All at sea

For final-year dental students, the arrival of February is announced by the sound of vocational training (VT) application packs falling through their letterboxes. Not only is this a sign that their time at dental school is coming to an end, but also that putting off thoughts of what to do next is no longer an option.

Some students already know exactly what areas of dentistry they want to specialise in and, if pressed, could quite capably quote the co-ordinates plotting their career path. However, many undergraduates are as unsure now about what they want to do in the future as they were when they were a fresher.

To help remedy this, Starting Out tracked down dentists working in different specialisms and spoke to them about what their job entails, including the best and worst bits. We left no stone unturned in our pursuit of the facts to help you make your career decisions a little bit easier. To kick off this series of articles we spoke to Surgeon Lieutenant Mike Hesketh, a dental officer in the Royal Navy, to get an insight into what life is like for an armed forces dentist.

Mike Hesketh’s decision to become an armed forces dentist was made during his third year at Leeds dental school. Inspired by a presentation given by a visiting dental officer, and the promise of a £12,000 salary to support his remaining years of study, Hesketh signed up.

Like anybody applying to join the navy, Hesketh was subjected to a three-day interview. As well as the

traditional question-and-answer session, he was also set a number of assessments designed to test his mental and physical capabilities, as well as his spatial awareness, concentration and communication skills.

‘To enter the Royal Navy as an officer you have to pass the same rigorous selection process as every other officer, regardless of your chosen trade,’ Hesketh explains. ‘You are given a final score after the three-day interview that allows the dental branch to compare you with other applicants from the same year’s intake. Only then do they make a decision on who they select for a cadetship or direct entrant qualification.’

Hesketh was offered a cadetship and, as a result, had to complete seven weeks of military training at the Britannia Royal Naval College in Devon. During this time he was taught a mix of naval and leadership skills, faced some gruelling physical challenges and had his first sea-going experience.

Hesketh enjoyed the training period so much he wishes it could have lasted longer. He said: ‘Slightly more military training would be one of the only things I’d change about the job. We do the seven-week basic course, which is a lot of fun, but is a bit inadequate if you want to pass yourself off as a full naval officer.’

After completing his final year at Leeds, Hesketh spent his VT year with the Navy. Speaking about the VT that the Royal Navy offers its cadets, Hesketh could not be more full of praise. ‘The training facilities available to cadets are excellent, with an excellent Vocational Training year ran of six one-week modules in company with dentists from the Army and the Royal Air Force.

‘In this year, we were also given a target of completing the key skills portion of our MFGDP examination. So on picking up our VT certificates we were also presented with a pass for key skills. The Navy pays for all of these examinations.’

He spent part of his VT year in Gibraltar on a naval posting studying paedodontics. While there, he was able to sample the culture and build up his naval experience. ‘We were able to walk across into Spain in the evening and eat tapas every night,’ he explains. ‘I picked up my qualifications here and got to go on anti-terrorist and smuggling patrols with the fleet protection ships down there too.’

But his adventures have not ended there and he is currently spending his first job, post VT, working aboard the HMS Ocean, a modern helicopter carrying vessel. Here he is responsible for helping to maintain the dental health of all the crew aboard the Navy’s biggest warship.

Despite being so far away from home and the isolated nature of his postings, Hesketh says the Navy makes him feel very well catered for. ‘The adventures I undertake with the marines are priceless,’ he enthused.

‘Professionally, the Navy provides excellent learning and practising facilities and there are specialists on hand in every field. The equipment is modern and the working hours are reasonable.

‘It’s not hard to cope with being away as you are not sent away for that long in reality. When you first join you are a lieutenant which means you will be mainly shore-based but with plenty of ‘jollies’ to far flung places for a month at a time to meet ships companies and carry out routine dental work and check ups on them.’

Things are slightly different when he hits dry land, with his working day resembling that of a normal nine to fiver. ‘I start at eight when I’m on base, just like everyone else. I will then see pain cases until 8.30 and patients until lunch. I take an hour and either go swimming or grab a sandwich.

‘I finish with patients at four and I typically get to see around 12 each day. I’ll then finish up any practice

management work I have leftover. I’m usually out the door at five and dinner is served in the officer’s mess at 7.15pm, which is always silver service. My evenings are then spent studying for my MFGDP or watching television with the rest of the lads.’

When asked what he would say to recommend a career in armed forces dentistry to someone, Hesketh said: ‘I would say if you are outgoing and would like to travel and practise in a challenging environment and on a challenging patient base, then this is the career for you. The opportunities are massive, the pay is competitive and the working conditions (annual leave and pension) are brilliant.’

Hesketh explains that he is currently on over £60,000 a year and gets 30 days holiday a year too. He is also guaranteed employment for seven years. When asked if he’d ever consider making the switch to civilian dentistry, he is diplomatic: ‘I have never worked in civilian dentistry, but I know from my civilian peers that their pay is a lot better,’ he concedes. ‘On the other hand the adventures that I undertake with the marines are priceless.’

For more information regarding dental careers in the Royal Navy, visit

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