Browse all articles

Advice on starting work as an associate

6 min
Two male students standing together talking and laughing

Starting your first job as an associate dentist can be daunting. Even though you’ve had years of training, it can sometimes feel like you have no 'real' experience.

In this blog, dentist Tilly Houston shares her experience of beginning work as an associate – from getting to know the practice to the importance of providing quality care.

When beginning your first job, there tends to be a big rush to start on the first day of September - but you don’t have to.

If you can manage financially for the first couple of weeks without having a job, give yourself time to shadow dentists where you’re going to work. Every dental practice runs differently, so having the opportunity to see how things work will give you a head start.

It’s often the simple things. For example, the computer software they used at my first practice was completely different to the software that was used where I did my foundation training.

I decided to spend three days at the practice, a couple of days shadowing, and one day to learn how the practice runs – including getting to grips with the computer software! This helped to remove any unnecessary stress on my first day, where I was facing lots of new patients, time pressures and an unfamiliar environment.

The more prepared you can be when it comes to this side of things, the better. Becoming familiar with the basics of how the practice runs is a really good thing.

Get to know the practice

It’s a good idea to spend some time familiarising yourself with the materials your practice uses. There are lots of tools you may be used to using, but they might have a different name.

I sometimes found that, in the stress of the moment, I would ask a nurse for something I’d used elsewhere and they didn’t understand what I meant. If you don’t know the name of the item you want, it can make an unfavourable impression on the patient.

So, open the cupboards, take a look and ask other dentists what they use. For example, what do they use to take impressions, or to glue on crowns? What sort of composites do they have? Ask them about the labs they send requests to, and turnaround times.

These are the little things you take for granted when you’re familiar with them, but not knowing can add another layer of unnecessary stress.

Looking back, I would have benefitted from spending a week in practice before I started, spending time shadowing and getting to grips with how the surgery worked. Even down to the chair, because every chair is different. And, if you know how to sit up and lie down the patient without pressing a million buttons, it makes you look like you’re in control.

Take your time

When I started, my principal recommended that for every two hours in my day, I schedule in a 15-minute gap to give me a little breathing space if I was late or I ran over. I found this so helpful.

The first few weeks are exhausting because everything is new. So, just having some breathing spaces in my diary helped to ease me in during those first few weeks.

Be prepared to feel tired

When you start any new job – whether you’re straight out of foundation training or you’re moving to a new surgery – you won’t be performing any treatments for the first two or three weeks. You will need to see your new patients to do a checkup in order to generate treatment(s).

Doing a checkup can be more exhausting than performing a treatment. This is because you’re talking, planning and trying to build rapport with a new person. Checkups require a lot of notes to be written, whereas when you perform a treatment, the notes are very quick.

You also have referrals to do. Those first few weeks are really exhausting, so prepare to feel tired. Everyone does, and it’s normal.

Prepare financially

Be sure to plan your finances. Your salary for foundation training will finish in July or August. Depending on how your practice works, if you start a job in September, you may not get paid until the very end of September. So, you’ll have a month where you’re not paid.

Also, you may get less than you were being paid in foundation training because you won’t have carried out many treatments. It’s important to prepare yourself financially, especially if you’re renting or moving to a new city with other bills to cover.

This is something I wish I’d known. If I had, I could have planned better and held back on treating myself that month. It all works out in the end, and you will start generating treatments. Everything stabilises, but that first month can be a bit of a shock to the system.

Aim for quality, not speed

Although I took things slowly, you sometimes feel like you have to hit your targets and be doing everything really quickly from the off. I wish I’d taken a couple of months to slow down and make sure I was doing everything properly.

You have the rest of your career to become quicker at doing a filling. The aim is not to be fast – the aim is to do it well. When you’ve gone from seeing four patients a day to seeing 24, it’s easy to concentrate on how quickly you can get it all done. Remember, the most important thing to concentrate on is the quality of care you’re providing.

By asking for 10 minutes extra for every checkup so you can spend a little more time speaking to someone, or 10 to 15 minutes for each filling, you can refine your skills and the quality of your treatment over time. Speed will come without even trying.

Get snappy

Another tip is to take photos of as much dentistry as you can, because you learn so much from looking back at photographs of the work you’ve done. When you take a photo and zoom in, you see so much that you didn’t notice in the moment. No-one is a harsher critic of your own work than yourself.

If you start to see the same things a few times, ask yourself why. That’s how you improve your skills more quickly. It’s something I’ve done more frequently over this last year, and I’ve noticed that I’ve learned a lot more from doing it.

Patients love it too. They can’t see what you’re doing, so if you say: "I’m going to take some photos and show you what we’ve been up to", you can share the photo at the end of the appointment and help them feel involved.

You need to make sure you store it on the practice software. You don’t technically need full written consent if it’s a back tooth because you can’t identify someone from it. However, you’ll need to ask the patient if it’s okay to photograph them, so you’re covered under GDPR. 

About the author
Tilly Houston profile
Tilly Houston

Associate Dentist

Tilly studied dentistry at the University of Bristol, graduating in 2020. She currently works full-time as an associate in two dental practices in the London area. Carrying out predominantly private care, she loves being a general dentist, but has also found a passion for ortho-restorative work.

You might be interested in...

Finishing university and starting work

In this blog, final year dental student, Hritik Jangra, shares their thoughts on finishing university and starting work as a foundation trainee dentist.

Life as a young dentist

Here, James Foster, who graduated from Birmingham Dental School in 2021, shares his experience of life as a young dental professional.