Escaping the Cult of Dentistry Part 2

In my last post I broached the oh-so-controversial topic of whether dentistry is like a cult or not, and luckily for me I didn’t even piss off any of those dentistry-loving dentists out there.  I was happy to see that it prompted some really good discussions from some of my fab readers.  I deliberately left my analogy open for interpretation because I was curious to see how you perceived that idea.  Just in case you didn’t really know what I meant by it, here you go:

Stereotypically, it’s very hard to get out of a cult.  It’s also very hard to get out of a career in dentistry.  That’s it.  I don’t think dentistry in itself is like a cult.  As some of you pointed out, there are too many different philosophies and schools of thought for it to be like a cult.  The analogy is in the fact that is hard to get out, plain and simple.

So why is it so hard to leave dentistry anyway?

Because we make it hard.

Here are 6 beliefs we create for ourselves that keep us stuck:

1)  We learn no other skills in school.  When we started out we were probably much more well-rounded in our life skill set, but after 4 years of eating, breathing, and sleeping dentistry, you get brainwashed into thinking it’s all you know.  On the surface, our skills aren’t transferable.  We can’t just pick up sales, or accounting, or even business management.  Instead we are stuck believing we have no place to go.  But how many people can be dentists?  If you can do this, you can do more than you realize.

2) We have made such a huge financial and time investment in our education and careers, that we feel obligated to stay with it.  No one wants to be a quitter.  Especially after such a huge commitment.  For me, I didn’t truly feel free to leave until I had paid off my student loans.  After that point, I figured I was “even”, and I could move on without any baggage weighing me down.  But I still worried about what others would think of my decision.  What will it take for you to feel like you’ve shed the extra baggage or the obligations to stay?  Is it paying off loans, your mortgage, or helping to get your kids through college?

3) Shame.  What would our parents say?  Our friends?  Our children?  (Our children would probably tell us to go for it!  Sometimes we can learn a thing or two from them.)  How about our patients or even our colleagues?  No one will understand how we could walk away from something so wonderful.  No one wants to look like a failure.  I worried about what everyone else thought, and what a waste of time and energy that was.  No one cares (okay, maybe your proud mother does.)  I learned that when you walk with confidence, others will join you in your happiness.  When you worry with fear and uncertainty, somehow people know it, and in their own way they worry for you too. 

4) The lifestyle.  In Confessions of a Recovering Tax Attorney, Amber mentioned the golden handcuffs that keep so many lawyers stuck in their jobs.  I would bet that is the #1 reason it is so hard for many to leave dentistry too.  We buy a house with a huge mortgage, lease the fancy car, and love our weekly sushi fix, not to mention a massage every week for our ailing backs.  Now we’re pigeonholed, needing to support this lifestyle with an equally well-paying job.  That certainly makes our list of options even more narrow.  Amber has some great advice of how she was able to downsize.  Also check out Lumi’s story on My White Coat is on Fire.  What’s important to you and what are you willing to sacrifice to get what you really want?  

5) Feeling gun-shy.  There’s not much else we can do that will pay well without having to spend a lot more money again on even more education.  I personally didn’t want to pay for another degree to find out I also didn’t like that career.  I did it once, and I was not willing to make that mistake again.  It was just easier to avoid the risk and stay where I was.  Find out what you are good out without the big tuition.  A career coach may be the right way to help you find out what you love.  Many people succeed without big degrees, and some time with a career coach is a lot cheaper than more school.  Who knows, you may find something worth going back to school for.

6) Man, I hate to say this one, but… some of us think we’re above everything else.  We would hate to wait tables or work in retail.  For some it is a snobby, elitist attitude, and for others they simply know they wouldn’t be satisfied doing those specific things.  We also know what it’s like to be your own boss.  We know what it’s like to feel special and respected in your job.  Sometimes, we think it’s not worth giving those things up because those things do create a lot of job satisfaction.  It just becomes another rationalization for why we should stay put.  You set high goals for yourself in the first place.  That’s how you became a dentist after all.  Why not set some more?  Or maybe set some small goals.  Find a new hobby or two.  Who knows where that will lead?

Realize that these 6 reasons don’t have to determine your outcome.  They are only beliefs that we have created for ourselves.  It might seem like dogma, but these perceptions are not absolute, unchangeable truths.  It can be easier said than done, but why not work towards what you truly want in life?  Change doesn’t have to be made all at once, but if you focus only on why you can’t change, you’ll never allow the new possibilities or opportunities to come into your life.  It’s easy to blame outside circumstances for keeping us stuck, but really we, ourselves, are responsible.

When you are truly ready (or just desperate enough,) you will find out that these beliefs don’t mean anything at all, and… poof, they’ll disappear.


