Understanding and Evaluating Associateship Opportunities
Why Consider an Associateship?

Course Author(s): David G. Dunning, MA, PhD; Robert D. Madden, DDS, MBA

Why Consider an Associateship?

Why would a dental graduate or later career dentist consider entering an associateship?

  • One key point for the associate candidate to ponder very judiciously is this: am I looking only for a probably short-term job OR am I looking for a career track? The distinction is fundamental to the reasons for seeking an associateship. Clearly, having a job is a good outcome! Bills have to be paid, including student loans. Some life situations may necessitate a “job-only” mentality—for example, a spouse’s education or career constraints or other life goals such as having children may lead an associate to view a potential associateship as a short-term job with no expectations beyond 1 to 3 years. Conversely, a career track implies long-standing employment in a practice and probably, for most dentists, a future ownership position in a practice(s). A career-track focus necessitates a much more rigorous vetting process in evaluating a potential associateship opportunity such as addressing the long list of items/questions discussed toward the end of this course. 
  • A widely common reason for pursuing an associateship, especially immediately upon graduation, is to have the opportunity to grow in clinical/technical skills in a variety of disciplines while also increasing speed/efficiency. While widely variable based on education and motivation, it has been our experience in talking with many dentists that associates right out of school can produce approximately 60% of what an experienced dentist can do in the same amount of time, and upwards of 75% after a year in practice. While current students find this almost impossible to believe, experience shows this is a reasonable expectation. To some extent, work time does expand and compress as needed to get the job done. Most associates will need to add a second chair for patient care (not counting hygiene “checks”) within a few short months after graduation. The associate, in essence, is getting paid to learn how to perform more dentistry in less time.

    While less commonly discussed, an associate also has a fantastic opportunity to learn about the business of dentistry from an owner-dentist or DSO. Particularly important in this regard are: developing a keen focus on key practice indicators (such as production per day or per chair per day); learning how to hire and supervise staff; participating in daily morning huddle business meetings; and developing expertise in vital business systems which take good practices to great practices (such as scheduling, collecting, customer service and internal marketing).19
Why Consider an Associateship
  • A career goal of becoming a co-owner/partner or solo-owner of a dental practice is certainly a vital reason for entering an associateship. Working alongside another dentist and with the dental team and observing areas of strength and systems needing improvement affords a long-term experiential evaluation of practice. Beyond the formal valuation of a practice to be discussed later, working as a dentist in a practice probably affords the best perspective from which to make an informed judgement about purchasing a practice.
  • Much has been written about values and priorities of every generation, including millennials (see, for example, reference 20). While individual differences must be acknowledged, as a group millennials value teamwork, growth in careers, collaboration, and perhaps most importantly here, work-life balance and flexibility. A well-structured associateship with clear expectations in a team-based dental practice is well-suited to millennials. Associates have an opportunity to make a good living with some flexibility in schedules AND without the primary burden for the business aspects of dental practice.

    More will be discussed about compensation issues in another section of this course, but the pressures of making student loan payments and the increased competitiveness in the marketplace due in part to DSOs have resulted in higher levels of compensation for associates in many markets.