To Specialize or Not to Specialize?

If you're in dental school you face a question: Do I become a general dentist, or specialize? Here's a look at some key factors you should consider.

If you’re reading this site, chances are you’re a practicing dentist. You probably made the decision in dental school whether to become a general dentist or specialize in something like endodontics, periodontics, or radiology. But if you are a dental student, or if you really, really like school and are thinking of specializing, there are some factors you should consider.

Do you have the time?

Pursuing a specialty while you are a full-time dentist can be completely overwhelming, which is why many who chose not to specialize stick with that decision. Most education and training for those extra initials will take two to four years full-time, longer if you’re pursuing part-time certification and training, depending on the specialty chosen. If you’re early in your career, trying to build your practice, perhaps starting a family, that’s a lot on your plate. It can and has been done, and if you are really motivated to pursue a specialty, nothing should stop that pursuit. Just make sure you factor in all the demands on your time before you decide to seek additional training.

What are your interests and career goals?

Only you can know what’s most important to you, whether it’s establishing a long-term relationship with patients and their families, earning as much as you can as fast as you can, or any other career goal. If being a part of your local social fabric is most important to you, general dentistry is probably for you. If maximizing your earnings is most important, you may want to consider pursuing a specialty.

Although more recent statistics are hard to come by, the May 2011 Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that general dentists averaged $161,750 annually, although the highest salary topped out over $235,000 per year. Prosthodontists earned slightly less, on average, and orthodontists earned more, at $204,000 per year on average. Oral and maxillofacial surgeons reported the highest average annual salary, in the neighborhood of $217,000 per year.

What is the job satisfaction?

Income isn’t everything, of course. I spend some time perusing dental discussion boards, and one of the more common laments I often hear from specialists is that they are now performing the same procedures, over and over again, with little variety. They also sometimes miss the long-term relationships with patients that many dentists find so rewarding. For others, however, focusing on an aspect of dentistry that the really love has made their careers significantly more rewarding.

If you’re thinking of pursuing a specialty but aren’t sure, join some discussion groups or reach out through your social networks to try and get a better sense of what life is like on the other side of the fence.

What are the trends in your field?

Like any other healthcare profession, the field of dentistry is always changing. New techniques, advanced consumer products, and other factors are changing—and will always change—the dental services patients actually need. You understand this in the context of general dentistry; fewer children with cavities than a generation ago, for example. But there are other changes affecting specialty dentists, too, such as teeth whitening and straightening products that actually work quite well and may ultimately significantly reduce demand for certain dental services.

Before pursuing additional training, make sure you understand current trends in dentistry and can project some future trends, as they may have a big impact on whether, and where, you choose to specialize.