Note: this is part one of a two-part interview with Dr. Sara Makary. Be sure to check out the second part, How to Decide If It's Time to Make a Change.
When Dr. Sara Makary started her career, she followed a path taken by many of her peers: a job in corporate dentistry. “I thought this is probably a good way to get introduced to dentistry, to patients, and have a safety net of providers around me,” she said. “As a fresh graduate, we walk into uncertain territory. When you get out of school, your security blanket gets stripped off very fast.”
With a baby on the way, she appreciated the stability of the corporate world. But while it was a great place to improve her hand skills, something was missing.
“I needed a little bit more one-on-one. I needed somebody who could help me think through all the steps and have the right conversation,” she says. “I realized that I need to perform the dentistry really, really well, and I also need to be able to convince patients about what their mouth needs.”
A Well-Rounded Dentist Needs Multiple Types of Mentorship
With that realization, Dr. Sara left her corporate job to become an associate in a small group practice. There, she found the guidance she craved. “It offered a lot of coaching on how to interact with patients, how to get my point across, and how to clearly communicate my treatment plans,” she says. “And that helped me establish a lot of confidence, which not a lot of us graduate with.”
Along the way, Dr. Sara also sought opportunities to learn the business side of dentistry, such as managing staff issues and understanding the financials. And she strived to learn from more experienced assistants and hygienists who “have so much to offer.”
Dr. Sara says that blending multiple types of mentorship – clinical, patient-relationship, and business – has been crucial to developing her career, as has her network of trusted colleagues.
Mentorship also helped Dr. Sara explore different paths and possibilities. She explains, “A lot of people get into the rut of doing one job, then the next, and before they know it, all this time has passed and they haven’t really gained much. And that’s where mentorship can have a lot of impact,” exposing dentists to options they might not have otherwise considered.
Thanks to various mentors over the years, she now has the diverse experience that opens doors. Today, Dr. Sara is the director of a Federally Qualified Health Center in Jacksonville, Florida. And in her current position, she continues the cycle, mentoring students and young dentists on all aspects of the profession.
How to Benefit from Mentoring at Every Stage of Your Career
Dr. Sara notes that it takes more than having a good mentor to gain something from the relationship. “The mentee is the only person who can put a limit to that relationship,” she notes. “If you don’t reach out, if you don’t ask questions, if you don’t tap into the resources that you’re being offered, then you’re the only one limiting that relationship.”
Mentees need to be willing to listen and learn. “Mentorship is not just blindly following someone,” she says. “I had to put aside my own thought process for a little bit to be able to accept someone else’s and evaluate what they have to say. It’s important to at least listen to their experiences. You might be able to pick up a habit or two or a thought process.”
On the other side of the equation, Dr. Sara urges established dentists to consider taking on a mentee. She views mentorship similarly to conducting research: while it can be time consuming, it benefits the profession as a whole. “All these graduates are still dentists, bearing the name of the profession and treating patients,” she says. “Why would we not want to help them? We cannot practice in isolation because then the collective reputation is at stake.”
In fact, Dr. Sara believes that mentorship can actually help continue dentistry’s private practice tradition. After all, she says, “I think a lot of people graduating are very scared of being in private practice because they just hear, ‘It’s a lot of work; you don’t want to do that.’ They don’t really hear the other part: ‘It’s a lot of work. However, it’s fantastic, here are the pros, here’s how you get over the issues.’ And if we don’t help dentists understand that, then we might be doing away with a certain type of practice philosophy because we’re not encouraging that from early on.”
Mentorship can also help owners develop a solid exit strategy. Dr. Sara has watched retirement “sneak up” on fellow dentists, leaving them scrambling to find an appropriate successor – especially when “life happens” and they must retire sooner than expected. Mentoring a younger dentist can help smooth out that transition for both patients and staff, especially when the younger dentist is on an associate-to-owner path, preparing to take over.
How to Get Started
If you’re intrigued by mentorship, Dr. Sara recommends thinking about your own goals. Is there a particular skill gap you want to fill? Do you want to learn what it takes to run your own practice? Or maybe you want to explore a different type of dentistry. Identifying your goals will help you search for the right type of mentor.
Then, find the right person. If you are lucky enough to already know someone who fits the bill, it can be as simple as asking if they are willing to be your mentor, and if they have the time to do so. Sometimes, the timing just doesn’t work – perhaps they are navigating their own transition, or are already struggling to balance everything. If they say no, respect their decision, but ask if they can recommend someone else.
If you think you might be interested in mentoring another dentist, consider what you can offer. Then connect with your state or local society or dental schools. Many manage mentorship programs that can connect you with someone looking for your particular skills.
Free Webinar: Build a Good Mentor/Mentee Relationship
Want to learn more? Our upcoming ADAPT webinar, How Mentorship Can Enhance Your Career – No Matter What Phase You’re In, explored the particulars of finding the right mentor/mentee and building a successful working relationship. Watch the on-demand webinar now.
Want more Transition Tales? See all our first-hand stories from dentists who have navigated their own practice transitions. And be sure to check out part two of our interview with Dr. Sara: How to Decide If It's Time to Make a Change.