Dr. Manu Dua opened a private dentistry clinic in Calgary, Alberta, in 2016.
In 2020, following a cancer diagnosis, Dr. Dua made the difficult decision to sell his clinic to concentrate on his health.
Although it wasn’t an easy decision for him ‒ having worked tirelessly to build his practice from scratch and make it a success ‒ Dr. Dua soon found himself relishing in his new life and wondering why he had not made the move earlier.
“At this point, you’d think that I would’ve been deeply upset about the sense of loss and purpose,” he wrote in a heartfelt piece for DentalTown magazine. “In this regard you would be incorrect.”
Because truth be told, Dr. Dua had been thinking about leaving dentistry long before his diagnosis.
“I gave my heart and soul to the profession and yet I found it hollow and unfulfilling, despite that superficially I had achieved most levels of success in terms of a steady happy patient pool, a wonderful loyal staff and a beautiful new clinic,” wrote Dr. Dua. “Deep inside, though, I felt empty: a former shell of that once bright, excited young man who was overjoyed at opening his acceptance letter to dental school.”
When he left the dentistry profession behind, Dr. Dua gradually began to feel that spark of passion return.
“I felt such a deep sense of relief and release of tension—as if a great weight had been lifted off my shoulders. Over time, people around me noticed a great change in my personality. I felt more relaxed, calmer, just a better person overall.”
Dr. Manu Dua sadly passed away on March 14, 2021. Yet it is heartening to see how he made the most of the time remaining to him, and many in the dentistry profession will be touched by what he expressed so poignantly.
Leaving the Dentistry Profession Behind
The fact is, for every dentist who loves what they do, there are those who can't wait until they retire.
Few will admit it, because no one wants to acknowledge they spent eight years in school and accumulated thousands in student loan debt just to be unhappy.
But even the most passionate young dentists can find that their passion slowly fades, along with their patience and sense of fulfillment, as years go by.
There are many reasons for this. For one thing, practicing dentistry is a lot harder than dental school, especially practice owners like Dr. Dua. Starting a dental practice means you’re suddenly thrust into the position of the CEO, CFO, HR director, benefits coordinator, payroll specialist, office manager...the list goes on.
Plus, dentists often feel underappreciated. It’s frustrating when patients do not attend follow-up appointments, decline treatment because of cost, or do not follow your instructions day after day.
“I put on a brave face and gave [patients] the best of me even as they lied to me about their oral hygiene habits, while I smiled and nodded, completely “ignoring” the can of Mountain Dew they brought to their appointment,” wrote Dr. Dua.
Furthermore, dentistry is physically demanding. Despite your best efforts to sit up straight and maintain good posture, your profession requires you to be all over the place. The positions you have to assume just to get a good look at the oral cavity can have you feeling like a contortionist!
Whatever the reason, there may come a time when you feel like you're done with dentistry. Everyone has a bad day at work from time to time, but if you find yourself feeling physically, mentally and emotionally drained on a daily basis, it may be time to do some soul-searching.
For some, like Dr. Dua, the revelation comes early ‒ he had graduated from dental school in 2012 and left the profession in 2020.
Others make the decision much later on. For Dr. John Kennedy, that day came at age 57 after a long, tiring day at the office.
“I realized that there were other things I wanted to do while I was still in good health and relatively young,” he wrote in a piece for Dental Economics.
Life After Leaving Dentistry
Nearly everyone who made the move at one point found leaving dentistry unthinkable.
After you've devoted so much time, energy and money to a single profession, it can feel like there’s no way you could ever do anything else. Changing your career can be a long and circuitous process.
“A small number of dentists, perhaps, work until they drop for their own mental well-being,” wrote Dr. Kennedy. “Some, through lack of planning or financial catastrophes beyond their control, have no choice but to continue working. Others - those who are financially secure - have a choice.”
Besides the daunting task of finding a new calling, one of the things dentists worry most about is how their colleagues will react to their departure. Will they judge me? Try to talk me out of it? Feel rejected?
Laura Brenner, a former dentist and career coach, writes about this subject at length in her blog. While some dentists are judgemental, she writes, “The majority are supportive and actually find leaving the career courageous because it is so hard to do.”
“The judgmental, smug dentists that do care are like our patients: most are wonderful, but 1 or 2 are not. Somehow, these are the ones that get under our skin and make the most noise. But they’re not in the majority.”
Everyone's life after dentistry is different, but there is one thing many former dentists have in common when discussing the topic: they don't regret making the choice.
“As I transition into a new life devoid of handpieces and hygiene checks, I find myself excited to explore all that is around me and engage the sense of self that died a long time ago as I was forced to put on a mask and pretend to be someone that I wasn’t,” wrote Dr. Dua.
“I miss some of the people, and I miss doing some of the procedures,” Dr. Kennedy writes. “But I practiced dentistry for 30 years and, as wonderful as it was for me, that was enough. I certainly don’t miss any of the paperwork or hassles.”
As for Laura Brenner, she wrote, “With another Thanksgiving and the 1-year anniversary of my split with dentistry behind me, I am once again reminded of my gratitude for being able to break free from something that had me feeling so trapped for so long.”
Leaving Isn’t the Only Option
It’s important to acknowledge that leaving dentistry isn’t the only option when you feel you’re at the end of your rope.
Dental burnout is a real problem, but there are steps you can take to avoid and overcome it. You may find that you can reignite your passion for dentistry by seeking support and learning opportunities outside of your clinic.
“I did this by taking dental continuing education – workshops, seminars and more,” wrote Dr. Jeff Lineberry in a piece for Spear Education. “Not only did I learn, but I got out of my isolated “box” at the dental office and got to interact with other dental professionals who were just like me: trying to be the best they can be, take better care of their patients, and be a better leader and practice owner.”
One of the most important things you can do is not keep your problems to yourself. When you feel like quitting dentistry, you should reach out to mentors, colleagues, and family members for support.
“More importantly, I had some great support from family members as well as from fellow dental professionals who helped guide and direct me to the path of focusing on making myself better – better for myself, my patients and my family,” Dr. Lineberry wrote. “Ultimately, that guidance helped me become more resistant to what many call “burn out,” and to be simply happier with myself and my chosen profession.”
Alternative Careers for Dentists
Plus, while some choose to pursue a completely different career after dentistry practice, it’s not the only option. Many others successfully pursue roles that involve their dentistry skills and knowledge in a non-clinical setting.
The ADA Center for Professional Success offers resources to assist you in making an informed decision about alternative dental careers, such as public health, academia, research, insurance, and the dental products industry.