When you suggest a career in dental academia to most recent graduates, you will probably be met with a response ranging from confused looks to faint amusement – it’s just not something that many VDPs have considered.
However, even if the very word ‘academia’ strikes fear into your heart, it may be wise to get the inside track on this career pathway before discounting it completely. It can offer opportunities for travel, clinical freedom, variety and the chance to shape dentistry in a way that time spent in general practice can’t.
The good news for anyone who is considering a career in dental academia is that there has never been a better time to get into this exciting sphere of dentistry. Over the past few years the profession has undergone massive changes and in the same way that these have had a big impact on practice life and the community and hospital services, they have also changed the face of dental academia too.
The increase in dental schools has been pivotal to this change and has immediately created a need for more academic staff on the ground. Large numbers of new staff are being recruited, which means that anybody who is entering this area now can expect to be promoted quickly during the next few years to keep up with the demand for qualified people.
If you also bear in mind that the average age of an academic is around 55, then it is obvious that many of the current crop will have retired within the next decade, leaving a glut of plum positions after them for you to take advantage of.
Of course many people enter the academic world because they enjoy sharing their knowledge with like-minded people and leaders in their field around the world. There are infinite possibilities for travel when you are an academic, particularly if you have a good reputation within the academic community. Expect to be invited to conferences, courses and lectures to give your expert opinion, so if you enjoy meeting people and spreading the word, while visiting some interesting places, then academia could be for you.
The academic ‘buzz’ is something that people who have made a career in this field often talk about. It is the feeling that comes from succeeding with a major grant, getting a high-quality publication accepted or seeing success for students and many believe that it far surpasses any clinical fulfilment they have had. The idea of ‘shaping’ dentistry can also be very attractive as you may be involved in university and health issues that affect a number of people.
Making it happen
So far, so good then, but how do you become a dental academic? First you will need to graduate from dental school and complete Vocational Training. The next step is to complete a post-graduate qualification. Up until recently the usual qualification was the MFDS (Member of the Faculty of Dental Surgery), however this qualification is gradually being phased out and being replaced with the MJDF (Membership of the Joint Dental Faculties).
You will then need to embark on clinical training in a similar way to those who choose a hospital career pathway. Within this period you may decide to complete a PhD or, alternatively, you can elect to do this on a full-time basis if you are lucky enough to obtain an academic training fellowship. Ideally this should be consolidated with a postdoctoral period before applying for a senior lectureship in your chosen specialty.
Depending on your success it may take you 10 to 15 years to be appointed to a chair. During this period you will have to treat patients, teach, administrate, examine, publish and obtain grants. Obviously, this seems like a huge undertaking and therefore anybody who decides to pursue a career in academia must be confident they really want to do it.
There are also other challenges to consider like the unpredictability of gaining a grant. It is likely that you can spend three months writing a grant that is then rejected and have absolutely nothing to show for all your efforts. Similarly, to obtain a good publication record requires tenacity and many hours of work often in the evenings and at weekends.
However, times are slowly changing and with increased demands for the services of academics, they are in a stronger position to negotiate for better pay and conditions, making life easier and more rewarding.
A career in dental academia is certainly not the easy option for graduates, but for those who are determined, motivated and like the buzz of academic success, it can certainly tick all the boxes.