Up, up and away

When speaking to young dentists about what they want out of their career, most of them will say their own practice, a large but manageable patient base and the chance to perform dentistry to the best of their ability. But what if there was an organisation offering you the opportunity to do all of these things, with a host of added benefits on top too?

For example, financial support to fund your dental school or postgraduate training and the chance to practise dentistry in a different part of the UK every couple of years. It sounds like a good deal and one you would expect dentists young and old would be chomping at the bit to snap up. But no.

The Royal Air Force (RAF), the organisation offering this package, is urgently in need of prospective dental officers and is welcoming applications from anyone between the ages of 19 and 55. It doesn’t matter if you’re fresh out of dental school or been running your own practice for the past 20 years. The RAF opens its doors to all, regardless of experience.

However, it’s not quite enough just to put your hand up and say you want in. The RAF is looking for commitment and proof that the people it employs are up to the job physically and mentally.

Flight Lieutenant Neville Bo, a dental officer at RAF Lyneham, explained: ‘For a dental officer, work doesn’t stop at dentistry because we’re officers too and are expected to carry out military duties alongside our day-to-day jobs.

‘Armed forces dentists need to be flexible and adaptable. They will be expected to be able to cope with military skills and the military way of life, as well as performing everyday dentistry. You have to be prepared to cope in conditions that are not always ideal, such as in a tent in the middle of Iraq or Afghanistan.’

To prove they can cut the mustard, potential recruits must initially attend a three-day course at RAF Cranwell in Lincolnshire. While there, applicants are put through their paces during a series of medicals, interviews, aptitude tests and problem-solving activities.

Once this has been successfully completed, they are invited to take part in the physically demanding process of Initial Officer Training (IOT). ‘IOT isn\’t just an endless routine of timed runs and press-ups,’ explains the RAF in its publication Fit to Lead: Physical Training for Potential RAF Officers. ‘You’ll be following a demanding training programme, with long days and often very little sleep.’

Dental undergraduates that pass the eight-week IOT with flying colours are automatically guaranteed a place on the Defence Dental Service’s vocational training programme. Through this, students will be placed in a training practice under the supervision of an accredited trainer.

Vocational trainees also get the chance to mix with dentists from other branches of the armed forces by attending courses at the Defence Dental Service’s headquarters in Buckinghamshire.

Flight Lieutenant Bo managed to squeeze in some international travel into his vocational training year, saying: ‘I went to Germany for a few weeks. I also got the chance to spend a few weeks of that year working out in Cyprus, gaining experience working with children. At the moment I’m currently in the South Atlantic on a four-month detachment to the Falkland Islands. I’ve enjoyed all my postings so far.’

As well as benefiting from not having to rush to secure a VT place in their final year, undergraduates wanting to join the RAF are also eligible for some financial perks as well.

By applying for a university cadetship, potential dental officers can receive over £12,000 in sponsorship to support the final two years of their study. In return, all the RAF requires is for its cadets to join the university air squadron. This enables potential recruits to get a taste of what life will be like for them in the RAF.

Bo was a member of the squadron when he was studying to be a dentist at Liverpool Dental School. He said: ‘The University Air Squadron gave me a taste for life in the RAF. Every Tuesday night we had a “town night” where we would all meet at the squadron, have dinner and hear a lecture about some aspect of RAF life. We learnt about survival techniques and weather patterns and it was great to find out about different things.’

For dentists that don’t need to embark on vocational training, passing IOT means that they can go on their first posting at a RAF dental practice as a Unit Dental Officer. New UDOs are placed with teams of experienced dentists to help them settle in to practice life. As part of the team, the UDO can then set about tending to the dental needs of the community on base camp.

Initially, dentists joining the RAF are signed up for six or seven years’ service. The length of their commission is dependent on whether they have completed vocational training before they join. If so, they’ll only be required to complete a minimum of six years’ service.

Once this period comes to an end, dental officers wishing to extend their contract of employment can then apply for a medium commission, which lasts 18 years.

Every two to three years the RAF offers its dental officers the chance to relocate to another station somewhere else in the country. Additionally, there are also opportunities for them to go on detachment placements where they would be responsible for providing dental care to officers serving on the front line. There dental officers will get to see first hand the work the RAF does.

As well as opportunities to travel, the RAF also advocates lifelong learning and encourages its dental officers to take part in postgraduate education. It offers internal courses run by the Defence Dental Services to its employees and encourages them to consider completing the MFGDP qualification too.

When asked what other benefits dental officers can look forward to, Flight Lieutenant Bo said: ‘The pay is very good, around £47,750 after training for a new entry dental officer. There is potential to earn a lot more in private practice, but the overall package that the forces provide is very competitive. For example, we have a non-contributory pension, we get free medical and dental treatment, six weeks paid leave, free gym and sports facilities on camp and opportunities for adventurous training such as sky diving, sailing and skiing.

‘You also get the chance to carry out the best treatment plan that you can for your patient without them having to worry about the cost of the treatment. I have a fixed salary, so there is no time pressure (within reason) for me to carry out any treatment needed. I just do dentistry to the best of my ability.’

‘If you are an outgoing person with a sense of fun and adventure who likes a challenge, then the forces is definitely for you,’ he added. ‘I think it is something to

experience while you are young – once you’ve settled down in a practice and invested a lot of time and money into building it up, it would be difficult to walk away from.

‘Anyway, with the current high demand for dentists on the high street, you should have no difficulty finding a job once you leave.’

To find out more about a career in the Royal Air Force, you can speak to a dental recruitment officer directly by calling 01400 261201, ext 7141.

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