30 thoughts on “Escaping the Cult of Dentistry Part 2

  1. I can empathize with point #2. In B-school, time was spent analyzing “opportunity cost” which boils down to choosing an option from alternatives that can provide the greatest return on your investment. The “return” depends on the individual. Is it money? Self-actualization? You may have elected back then to skip dental school to pursue a different track. The money you would’ve saved—and other income earned by choosing that different track—represent your opportunity cost. I commend you for sticking to your contract with your student loans instead of bailing out. You’re fortunate that your decisions have played out well. Good for you I say!

    1. Hey! I missed your comment, OB! How did that happen?? It’s funny to look back and imagine what that opportunity cost would have been. I guess I’ll never know, but I like think I’d be even. Thanks a bunch!

  2. I really enjoyed reading your post, LolaBees! Thank for including the link to Amber’ blog – her advice was fantastic. I too experienced some of those same messages and scripts in my previous job. One of my colleagues who had bought a multi-million dollar new house was talking to me about how “under-mortgaged” he had been until then. That was the first time I had ever heard that term, and I still think it’s classic golden handcuffs vocabulary. Even when we relocated to a much lower cost of living area, and moved into a VERY comfortable 3200 square foot house for two people, my husband’s business partner commented on what a “nice starter house” we had picked out for ourselves.
    Needless to say, we didn’t listen to any of it then or now, and at this point have zero consumer debt, and a substantial savings cushion that allowed my husband to start his own business very comfortably.
    No matter how pretty the handcuffs are, they still chafe just the same.

    1. Thanks, Lumi. I have never heard “undermortgaged” until now, but I did also have someone say my house was a nice “starter house.” I know you’ll agree with me when I say that freedom to make certain choices is much better than those golden handcuffs. What good are our possessions if they make us feel trapped? Hope you are well and enjoying your new job. Happy New Year!

  3. You know, I think I’m seeing the beginnings of a well written self-help book. These points are superbly illustrated and communicated, and they’re concise. Definitely, you talent has evolved over the last year.
    By the way, as is typical of your work, these points could be applied to many other fields as well.

    1. Thanks for the kind words. I keep toying with an idea like that… and then it goes nowhere! 😉 Very true… I think all of this could apply to any field. I guess work is work.

  4. Hi Lolabees,

    I just wanted to let you know that I found your blog very helpful and it gave me a better idea of dentistry. I think its a great profession and kudos to those who are able to stick it out. I am already a graduate and have a full time job but I always wondered if Dentistry was for me. I have been accepted into a Dentistry program but I am not sure if I will enjoy it. I dont really feel like putting myslef through all that course work if I dont have some sort of passion/interest in teeth.

    I do enjoy helping people and have an interest in biology but I dont know if Dentistry is right for me, I really dont want to make a commitment and be unhappy. So I am hoping I find my passion soon. Thank you for sharing your insights as I am seeing Dentistry from another perspective.

    I hope you continue on your amazing journey and keep posting:)

    1. Hi Matt,
      Glad you found the site! We never hear about this side of things when we’re talking to dentists, do we? I’m in the process of writing a pros and cons list about dentistry, so stay tuned and maybe it will help you even more. I agree– it’s not worth the time, energy, and expense of getting into the career if it’s not what you really what to do. THere are some really great things about it, but I think it has to be the right match for your personality, and hopefully your passion plays a big role. I wish you lots of luck and hope to hear from you again!

  5. That is why I went back and are about to finish my Masters in Social Work the jobs are endless. I love doing pedo hygiene but its so clicky and hard to get into a good office. I dont get paid as well as hygiene but I get vacations,retirement and benefits… which at my age is important!!

  6. Holy f****, It is like a cult, Why else would we go trought all that study and sufering that was dental school, I dont remember 1 person who was happy at dental school, at least not the ones taking it seriously, I mean yes, you have a lot more than dental school, like friends and stuff, but the actual proccess is not that great. And yet you dont see people leaving like other schools, cuz somehow dentistry manage to keep you in. I dont know why that is, even people who sucked at it still keep trying. I guess its what you say, we get brainwashed with only dental knowledge and skills.

    1. Haha! While one side of me knows it’s not like a cult, in many ways I really do think it is– all for the reasons you described. We just see that there is no way out, and we keep ourselves there. So maybe it’s a self-imposed cult.

