Mentoring new dental graduates

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mentoring new dental graduates
Photography: Elnur-123RF

Mentoring is high on the agenda as a key job requirement for new graduates looking for their starting point in the dental profession. By John Burfitt

It’s that time of year when the dental landscape is busy with new graduates leaving student life behind them to become professional dentists, doing the rounds as they hunt for their first role.

There’s a number of key factors on the job agenda, with location, salary, size of practice, public versus private and future opportunities all high on the list.

But there’s one factor that for many graduates overrides the others, considered to be essential as they make their first move. 

“Mentoring is what everyone is talking about right now, and that seems to be the same every year with graduates as they move into the workforce,” Annie Johnson, president of the Sydney University Dental Association, says.

“Among my colleagues, mentoring in the first job is one of the biggest things we are looking for, and is up there with salary and location. Actually, for many people, it’s at the top of the list as they consider it so important.”

It’s a point echoed by Dr Stephen Liew, the former chair of the ADA’s National Recent Graduates Advisory Panel. He says there has been increasing focus on mentoring among new graduates in recent years, as they recognise the difference it can make in smoothing the path between the knowledge gleaned at dental school and the reality of working in a practice.

“Mentoring is seen as an important part of new graduates’ arsenal of tools,” Dr Liew says. “It’s something graduates will be upfront about and will want to discuss when they go for a job.

“Anecdotal evidence states if a young dentist has a strong person who can help guide them in those tentative first steps, then they can avoid developing bad habits or getting into the wrong situations by knowing someone is there as a back-up.”

Mentoring is defined by the US company Management Mentor as: “A professional relationship in which an experienced person (the mentor) assists another (the mentee) in developing specific skills and knowledge that will enhance the less experienced person’s professional and personal growth.” 

Among my colleagues, mentoring in the first job is one of the biggest things we are looking for, and is up there with salary and location. Actually, for many people, it’s at the top of the list as they consider it so important.

Annie Johnson, president, Sydney University Dental Association

As the millennial generation continue to make their mark on the dental landscape, they want to ensure they have support as they do so.

“Dental school teaches what you need to know to work as a dentist, but we don’t learn the critical skills of what it’s like to integrate all of that and use it with real people,” Johnson says.

“Having a mentor is a way to bridge that gap and have someone guide you through the process rather than diving in the deep end and hoping for the best.”

In recent job interviews, Johnson found the issue of mentorship seemed split into two approaches—either highly-structured programs offering regular supervision and coaching meetings, or casual plans offering assistance when required. 

In 2021, BUPA introduced a mentorship program connecting mentees with experienced mentors, which included scheduling monthly meetings to, among other things, share details of case studies the mentee had questions about.

Dr Kavita Lobo, BUPA’s clinical director, says the new system was essential for graduates after the upheavals of the past 12 months.

“The need for mentorship has really been exacerbated with COVID, which interrupted some in-person teaching in dentistry schools,” Dr Lobo says. “Graduates told us about how the interruptions in the final year of clinical education impacted their confidence on entering the workforce. 

“Mentors are going to be playing a bigger role as new grads start in practices, having possibly had less in-person practice because of COVID restrictions.”

Part of the BUPA program was also providing mentors with specific training to assist in the development of their leadership skills. “Having a supportive network around you makes such a difference,” Dr Lobo adds.

Anecdotal evidence states if a young dentist has a strong person who can help guide them in those tentative first steps, then they can avoid developing bad habits or getting into the wrong situations by knowing someone is there as a back-up.

Dr Stephen Liew, former chair, National Recent Graduates Advisory Panel (ADA)

According to Dr Stephen Liew, some senior dentists admit being intimidated by taking on a mentorship role due to the fear they may not be doing it properly.

“As a mentor, your role is to listen, take on board what your mentee is saying, create an environment of trust and offer tips that can lead them in the right direction,” he says.

“The most important thing is to listen and not speak unless you can offer value to the conversation. If you just pour out your own beliefs, then you’re not really fulfilling the role.”

He also says there’s no place in mentoring for playing power games of pitting years of experience against a newcomer. “Never treat the mentee like an inferior person of the profession,” he says. “You need to change the dynamic to be a unique friendship where you both feel comfortable and know you have established a trust between you.”

Dr Alistair Graham of Sydney’s Mona Vale Dental has mentored many dentists in the 25 years since he graduated from Bristol University in the UK. He believes mentoring should always be approached as a two-way street.

“When you’re mentoring a new dentist by explaining various processes and procedures, what you’re also doing is reminding yourself of the way you work and why you work that way,” he says. “This is a brilliant opportunity for self-reflection and to find the gaps in your knowledge and the areas where you may need to upskill.

“It’s important to also be open to new ways of working, and by seeing a process through the mentee’s eyes, you may both discover a better way of working. It’s always hugely rewarding to see a young dentist develop their skills and become more confident, but you may become a better dentist in your own right in the process.”

As the search for her first job continues, Annie Johnson reveals the best advice she’s been given about finding the right mentor is establishing a connection that works for both sides.

“I’ve been told the biggest thing is to have a mentor I can chat with and get along well enough with so I feel okay to check in and ask questions,” she says.

“At the end of the day, anyone can tell me how to do a filling, but what counts is how they tell me that.”  

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