/dat.aspx
Any time one considers a change in career or decides to go back to school or work after staying at home for a while, it is extremely daunting and quite frankly, well – outright scary. There is a lot of information out there and on the websites that I have highlighted that are both very helpful, but also intimidating. Once you lay it out in front of you and create a checklist of all “things to do” prior to even applying to a program, it will be easy to turn the other way because you may think it’s impossible to even meet half the prerequisites. But, I will say first-hand, that anyone can come into this field – it is not just for young kids who knew they wanted to do this all their lives from childhood. And if you plan it just right, you can take some courses or apply to several programs across the country and work with your spouse’s assignment manager based off of where you got accepted. You’d be amazed to know that there were 12 dental schools that were within reasonable driving distance from military posts throughout the country that I applied to that were around places like FT Lewis, FT Carson, FT Knox, FT Meade, FT Sam Houston, FT Rucker, FT Bragg, FT Irwin, and that’s just to name a few. There are many, many more schools offering hygiene, and countless community programs for dental assisting.
Also, the military offers some great benefits that spouses can enjoy while being full time students. The Post-9/11 GI bill has been a tremendous help for us in financing my education, and with my husband’s orders to FT Meade, I automatically became a Maryland resident and thus qualify for in-state tuition. Another great resource that really helped my family was childcare subsidy for finding off-post childcare and fee assistance. National Association of Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies (NACCRRA) helps military families find and afford child care that suits their needs. Through the fee assistance program, families are eligible to receive a monthly subsidy to help offset the cost of childcare in their communities. If you are a military spouse and a full time student, you are eligible. Please go to this link for further information: http://www.naccrra.org/military-families.
Finally, I must add that considering a field of dentistry is hard work. It is not easy material to learn, and if you’re like me and didn’t particularly love science in high school, the coursework will be hard. But what you, the military spouse, must realize is that you are stronger than most other creatures on this planet. I have been in the company of spouses who keep their families together strong and united, survive deployment after deployment, go through the packing and unpacking, transferring schools, and adjusting to life overseas as quickly as they do coming back. And I admire you and am honored to be one, too. Nothing is harder than doing what you do every day or right now – and please remember that when you decide you want to challenge yourself to pursue a career that will ultimately, in the end, be a piece of cake.
Comment by Ashton Peterson on June 23, 2012 at 9:05pm
What school is near ft irwin? I have been looking and can not find anything.
Comment by Grace Chung on April 5, 2012 at 7:12pm
Hi Katharine! Thanks for reading it and offering comments I did have to do my first year of school away from my husband, and he joined me right before I started second year for his 3 year duty here in Maryland. So, yes, I see it may be tricky to get a solid 4 years out of the Army unless you’re at a big place like FT Bragg or Hood where some people can move around jobs within the post. But, as a backup, I did see that many schools do let you transfer and it made me feel better going into this. I just started a Dental group if you want to join, and we can further our discussion there if you’re interested. Also, I’m working on a Part II version of my post specifically geared towards applying to dental school, so let me know if you have any specific questions you’d like to see addressed there. Look forward to chatting with you some more!
Comment by Katharine Leming on April 5, 2012 at 11:59am
Grace, Great post! I would love to do something like this, but I don’t know if the Army can support me being in the same place for 4 years in a row for dental school. Do you have a plan “b” for an unexpected transfer to Ft. Drum or other sufficiently rural post that does not have a dental school within a 1.5-hour radius? Is there a residency requirement after dental school?