“Dr. Vaughn, I wanted to ask you . . . do you enjoy dentistry?”

“Interesting,” I thought. “What a simple, straightforward yet completely complicated and intricately loaded question I have just been asked by this bright-eyed, good-intentioned college student.”

Dr. Vaughn

“Y-Yeah. . . I do.”

I paused. I could feel the perspiration gathering on my forehead. Could he sense my unease? Although he appeared to be content with my answer, I knew he was looking for a bit more spunk. After all, he was in my office shadowing for the day, trying to decide if his choice to apply for dental school was the right one for his future.

The truth of course . . . and I hesitate to say this even now . . . was that I didn’t.

I didn’t enjoy dentistry at all.

It wasn’t dentistry as a profession. Not really. It wasn’t that I didn’t like the idea of being a dentist. It wasn’t that I enjoyed too much of it either though. The truth was that the dentistry I was part of at the time made me feel incredibly unhappy and dissatisfied. And really the only reason I felt compelled to continue on was that most everyone else in my social circle were also dentists who also hated their jobs.

Maybe you can relate.

What was I supposed to say that day anyway? That every day with a drill in my hand is my new favorite day? That he’ll pay off his $400,000 student loan with incredible speed and ease? That upon graduation, he’ll hang a sign out front of a building and have patients busting down his door to shove wads of cash in his hand? That as long as he gets good grades in school, he’s guaranteed to be successful?

Because that sounds exactly what it’s like to be a young dentist in 2022, right?

No, I think the secret’s finally out of the bag. The U.S. News and World Report’s “Best Jobs” annual rankings may have only just now figured it out, but we’ve known dentistry hasn’t been the nation’s “best career” for some time. Sure, we’re still earning top spots on national lists, that’s true. But I’d argue that “highest loan payment” isn’t a trophy I want on my shelf.

Seven years out of dental school and boy have I learned a thing or two about our profession. The toughest lesson, and one I really wish we shouted from the rooftops, is the alarming disconnect between the preconceived expectations of our profession and the true realities we experience in our first few years. Dentistry for many of us in my generation has not turned out to be the rewarding, respected “golf-every-Friday” career I had heard so much about in college. For many, it hasn’t been the guaranteed return on investment with “99.9% success” that I was promised by corporate bankers in my dental school practice management course. And it certainly has not been a career that automatically rewards you with joy, contentment and purpose just because you put in the effort. This disconnect wreaks havoc on our mental wellness, especially early on in our careers

What I’ve learned along the way though, and what I must occasionally remind myself of, is that we have a say in how our own story is written. You’re the author. And your own story can say whatever the heck you want it to say.

Happiness is not a reward. It’s a consequence.

It’s a product of our actions, of our decisions. Purpose, happiness, fulfillment. Whatever you’re searching for, it happens when you make a conscious decision to not “just deal with it,” but to do something about it. It took me a few years to learn that it’s OK to not be in love with dentistry. It’s OK to not enjoy your job. But what’s not OK is if you pretend like you do and just accept that this is what it means to be a dentist.

That’s the prologue to a very sad story.

Yeah, maybe our profession is changing in an irreversible way. Maybe the golden age is long gone and we may never get that back. But just because the profession is changing doesn’t mean that you can’t find your absolutely perfect place within it.

For myself, I ended up leaving my job. I’m back in school now. A resident once more, and things feel different. I’m literally thousands of miles away from my general dentistry days, but it’s the very first time in my career that I’ve felt content in an operatory. Felt like everything is in its right place.

I needed a total rewrite, but not everyone does. Sometimes all you need is to just move on to the next scene, maybe put the book down for a while or even bring some new characters into the story. My favorite truth of dentistry is and always has been that there’s something there for everyone. You just have to look in the right places.

So if you’re like I was and maybe you’ve hit a stretch of those dark days of dentistry, don’t give up. Whatever the situation, whatever the narrative you find yourself in. Today, tomorrow, and every day after. Pursue happiness, never settle, and make sure you leave this profession a little bit better than the way you found it.

Dr. Joe Vaughn is currently an endodontics resident at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Virginia. He graduated dental school from the University of Alabama at Birmingham in 2015 and moved to Seattle shortly after to complete a GPR program at the University of Washington. He has been a member of the American Dental Association since 2015 and has served in various leadership roles at each level of the tripartite. He is passionate about organized dentistry, writing, and talking with other dentists about the many issues we are facing in our profession today. He welcomes any and all of your questions/comments and can be reached at jkvaughn44@gmail.com.