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How to be perceived as employable: From the professor’s perspective

Feb. 26, 2020
From the moment you enter into dental hygiene school, every day is a quasi job interview. In the real world, it’s the practical, employable skills that matter, so now is the time to start honing them.
Here’s something that might not have crossed your mind yet: Unless you’ve had a long-standing career already as a dental assistant, your professors are the only professional references you will have to provide potential employers. This means that from the moment you enter into dental hygiene school, every day is a quasi job interview.

A colleague of mine who works in career services would tell you that dentistry is one of the last cottage industries in the country, not in the traditional sense where employees work from home, but in the sense that dentistry is still very much a close-knit profession where the dental team is more like a family—sometimes even made up of actual family—and the old adage applies: It’s not what you know, but who you know. The impression you make on people will go much further than your success on paper. In real terms, your potential employer is going to place far more stock in the conversation they have with your professor when they call for a reference than the 4.0 GPA and first-time pass rate on all your boards that you’ve listed in your résumé. That said, it’s never too early to present yourself as an employable person. Here are a few tips on how to achieve this, from a professor’s perspective.

Play the part

This includes a menagerie of elements, not the least of which is being on time and dressing like a professional. When you’re a student in a health profession program, you should present yourself as the professional you aspire to be. I used this motto when I was a student: “Look good, feel good, do good.” I still follow this principle today. If you take time to display a professional appearance, you will feel better and be more confident and, as a side effect, your performance will improve. You might also give some thought on how to begin playing the part of a health-care professional on social media, because that is the first reference a perspective employer is going to seek; I promise you that. One more thing on this topic, which I know isn’t going to make me any friends, but I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge that dentistry is still a very conservative field. When was the last time you saw a dentist with a purple Mohawk, multiple facial piercings, and a tattoo running up their neck? One might exist, but I haven’t seen them yet. Oh, you haven’t either? Enough said.

Focus on positive interactions with others

The majority of dental practices in America are small groups working toward a common goal. Your ability to function in this small group environment will be one of the things your professors remember about you when the employer asks, and they will ask: Are you able to get along with your peers? Are you able to accept constructive criticism? What is your attitude toward your faculty and friends? Being respectful and courteous will go a long way both in the classroom and the working world.

Start building your résumé now

In the real world, it’s the practical, employable skills that matter, so now is the time to start honing them. If you haven’t ever been an employee in any paid position, now is the time to get a job. More than ever I’m seeing graduates who have never held a job—no after-school job in high school, no summer job, no part-time gig on weekends, nothing! Listen up, folks, there are many basic workplace skills that can be learned in any workplace setting, such as being on time, working with others, being task oriented, being a team player, and the list goes on. If you’ve never punched a time clock at even the most menial position, that’s going to raise a red flag with your perspective employer. Work experience is invaluable, even if it’s not directly related to dentistry. Better yet, why not seek a part-time gig in a dental office as a dental assistant—work and professional experience!

Oh, and one final thought: Letters of reference aren’t a “thing” in the workplace unless specifically requested. Far more common in the working world is a “list of references.” This list is generally made up of a list of three professional contacts who have given permission to be contacted by perspective employers in reference to you (remember to ask permission). The list will include the reference’s name, title, relevant association (e.g., former professor), address, phone, and email. Examples in this case might include one professor, a former employer, and a community member, e.g., a church pastor. OK, that’s all for now. Time to get out there and put your best foot forward as an employable person!

Courtney E. Vannah, IPDH, MS, MPH, is a veteran dental hygienist from the Mid-Coast area of Maine. She first developed a love for the field of dentistry at the age of 16 as a dental assistant. Courtney completed her undergraduate degree in dental hygiene and a master’s degree in public health at the University of New England, as well as a master’s degree in dental hygiene at the University of Texas, Health Science Center, San Antonio. After a varied career in many practice areas of dentistry including oral surgery, cosmetic dentistry, and general practice, she turned her focus to public health as the founding director of the University of New England Children’s Outreach Program. Over the years, she has been involved in various public health initiatives including program planning, evaluation, and direction. She is now a full-time professor at the University of New England.