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Whether you’re about to start a dental residency or deliberating over pursuing a career in dentistry, there can be a lot of unknowns—from what a dental residency actually demands to what you’ll get out of it.
To get some real-world insight, we’ve spoken with three practicing dentists who survived three different residency programs.
- Rebekah Lucier, DMD from Tufts University School of Dental Medicine, also completed her endodontics residency at Tufts. Dr. Lucier joined Upper Valley Endodontics in 2013 and co-founded Pulp Nonfiction, an educational collaborative dedicated to the practical application of evidence-based endodontics techniques.
- Joe Vaughn, The University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Dentistry class of 2015. He completed a General Practice Residency at the University of Washington in 2016 and currently works full-time at a community health center in Seattle, WA.
- Pamela Maragliano-Muniz, DMD from Tufts University School of Dental Medicine, completed a prosthodontics residency at the UCLA School of Dentistry. Currently, she serves as Associate Clinical Professor at Tufts University School of Dental Medicine and maintains a private practice, Salem Dental Arts, in Massachusetts.
Below they shared their insights and tips on how to get the most out of your residency, as well as some guidance for dealing with student loans, building relationships, and achieving work-life balance during your dental residency.
Dental Residency Programs are All Different—Choose Yours Wisely
Similar to medical residencies, the length, structure, and hours of dental residencies can differ greatly across specialties, as well as between schools.
Dr. Maragliano-Muniz’s prosthodontics training at UCLA lasted for three years, and the program only accepted two or three residents per year. She took basic science classes in the first year, and all three included literature reviews, treatment planning sessions, treating patients, working in the lab, and teaching clinic sessions for the dental school.
It was not easy. She averaged 14-hour days, typically starting around 7:30 or 8 am and leaving by 10 pm. Some of her days even started as early as 6 am and went later than 10 pm. She often spent at least one weekend day in the lab. Despite what might strike the typical worker as grueling, she maintained that you get used to the hours and that it’s really not as bad as it sounds.
According to Dr. Lucier, endodontics residencies are similar in structure, including basic science classes, literature reviews, teaching, and clinical training. The residency lasts two or three years depending on the school.
At Tufts, the hours allowed many residents to also work as general dentists in the evenings or on weekends, Dr. Lucier said. Her days typically started with two hours of classes starting at 7 am followed by patient care, clinical, and didactic teaching of the undergraduate dental students, staffing of the emergency clinic, and additional coursework, depending on the day. On days without a teaching commitment in the evening, she worked as a general dentist until 7 or 8 p.m. or completed readings for literature reviews.
Dr. Vaughn, on the other hand, completed a one-year general practice residency, which looked more like a general medical residency. His dental residency was in a hospital setting and organized into a block rotation schedule, with each block lasting for a number of weeks or months. The six blocks were advanced general dentistry, in-patient on-call, pediatrics dentistry, anesthesia, oral & maxillofacial surgery, and the VA hospital. Being at a major hospital, his patients were primarily medically complex, and thus not fit to be treated in a private practice setting. Didactic lectures occurred only once per week, meaning the large majority of his time was spent in the clinic.
He said the hours were akin to typical working hours, 8 am to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. But he did have to get used to some early mornings on certain rotations, as anesthesia started at 6 am and oral surgery at 5 am.
Pay Down Your Student Loans During Your Dental Residency
Unlike medical residencies, which pay a salary, most dental residencies cost money. That can make juggling student loans even trickier for those extra years after you finish school and before starting to earn money.
Dr. Vaughn applied for forbearance during his dental residency program, so he didn’t make any student loan payments—however, interest did accrue on his loans during that year. In hindsight, he said he wished he had used an income-based repayment plan to continue making payments. In fact, he advocated for creating a workable budget in order to start paying off student loans as soon as possible. He also emphasized the importance of putting an emergency fund in place—preferably before residency—to cover the unexpected.
Dr. Maragliano-Muniz received a stipend for her UCLA residency and didn’t have to pay any tuition—but she still had an entire dental education from Tufts to pay off. In order to stay afloat financially, she worked as a dental hygienist in college and dental school, but deferred her loans through the three-year dental residency. However, deferring her loans did add an eye-opening amount of interest, she said. When she first started making payments, she had about $11,000 in interest to pay off before she could touch the principal of her loan.
After residency is over, new dentists can also consider refinancing their student loans, a move that saves DDS graduates who refinance with Earnest $59,980 on average.
Learn as Much as Possible During Your Dental Residency
Dr. Maragliano-Muniz assumed that her studiousness in dental school would prepare her for what was coming in her dental residency program, yet she was surprised to see how much more there was to learn. Her residency also instilled additional confidence and competence that she didn’t have right after dental school. During her residency program, she also learned how much she enjoyed teaching, and has continued to do that even now as a practicing dentist.
Similarly, Dr. Vaughn wasn’t expecting such a boost in confidence after just one year, but seeing the most complex cases and patients assured him that he’d be ready to tackle anything once he finished his dental residency.
Part of what helped him to develop this assuredness was embracing the unknown. When a fellow resident told him that the best learning moments were those that would make him feel like he was in over his head, he took it to heart. He now strongly encourages new residents to push through these situations by using what they do know.
According to Dr. Vaughn, one of the more important aspects of dental residency was “getting over your fears and maintaining confidence and composure.” He noted that young dentists only get better by putting themselves in unknown situations.
Learn From Everyone Involved in Your Dental Residency
Across the board, the dentists we spoke with noted the importance of building relationships and taking every opportunity to learn while in a dental residency program.
Dr. Lucier cited the opportunity to learn patient management skills from dental assistants and other support staff in the clinic; Dr. Maragliano-Muniz said dental assistants helped her prepare for the California board exam.
Dr. Vaughn recommended going out of the way to talk to teaching staff, and not just about clinical topics but also things like money management and career development. Dr. Lucier was particularly influenced by the passion of her instructors. “Their excitement for endodontics and their commitment to personal and professional excellence set the standard for [my] professional pursuits,” she said.
And then there are co-residents.
Dr. Maragliano-Muniz raved about her peers in her UCLA residency. Even a decade after graduating, those relationships are still active and provide her an extensive network of dentists where she can refer patients. She said they are close friends she can chat with about cases, practice ownership, and other work-related topics.
Dr. Vaughn also said his co-residents were an important part of the overall experience. Some of his favorite memories of residency were hiking and going on overnight trips to explore their “temporary home.”
Organize Your Time & Prioritize Self-Care
Dr. Lucier realized how valuable a “to-do list” can be during her residency. Without a list, she said, you end up letting things fall through the cracks. She said she still “lives and dies” by her list today as she’s juggling a private practice with a toddler at home.
Dr. Maragliano-Muniz emphasized the importance of staying on top of your health, including sleeping enough and eating well. She said better physical and mental health helped her to be a better student and doctor. She also said she cooked enough on weekends to last for more meals during the week, but would also often grab a quick dinner with co-residents. Getting outside and walking around at least once a day was important.
Dental Residency Takeaways
A dental residency program can cost you more time and money beyond dental school itself, but the dentists we spoke to have only good things to say about the additional skills they gained, the lifelong relationships they built, and the confidence that a dental residency program can offer new dentists. And while the cost of becoming a dentist can easily reach into the mid six-digits—Earnest data shows DDS graduates have a median $222,000 of student loan debt—smart money planning can make it work with income-based repayment and refinancing.