Four years ago, Phillip Wolf was a successful architect in Michigan completing the design of a downtown furniture and appliance store. After receiving his architecture degree in 1993, he had joined the firm of Kreighoff-Lenawee and specialized in commercial buildings. Still, Wolf felt something was missing and, more and more, he reflected on his positive experiences helping his father, a dentist, treat emergency patients outside office hours. Then, Wolf spent two weeks in Haiti, volunteering with a religious group providing medical and dental care in that underserved country, and he knew it was time for a change.
“This trip opened my eyes to the possibilities the medical field could offer to assist others in bettering their lives, not only physically but mentally and spiritually as well,” says Wolf. As a married father of three, he knew changing careers would not be easy, but his desire for a life of service to others trumped his concerns, and Wolf entered the University of Detroit Mercy School of Dentistry, where he is now a fourth-year student.
It’s not unheard-of for an individual to make a mid- or near-midcareer change into dentistry. Twenty out of 56 U.S. dental schools reported the top age of their 2003-04 entering classes to be in their 40s, and the 2002 ADEA applicants’ survey found that 6.2 percent of enrollees were over 30 and most likely midcareer changers. But if Wolf’s age at entering dental school is atypical, another part of his story matches that of most dental students: his personal experience with dentistry led to his decision to enter the profession.
As with Wolf, the influence for many students is close by. Almost 13 percent of respondents in ADEA’s survey of the 2003 graduating class said that one or both of their parents was a dentist. Beyond that, 48 percent of students said having a family member or friend who is a dentist was the most important factor in their decision to pursue dentistry as a career, while over 44 percent indicated their decision was influenced by their family dentist.
Wolf’s career change places him in the almost 17 percent of students who decide to enter the profession at some point after graduating from college. However, the majority of students graduating from dental school (52.8 percent) reported having made their career decision while in college, while 19.6 percent decided to become dentists while in high school. A little over 11 percent reported having zeroed in on the profession even before high school.
Count Jackie Hom, who entered Harvard School of Dental Medicine this fall, among the early birds. As a child, Hom’s seven cavities and several chipped teeth had accustomed her to the dentist’s chair, and at 12, she watched in a mirror as she got a root canal. At 14, determined to get hands-on exposure to her growing career interest, she called every dentist listed in her area of Washington state, until finally convincing the University of Washington Emergency Dental Clinic to give her a job—becoming the youngest person ever to volunteer there.
But though Hom knew she ultimately wanted to attend dental school, she made what some would call a detour when she decided to get her undergraduate degree at Williams, a small liberal arts college in Williamstown, Mass. According to an article in the summer 2004 Williams Alumni Review, Hom was the college’s only undergraduate planning to enter the profession at the time.
This was all part of Hom’s plan, however. As she says in the same magazine, “I chose to attend a liberal arts institution where the education focused on developing mental agility and conceptualization, the capacity to analyze complex problems, and the facility to make critical judgments.” Though a biology major, Hom participated in courses and activities ranging from art history to figure skating to Eastern meditation and martial arts. She kept in touch with dentistry through a two-week Dental Careers Institute at the Oregon Health & Science University School of Dentistry and in a summer program at the University of California, San Francisco, School of Dentistry.
Now, while in dental school, she hopes to pursue a concurrent master’s in public policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Though she has known her final destination for most of her life, Hom has taken the scenic route to get there.
Like Hom, most dental students—over 54 percent—are biological sciences majors. A large percentage of the rest have other science degrees: nearly 15 percent in chemistry/physics and nearly 13 percent in predental/premedical, according to the 2002 ADEA applicants’ survey. But though advisors urge students to bring to their applications a strong background in the sciences, students are successfully accepted to dental school from a wide range of majors: language and humanities, business, engineering, social science, math/computer science, education, and others.
UCLA’s School of Dentistry is known for welcoming as part of its entering class students who have worked in other fields before coming to dentistry. One of them, Ivan Marks, remembers “laughing with disbelief” when his dentist suggested the biochemistry major consider dentistry as a career. Instead, Ivan entered corporate America, working for a large biotech firm. But after several years in a lucrative position, he found himself spending his lunch hours thinking about career options, and he remembered that earlier suggestion—which would allow him to stay active in science but become his own boss. Now in his last year of dental school, Ivan says he finds each day “just a little bit better than the one before.”
Likewise, Bobbi Moose earned a B.S. in human nutrition and an M.P.H. with an emphasis in nutrition as preparation for her work traveling through rural North Carolina teaching textile factory workers about nutrition. When the WIC program brought her in contact with dental students and educators traveling the same circuit to teach about baby bottle caries, Bobbi liked what she saw them doing. Today, she is a fourth-year dental student at UCLA, planning to provide both dental care and health advocacy in a rural area.
Tania Nelson-Chrystal, another fourth-year student at UCLA, came to dentistry from a direction different from Bobbi’s. Tania held a responsible position conducting marketing research, but decided that sitting at a computer analyzing data didn’t give her the people contact she wanted. Instead, she wanted to do something “that would change people’s lives” and to be her own boss. She briefly considered medicine, but felt it wouldn’t let her really get to know the people she was helping. Today, she believes “dentistry is the perfect fit for me. My patients have trust and confidence in me and respect what I tell them. They send their friends to me. It’s like a little practice while I’m still in school.”
Sometimes students come to dentistry from a closely related career. The valedictorian of the University of the Pacific’s School of Dentistry 2004 graduating class was Amanda P. Lavorini. Receiving a D.D.S. degree with highest honors, Lavorini had the highest overall grade point average in didactic and clinical courses for the entire program. It’s not her first dental-related degree, however: she earned a degree in dental assisting from Cabrillo College, and prior to entering dental school, she was a licensed, registered dental assistant for eight years in California. Lavorini is now a student in the graduate endodontic program at the University of Pennsylvania.
According to the numbers, the vast majority of dental students are still entering dental school immediately or shortly after college—a pattern that has not changed for decades. The ADEA survey of 2002 applicants found that over 75 percent of first-time enrollees in U.S. dental schools were 25 years of age or younger. Over 80 percent knew by their final year of college that they wanted to become dentists; over 71 percent were college seniors when they applied; and most had majored in one of the sciences or predental/premedical.
But variety is not merely the spice of life: in a field that serves a diverse public in many settings, it is a source of strength. A student body with a range of life experiences offers a richer learning experience to its students. Plus, a field that is constantly changing and expanding its service needs the intellectual contributions of many, diverse individuals to continue to grow. For dentistry, it’s all good.