Hear from Practitioners

Practicing to teaching: Why academic dentistry is my calling

Posted by Mercedes L. Porter, D.D.S. on January 12, 2015

I am a planner. I have had a box with magazine clippings of ideas for my wedding since I was 13 years old. I joke that I am a travel agent on the side because every trip that my husband and I take is planned down to the finest detail. 

I knew I wanted to be a dentist from a young age. I began shadowing my family’s dentist in high school. I was also vice president of my University’s predental club, admitted into the early admissions program at my dental school, graduated from dental school, completed a general practice residency and was eager and anxious to embark on the career that I had planned for myself treating patients in a private practice setting. Sometimes our most thoroughly thought-out plans don’t come to fruition. I never thought I would find my true passion in educating future dentists, but I am so thankful to have found my niche.

Dental schools train students to be competent, compassionate general dentists, which is exactly as it should be. However, there is a shortage of education and encouragement regarding alternative dental careers. During my time practicing at a community clinic, I felt wholly unfulfilled with this career that I had worked so hard preparing for. I felt like a complete and total failure. Then, I began teaching one day a week at the dental school I had graduated from 18 months prior. 

When I first transitioned into spending more time teaching than treating patients, something in the back of my mind kept nagging at me, telling me I was abnormal and inadequate for making this unanticipated career change. After all, in my dental school class of 98 students, I could be fairly certain that I was the only graduate who was exploring the possibility of a career as a dental educator. However, as I have found out, life has a way of giving us exactly what we need even if we cannot see it at the time. 

I am lucky to say that each day, I am excited and enthusiastic to come to my office in the preclinical laboratory and sit down at my desk at the head of a bench of 10 first- or second-year dental students. What I sometimes miss about communicating treatment options and plans with patients is replaced by the fulfillment I feel when explaining the rationale and technical steps for a procedure that my students are learning by completing the procedure on manikins. My passion for interacting with and helping people is realized each day as I give constructive feedback to students and watch the sudden bolt of comprehension and clarity flash across their faces. 

The delight that I get from interacting with dental students each day lit a fire in me and inspired me to learn more about educational theory so I can truly excel in my now proudly chosen career as a dental educator. I am currently pursuing a master’s degree in dental education because, while I am well-trained in the art and science of dentistry, my four years spent as a dental student of course did not provide any specific training on how to instruct others. As a respected member of our dental school’s faculty, I feel a responsibility and desire to better myself by learning about effective curriculum design, best practices in assessment techniques and how to give constructive feedback so I can be confident that I am making a positive impact on the lives of the future dentists that I am helping to train.

As you are looking forward to the road ahead, keep this one piece of advice in mind: always follow your heart, whether or not it’s what your peers are doing. If I had not listened to what my heart was telling, I would not have found my true calling—academic dentistry. 

About Mercedes L. Porter, D.D.S.:

Mercedes L. Porter, D.D.S.

Mercedes L. Porter, D.D.S.
Clinical Assistant Professor, Division of Operative Dentistry
Department of Restorative Sciences
University of Minnesota School of Dentistry

Dr. Porter, Assistant Clinical Professor of Dentistry at the University of Minnesota School of Dentistry (U of M SOD), received her D.D.S. degree in 2009 from U of M SOD. She then completed a General Practice Residency program at the University of Minnesota Medical Center, Fairview. Dr. Porter has been a member of the Restorative Sciences faculty since 2010. She is currently pursuing a Master’s degree in Dental Education. Dr. Porter is involved in teaching preclinical dentistry in operative dentistry and prosthodontics. She also oversees the advanced simulation clinic at the U of M SOD.