Weeks after finishing my residency program, I packed up my things for a westbound flight and prepared to take on the biggest challenge of my professional life: starting my career as a general dentist in California, one of the most notoriously saturated and competitive landscapes in dentistry. The Golden State has taken some getting used to, and the attempt to achieve both success and personal happiness in this completely unfamiliar setting has been a pretty daunting task. But hey, if the Kardashians could make it big out here, why can't I?
To say that it took a long time to get my dental license would be a gross understatement. While I'm certain that the people working at the state dental board are all perfectly competent individuals who each care very intimately about my ability to secure a regular paycheck, I also harbor a suspicion that all mail addressed to their office may be couriered across the state via a system reminiscent of the Pony Express. And if so, it is likely one that utilizes only the losing horses expelled from the Del Mar Racetrack.
Months later, license in hand, I scoured the classifieds and Internet for open positions, only to discover that nearly every employer out there was looking to hire someone who graduated a minimum of two years ago. I found myself faced with the infamous new graduate paradox: I can’t get a job without experience. I can’t get experience without a job. Nobody cared that I had a fancy-schmancy education. Nobody cared that I totally killed it in clinic as a dental student and resident. It didn’t matter that I had a long list of references who could all fiercely attest to my razor-sharp wit, radiant charisma, and exceptionally modest sense of self.
The overarching objection to my status as a relatively recent graduate was that I wouldn’t be “seasoned enough,” a dismissive generalization that made it sound like I had to be coated in salt and pepper and then adequately dry-aged over a requisite period of time before anyone would deem me worthy of working in private practice. For a second, I wondered if my husband would mind if I sealed myself in a paper bag and sat on the kitchen counter for the next twelve months to ripen to a more desirable degree of job readiness.
I applied to every job posting anyway. Partly because someone once told me that a year of GPR may be considered by some to be the equivalent of up to three years of work experience, and partly because the prospect of spending another year assembling IKEA furniture in our apartment to pass the time was about as enticing as an invitation to ride shotgun in a car with Lindsay Lohan behind the wheel.
Upon arriving at my first interview, I became convinced—almost to the point of paranoia—that my interviewer would fire off a barrage of questions on subjects I last encountered while studying for the NBDE and/or charge me to perform a series of nearly impossible tasks under tremendous pressure. Surely I would be expected to recite all of the components of the Circle of Willis while simultaneously balancing a stack of plates on the end of my nose and calculating the number of tennis balls it would take to fill an operatory from floor to ceiling.
Luckily, none of the catastrophic scenarios I imagined came to fruition. But in some cases, they were replaced by even more disastrous queries and situations. One potential boss asked if I would be willing to get cosmetic surgery as a condition of employment. Another suggested that I consider changing my clearly-Asian last name to something more Anglicized. (Full disclosure: a part of me has always thought it would be fun to be "Mrs. Colin Firth," but I highly doubt my husband—NOT Mr. Colin Firth—would go for it.) And then there was the office that looked as though a homicide had taken place in the waiting room the night before, with staff that acted as though they were covering up a homicide that had taken place in the waiting room the night before.
That last one still haunts me. I'd rather not say any more about it, if that's okay.
Working interviews for dental associate positions are like second dates. After making it through the initial meet-and-greet, both parties have acknowledged that there’s enough interest to get together again and explore the possibility of committing to a long-term relationship. Those lingering first-date jitters (“I hope I didn’t come across as too eager!”) are still there, but these give way to deeper, more probing questions (“So, um, why did your last partner leave you?”). By the end, you’re faced with the inevitable awkwardness of attempting to discern if you like each other enough to hammer out an agreement to keep coming back for more.
While I had the opportunity to interview with some wonderful dentists whose offices I hope to model my own practice after one day, there were some I couldn’t bear the thought of going back to, despite the fact that an offer to put down roots was clearly on the table. It takes a lot to scare me—I’m from Jersey, after all—but some places turned out to be such toxic environments that I just couldn’t bring myself to return. I told myself early on that I wouldn’t resort to unnecessary upselling and overtreatment of patients to make a living. My will to survive financially is as strong as anyone else’s, but I won't destroy healthy dentition to get ahead.
I understand that dental practices are businesses that have to generate a profit. But if the dentistry I’m expected to do won’t allow me to sleep at night, it just isn’t worth it to me. I did my best to bow out gracefully at these places. In reality, all I wanted to do was run away and never look back. It’s a good thing that saying, “Thanks for the memories, but let’s just be friends!” to a prospective employer via phone or email is socially acceptable; believe me, I'm no good at break-ups.
At some points, I felt so discouraged by the repeated setbacks and heartbreak that I started to think I might be the Taylor Swift of dentists. Every time I thought I’d found something that felt right, I would wind up sitting at home, waiting by the phone, obsessively checking for imaginary missed messages that would never materialize in my inbox, and generally feeling like a total failure. This profession that was constantly being celebrated as one of the most stable, lucrative, and satisfying careers on the market was slowly leaving me insecure, destitute, and frustrated. I’d given the pursuit of a DDS the best years of my life, only to watch other people enjoy the benefits.
With a pint of Ben & Jerry’s in one hand and my cell phone in the other, I commiserated with supportive friends and family across three time zones. They who encouraged me not to compromise my standards, insisting that these employers just couldn’t see what a great catch I am and maybe they’re just not ready to give me the kind of commitment I deserve. Then I would entertain elaborate, unhealthy fantasies in which I envisioned myself accepting the top prize at whatever the dental award ceremony equivalent of the Grammys would be and triumphantly rubbing it in the faces of everyone it hadn’t worked out with. If someone in the music industry was crazy enough to give me a record deal, you can bet your lucky stars that the lyrical stylings of yours truly would make “embittered dentist pop” the next genre climbing the Billboard Hot 100 charts and giving T-Swizzle a run for her money.
In the end, my unwavering determination paid off. I am now working at an office surrounded by friendly and supportive staff who are genuinely interested in helping me learn and grow as a clinician. The truth is, I wouldn't fully appreciate being where I am today if my road to gainful employment wasn’t littered with the spoils of struggling, the mortification of mistakes, and the distress of disappointment. The thrill of overcoming the odds and landing my first real job wouldn’t taste so sweet if the journey had been an easy one. I fell down and got back up over and over again, and now I'm carving out a niche for myself in this profession with my own two hands, forging a path to greatness on my own terms. While I’m still a few years away from being able to open my own practice, I can honestly say that the future has never seemed brighter, nor the possibilities more endless, since the day I received my dental school diploma. And the best part is that this is only the beginning.
Here's to going where no Kardashian has gone before.
Diana Nguyen, DDS