Networking is Key for Dental Graduates

With dental school graduation in the rearview mirror, new paths filled with challenges and opportunities await. But where will those paths lead, and which one should you take? The first steps in a career journey can be scary, but networking with peers and finding a mentor for guidance can help graduates make beneficial career choices.

"From the time you start your fourth year you realize your time is limited to find a career" said Jessie Deffendall, DMD, recent gradute from the University of Louisville School of Dentistry

It’s May, and that means graduations are happening across the country. Students completing elementary school on up to varying levels of higher education are celebrating their accomplishments while simultaneously dealing with the anxiety of an uncertain next step.

It’s no different for dental school students as they prepare for life post-graduation. In fact, it can be downright scary.

“It’s pretty terrifying,” admits Jessie Deffendall, DMD, who graduated from the University of Louisville School of Dentistry in May 2017, and is now an associate dentist with Aspen Dental in Louisville. “We took our clinical licensing boards in April, but then you have that waiting period until your license comes in, until you’re able to practice. Sitting around for a couple of months is pretty scary when you don’t know what type of environment you’re going into.”


Deffendall started planning early. She began interviewing with Aspen in January 2017, which she says put her mind to ease a bit as she wrapped up her schooling. But even so, deciding on next steps is no easy decision.

“From the time you start your fourth year you realize your time is limited to find a career; to start working and paying back this burden of student loans,” Deffendall says. “We had 80 students from out of state and 40 students from in state, so the majority of us were questioning if we wanted to go back to our home state versus remaining in the dental community we created while attending school.”

And because different states require different licensure exams, there are multiple factors that can impact decision-making. For example, do you want to work for an established practice, or open your own? Deffendall says that while the decision varies from student to student, she felt she still had a lot to learn.


Deffendall says her school “did a great job laying the foundation, but I know that I had more to learn. What was really important to me was to find a mentor who was a phenomenal clinician, who wanted to teach, and wanted to take me under his or her wing.”

That’s an important piece of advice she has for all dental students—the most important thing coming out of dental school is deciding between a private practice or a DSO (Dental Service Organization). She credits her mentor, John Ihnen, DMD, owner of several practices in the Louisville area, with teaching her how a patient should be treated and how a practice should be run.

“Every day he emphasizes that if you just do the right thing by the patient every time you walk in a room, everything else will fall into place,” Deffendall says. “It’s easy to get caught up in numbers and metrics. But to hear the owner of my practice repeat that over and over, it puts everything else into perspective.”

Another reason for finding a good mentor, Deffendall says, is to supplement what is learned in dental school. For example, she came out of school lacking experience in certain procedures like oral surgery and tooth removal. As such, there were times when she felt “pretty terrified about what walks in the door and if you’re going to be able to handle it or not.”

Eight months later, Deffendall feels confident she can handle whatever comes her way.

“None of that would have been possible without my mentor,” she says.


One of the best pieces of advice Deffendall has for dental students is to network, and talk to like-minded people. She explains that while surrounded by classmates during dental school, not everyone has the same career goals. But through meetings, events and podcasts like those offered by the American Student Dental Association, or one of the many VIBE Sessions offered by Aspen Dental the benefits are significant.

Doing due diligence is critical, Deffendall says, because the last thing you want to do is find yourself in a situation where you’re unsatisfied personally and professionally.

“I had a couple friends contact me from my class who were dissatisfied in their current career situations,” she says. “They were in places that either they hadn’t looked at the books hard enough, or they just hadn’t really known what they were getting into when they signed on. And that really breaks my heart.”

Fortunately, that has not been the case for Deffendall.

“For a patient to walk in the door and be in pain, and to help them however we can, and have them return for a post-op appointment the following day smiling and being completely pain-free, there’s no better feeling in the world,” she says. “That’s the reason we got into this profession in the first place.”

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