  7. The truth is being a dentist and everything that you must endure to get there , be there ,and endure to get out of it is awful. It is a miserable existence for me , the possible money and lifestyle if you even get there nowadays it the ONLY thing that it might offer, and for me it just isn’t enough. That’s how if feels if you turn out to not be suited very well for it. And it is one of the most difficult professions to get out of especially is you are an owner in a group practice. When you get to the point that you just can’t stand your imprisonment one more minute, you can’t just give your two weeks notice and move on. Like people in other positions can do. No you need to find a locum, that could take months if you even find one. Your practice will be damaged by the transition, you have to get your practice appraised to sell it. By the time you sell it, it could take years. Your obligations to your partners remain. So yes, it is very difficult, distressful and miserable to get out. It’s like being held hostage with no way out until someone comes to save you.

  8. The practice has been on the market for a few months, but I am hopeful that all will work out in the end. 10 years of practice, I gave it my all, I was good to my patients but I had to come to terms now I have come to despise the work I do. It wasn’t always that way but circumstances and obstacles that I had to face early on inevitably lead to burnout… But being ready to let go took some time and I realized that all those years of studying and practice were not for nothing.. I have helped many people so it was not in vain, but I deserve to be happy..

    Once I am free I will take some time off to spend time with my kids, and I’ll figure out what to do. I know that I do not want a job with crushing liability and responsibility and impossible standards anymore. I don’t want a job that involves being around anxious nervous people as a main component. I will be debt free which makes choosing a new career so much easier because there is no longer going to be any financial distress. We can survive on my husbands income. I am willing to go from DR. to something perhaps seen as “Beneath” by some, but to me these jobs are enviable jobs because those people can breathe and can hang their hat at the door. We simply can’t. Dentistry come at too high a price financially, and takes it’s toll. I have met very few happy dentists. Most seem sad and overcompensate by bragging all of the time about how great their practice is going and how exciting dentistry is to hide how they actually feel about it. A chance at a new career at something completely different is such a blessing. I am so bored with teeth. Tired of trying to sell a service (most people do not think of it as healthcare) that people just don’t want to pay for or don’t care about. Terrible business model….

    So to answer, I don’t really know yet where my path will lead me, but for once in my life I am giving myself permission to not have everything figured out and I don’t have to have it all together for a change.

    1. I can relate everything you say… “I do not want a job with crushing liability and responsibility and impossible standards anymore. I don’t want a job that involves being around anxious nervous people as a main component. Tired of trying to sell a service (most people do not think of it as healthcare) that people just don’t want to pay for or don’t care about.” I felt the same way, but it took me a long time to come to terms with the fact that life didn’t need to filled with suffering in order to say we are contributing to the world or that we are successful. It’s just not true, and I commend you for seeing that.

      The best thing I ever did (okay, well not EVER, but you know…) was to leave dentistry. I had an idea of what I would do afterward, but while I do the new career, I am still exploring and dabbling in the different possibilities. It’s so freeing and actually a lot of fun. And it’s nice to not be stuck in a plan for once. I think you’ll really enjoy the next phase! You’ll have to keep me posted on what happens next! Congrats on taking the first steps!

      1. i’ve just found your blog, and i think i’ll stay up reading all your posts. my mind is blown. someone else who’s going through this!!!

  9. Hello Lolabees! I am a 20-year-old year 3 dental student in a 6-year BDS curriculum in Hong Kong. I am happy to stumble across your blog post and know that there was someone out there who experienced the same thing as I am doing right now. I have been struggling academically for the past 2 years every since the programme started. In recent 2 months, year 3 has begun. We are learning about endo, RPD and we have started seeing and treating patients since semester 2 of year 2. I have been quite depressed since the clinical sessions began. I feel like I do not really like or care about treating teeth anymore. I am not sure if it is the stress or the workload that has overwhelmed me, or I am just not interested in dentistry. Every day I go to school, it feels like a torture. I have to drag myself out of bed every morning. The stress has been eating away my happiness and physical and mental well-being. I don’t see myself doing this for my whole life. I am seriously thinking about quitting dental school and transfering to other subjects in my university.

    I have sought help from a professor in dental school, a senior student, some classmates and the school counsellor. None of them could really understand the desperate feelings I have. The counsellor encouraged me to explore myself in the following months and find out what I am truly interested in. Since I was 11 years old, I have always wanted to be a doctor. I did not score high enough to get into medical school, but I was glad that I was admitted into dental school and still have a chance to be a doctor. I am not sure about what I should do now.

    Could you share your experience of transitioning into a new career?

    Thank you!

    1. Hi! I always love to hear from people in other countries– what we experience with this is universal! You’re in a slightly different situation that I was in. I didn’t know I was unhappy in this career until a few years out of school. It sounds like if you are unhappy, that now is a good time to change . It’s never too late though even as it was in my case. I was 10 years into my career. It took a lot of time to make it happen and a lot of work. It was not easy. It’s true, others probably won’t understand what you’re going through unless they feel the same way, but I do think your counselor offers you great advice. I would find out what you like– if you don’t like dentistry, you might not like medicine either. I think they’re very similar fields. Maybe there is something else you like?? I have a lot of posts you might like that go into more detail of my career change. I can point you in that direction if you want to read more! Keep me posted on what you decide, or if you have other questions!

