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Whiteley Letter 16x9

Dear new graduates: Some words of encouragement from your former clinical instructor

Dec. 19, 2019
As you begin your life as a dental hygiene graduate, remember: you know so much more than you think.

For the past 15 years, I have been a clinical faculty member at a university, and I have worked with hundreds of students. It has been a privilege to watch them learn, grow, and develop into clinicians and peers.

I had the opportunity to connect with a few of my former students (recent graduates) when our paths crossed last month. This informal meeting got me thinking that there are likely plenty of newer graduates similarly settling into workplaces. They may appreciate some advice and perspective from someone who has been there and has only their best interest at heart.

Dear Colleague,

Congratulations! You accomplished a huge milestone and achieved your goal of becoming an RDH! Think of how much you’ve learned and grown in such a short amount of time. As you navigate the transition from an academic setting to a work environment, here are some points that I hope will help you enjoy the next stretch of your learning journey.

You know so much more than you think!

It can feel unsettling to step into a new job, outside of the supervision of a school environment. But think of it this way. You recently completed an intense and comprehensive program that included both didactic and clinical learning, along with board exams. Although you are new and still learning, so much information is right at the forefront of your brain! The information you learned is the most current, and you have a lot you can share!

Surround yourself with good information.

I remember my first months in practice. When I got stumped, I wished I had an instructor I could ask for help. Since that was not an option, what helped me was surrounding myself with good information. I brought some of my reference guides from school into my operatory. Everything from blood pressure ranges, to classifications of periodontal disease, to premedication guidelines was laminated in a binder for quick reference.

Similarly, align yourself with an office that is interested in your learning and development. Find people who see the benefit of mentoring you. Subscribe to professional publications (like this one!) and commit yourself to continued learning. Keep a solid network of peers with whom you can share questions and information. Join your professional association and pursue your continuing education requirements because you want to, not because you have to. Remember to use the tools you learned in school regarding the credibility of your sources and having solid and unbiased information to back up claims. Also remember that although we are not your faculty anymore, we love to hear from you! If you have victories you want to share or challenges where you are seeking information and advice, we can be a resource to you.

They call it practice for a reason!

Many of us who have been in this profession for a long time will tell you that school provides you with a baseline. Over the course of your career, you will continue to learn and grow. Instrumentation techniques take time to master, and even after many years, I’m still learning. Critical thinking is another area that is like a muscle. The more you use it, the stronger it gets. Experience is a wonderful gym in which to exercise that muscle! With time and practice, you will be able to “connect the dots” more readily when you are assessing your patients. You will also discover your own flow and verbiage when presenting information to patients. With each interaction, you will find what works best for you and what doesn’t. Regular self-assessment and reflection are important parts of continued learning, so keep that up!

All of us have questions.

None of us know all the answers all the time, and that’s OK! We work in a dynamic field. Plus, there is a lot of information that falls under our scope of practice. To the patient, you are the expert! Sometimes they may ask a question for which you do not have an immediate answer. Be honest when you are unsure about something, and commit to get back in touch. Dentistry is a constantly evolving science, and patients appreciate your taking the extra time to get them the best information.

So much to do with not as much time.

Time management is an essential part of successfully managing your job responsibilities. When I got hired for my first job, my employer and I agreed that for the first few weeks, I would be given a little extra time per patient. That helped a lot as I settled in!

Preparation can also help. In order to work more efficiently, the more you know about your patients and your schedule in advance, the better. Consider reviewing your charts the day before so that you have a good understanding of who your patients are, what they need, and where you can best help. Those few extra minutes can save you a lot of time during your appointments. It is also helpful to arrive to work early enough so that you can start the day prepared and organized. Your day will flow so much more smoothly!

It is also a good practice to set time goals for yourself for each appointment. Consider what you have to do and allot an amount of time for which you think you can reasonably accomplish each task. A guide related to this concept is the rule of 20s. If you have a 60-minute appointment, consider the first 20 minutes for assessments, the next 20 for scaling, and the final 20 for home-care review, doctor exam, scheduling, flipping your room, and doing your notes.

As you become established in a practice, you will develop a system and flow. As you start to see recare patients, you will also find that your time management skills will increase, as not every patient is new to you. You still have to collect data, perform assessments, and the like, but you have already started the process of relationship building, so subsequent appointments are an extension upon the last.

Never let them see you sweat.

Be confident. Consider that a good number of patients can present with some form of dental anxiety. People can pick up on your nervous energy, which can increase their anxiety and lower their confidence level about your skill. Even though life in practice is new, consider all of the patients you have already treated successfully. Present yourself confidently and professionally. Warmth and kindness toward your patients can go a long way. People want to know that you care before they care what you know.

Take care of your body.

Just because we are no longer watching you doesn’t mean you don’t have to think about ergonomics. This career can be demanding on your body, and it is up to you to take care of it if you want to stay employed for the long term. We give a lot to our patients. Emotional self-care is important too, so remember to set healthy boundaries and take time for yourself.

Find your home.

You are interviewing potential employers as much as they are interviewing you. You may be a new graduate, but you have a lot to offer, so don’t feel you have to settle for an environment that does not align with your belief system and what matters to you.

Make the most out of every situation presented to you. Each experience (good and bad) can be an excellent teacher. If you feel you are in a situation that does not suit you, consider if you can change what bothers you or reframe what feels negative to you. If it is a situation that is not a good fit, or one that compromises your sense of ethics and what you know to be right, it is time to plan your next move. Remember never to speak ill of a former colleague or workplace. The dental community can be small, and you do not want to burn a bridge or come across to a prospective employer as a disgruntled gossip.

Enjoy the journey!

Those who are the most fulfilled in their careers continue to learn, grow, and challenge themselves. Enjoy where you are right at this moment. Remember how hard you worked to get here, and keep reaching for new heights.

Wishing you the best!

Julie Whiteley, BS, RDH, is certified in human resources. She holds degrees in business administration and dental hygiene and has worked extensively in both fields. She is on the faculty of Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences University in Boston. Julie bridges her knowledge and experience from business, clinical hygiene, and teaching to deliver information and programs that enhance dental practices. Contact her at [email protected].