Studying postgraduate dentistry

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postgraduate dentistry
photography: Katarzyna Białasiewicz – 123RF

Considering going back to uni? Here’s what you need to know about studying postgraduate dentistry and what it means for your future career. By Angela Tufvesson

So you want to be an orthodontist, periodontist or oral surgeon. Or you’re keen to pursue specialisation in endodontics, paediatric or special needs dentistry. Perhaps you’re drawn to a dentistry career in academia or public health. The common thread to get you there? Postgraduate study.

Drilling down

Dentists with at least two years of experience in general practice can apply to study a three-year Doctor of Clinical Dentistry to specialise in areas like oral medicine, paediatric dentistry and orthodontics. There’s also the opportunity to earn graduate certificates or diplomas in niche areas like oral implants or forensic odontology, which typically have a shorter time commitment.

A research-based doctorate or masters qualification in public health or business administration can be a good fit for practitioners keen to transition out of clinical dentistry to roles in academia, industry or government. 

Clinical doctorates are the most popular mode of postgraduate study among dentists—but the raw numbers are small, says Professor Heiko Spallek, head of school and dean at The University of Sydney School of Dentistry; “In Australia, about three to five per cent of dental graduates are coming from specialist programs.” 

As such, admissions are competitive and an impressive résumé matters. Completing an honours degree, undertaking continuing professional development (CPD) and participating in professional activities outside clinical practice can help to boost applicants’ chances of acceptance. 

“For our oral surgery program this year, for example, we had 50 applications—and we take only three students,” says Professor Spallek. “Running these programs is extremely complicated in the sense that you need to be a fairly prestigious university to attract the academics to run them.”

And the hard work isn’t over once you’re accepted into a program. Perhaps unsurprisingly, postgraduate study is intense and requires serious commitment. “It’s much more rigorous [than undergraduate study],” says Dr Jenny Ball, chair of the Australian Dental Association’s Dental Education & Training Committee. “It’s a very different way of studying compared to general dental study.”

Indulging your passion

Let it be said: postgraduate study is good financially. “Generally, specialists are better remunerated,” says Associate Professor Toby Hughes, postgraduate coordinator at Adelaide Dental School at The University of Adelaide.

But more money isn’t the primary reason most dentists choose to undertake postgraduate study. A more compelling draw is intellectual curiosity and a passion for the area of specialty.  

A lot of dentists specialise because they’re interested in a particular area from an intellectual stimulation perspective. If you’re looking for a new challenge mentally, clinical specialisation can be quite attractive.

A/Prof Toby Hughes, postgraduate coordinator, Adelaide Dental School 

“A lot of dentists specialise because they’re interested in a particular area from an intellectual stimulation perspective,” says A/Prof Hughes. “If you’re looking for a new challenge mentally, clinical specialisation can be quite attractive.”

Dr Ball agrees: “Specialisation allows you to focus on a particular area of dentistry that you’re passionate about. It allows the dentist to gain a more detailed knowledge, understanding and expertise in the one area.”

Indeed, a study by The University of Adelaide published this year in the journal Heliyon found “passion for the specialty and intellectual stimulation” were the main reasons dentists undertaking postgraduate study in Australian and New Zealand universities chose to specialise. An estimated 85 per cent of students planned to work in private practice after graduation, with orthodontics the most popular specialty by a considerable margin. 

Professor Spallek says many prospective specialists also value the opportunity to collaborate much more with other dentists. “If you’re a specialist, you’re depending on referrals from other dentists, and you’ll need to work with them,” he says. “That communication and interaction with peers is more part of your job when you’re a specialist compared to a general dentist where you’re more working with just your patients.”

Finding your match

Postgraduate courses don’t come cheap, not to mention the considerable time commitment and income potential that’s lost while you’re studying. Even if you think you’re set on specialising, A/Prof Hughes recommends using the time working in general practice to hone your interests. 

“Some people have a very clear focus on where they want to go right from the start, while others tend to come to it through experience,” he says. “Really think about what you enjoy about working as a general dental practitioner, then start to do a bit of research into that area. Think about your interactions with patients and talk to other members of the profession about what motivated them to get into the particular specialisation.”

Once you’ve refined your choice, Professor Spallek suggests taking a short course run by the academic who runs the program in which you’re interested to confirm you can sustain your interest and passion over its duration and beyond. 

“Try to interact with that person in the course and figure out if you can see yourself working under the guidance of them, as it’s a very small community of people in each course,” he says. “Can you see yourself doing what you do in this one Saturday course in periodontics for three years to become a specialist under that person? 

“Check their teaching philosophy and if they are the right fit for you personally because you won’t be anonymous like you are in undergraduate courses.”  

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