      1. Dear Lolabees,

        Thank you for your reply. I am so excited to hear from you.

        As I get on to the third month of year 3, the schedule seems to relax a bit. I have felt better as the time spent in school reduced. Last week, I have talked to my year director in dental school, and my teacher from primary school who has known me for 12 years. I have also discussed my problem with my sister. I have decided to try my best to cope with this adversity and just take it one week at a time. If I experience severe burnout or depression again, I will apply for taking a gap year. I have decided to take a break in case I could not take this anymore. My year director said that there was no previous student who have taken a year off since our dental school established, but it should be a possible option.

        Therefore, I have chosen to continue my dental studies as long as I could endure. When it gets too hard for me, I will take a gap year to take the time to explore my interests and to find my true passion. If I could continue my studies despite the difficulties, I will finish my BDS programme which will require 3 years and 10 months more. The reason for this is that I realised that I may be just not capable of handling the great difficulty in front of me so I want to escape dentistry. However, I have no idea where I want to run to. I know now that medicine probably is not for me if dentistry makes me miserable. I don’t know what else I could do if I don’t become a dentist.

        I have embarked on a self-exploratory journey to find out more about what I am passionate for. I know that I have a passion to help the others. I would like my job to be people-oriented, interactive and not just a boring office job. I like interacting with others, encouraging and cheering them up. Therefore, chatting with my patients is the thing I enjoy the most right now in clinical session.

        It is time for me to understand myself better and grow from this experience. I am grateful that I found out about this important matter in life when I am still young, so I still have time to take it step by step. I will learn to be patient and not rush to make my decision. I want to learn to take this responsibility for my life and not be influenced by my family, friends, teachers or any other people. I have been a people-pleaser for my whole life, making the whole process of finding a solution to this problem more difficult because I am easily influenced by other people’s opinion. I know that I am the one to live my own life, so I need to make decisions for myself, not for other people.

        In the coming Christmas, I will go travelling for half a month to do some soul- searching. Although exams will be in early January, I know that it is more important now to explore more about myself than just working my ass off for something I dread doing so much just to pass an exam.

        I will read your blog to know more about your journey. Thank you for sharing with us your experience. I am happy to find out about your blog. I will keep you updated about my journey.

        I wish you all the best.

        Year 3 dental student

        1. Beautiful! Just remember… you are not trapped in this, you have options, and you can make it work. If you decide to like dentistry, that’s great. If not, that’s okay too. It will be great, but it will take a different kind of hard work to get where you want to go. A tip I’d add is continue the self-exploration/hobbies while you are school. Who knows what you’ll learn about yourself that will open a door for you.

          I’m just curious… I love hearing from people all over the world who share our opinions on dentistry. If you don’t mind sharing, what country are you from?

        2. Thank you for your prompt reply. I am from Hong Kong, a coastal city in China. Hong Kong is a special administrative region of China. We have our own chief executive and government, but it is under the People’s Republic of China. You may google ” Homg Kong” to get a glimpse of how it looks like. Hong Kong is an international city. It is a densely populated place with 7 million people in 1104 km square.

          My school is the only university in Hong Kong which offers the dentistry programme.

  10. Dear lolabees
    I’ve been a dentist for almost 10 years now and have been toying with quitting for as long as I can remember. Not many dentists I know actually like it and all of them swear they would never put their kids through this. My problem is that I have yet to find something to move on to. I know I have given dentistry more than enough time to hook me in .. It never happened. Now I find myself just going through the motions not really caring.
    Its probably too much to ask but how did you go about deciding what you wanted to do next. Its like you said.. Dentist s are convinced we have no other skills whatsoever.

    1. Just noticing I never replied to you! So sorry. I think the 10 year mark is when you can finally say you’ve given it a good run and more time isn’t going to change anything for you. I think that’s the biggest problem for most of us is what you say… we don’t know what else we can do. It’s kind of ironic, considering we have skills that most of the world couldn’t do. But I guess our specialization gives us that tunnel vision. What did I do? I thought a lot. I sought help from a career coach, then eventually a therapist, and I tried to open my eyes to what was around me. I know it sounds a little general, but I experimented a little bit and dabbled with different ideas. Let me know how I can help with more ideas!

  11. One day i will write to you lolabees in detail felt so good to know that someone echoed my EXACT sentiments …ive often felt like an oddball in the presence of classmates and colleagues..For now, i have to get ready for the patients..

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s