Change and Transition in a Dentist’s Career: How to Cope During the Challenging Phases of Dentistry

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By Susan Spear
From the Spring/Summer 2020 Journal of the Colorado Dental Association

Change: To cause to be different. The act of passing from one state or phase to another. A variation, deviation or modification. Change is external.

Transition: Passage from one form, state, style or place to another. The period of time during which something changes from one state or stage to another. Transition is internal.

As a transition consultant, I have the opportunity to work with dentists during the many phases of their careers. I work with the new graduates who are full of anticipation and optimism, but who often feel insecure because of their lack of experience and knowledge of how to make decisions about their future. I work with dentists in the middle years of their careers who still view dentistry as having wonderful possibilities, but now have challenges with creating balance in their lives. They can become torn between their business, professional and personal commitments. And I work with the retiring dentists who are confident in their skills and treatment beliefs, but struggle to determine how to pass their legacy on to another dentist. They question if they are prepared to let go. Each phase of a dentist’s career brings challenges that can cause stress and strain on their health, their families and their business.  

Early in my career, I was introduced to a transition process that continues to help others manage life changes effectively. William Bridges, Ph.D. wrote a wonderful book called “Making Sense of Life’s Changes…Transitions.” His teachings have been used by many transition leaders to include the D.I.S.C. personality profile and assessment training for dentists and their teams.  In his book he explains that there are three very distinctive stages of change and transition.

Stage 1: Endings
He teaches that we should recognize “Endings” as opportunities, as well as accepting the losses and celebrating them with rituals to open new doors. Endings are part of the experience of change—whether good or bad—that happen with a cause.

Stage 2: Neutral Zone
The “Neutral Zone” is a seemly unproductive “time-out” period. We feel disconnected from the past and emotionally unconnected to the present. It is a time of uncertainty and insecurity. We cannot go back to the past because once a change occurs, it is final. During this period, we cannot experience the future because it hasn’t arrived.

Stage 3: New Beginnings
“New Beginnings” is the experience of being present in the new experience and feeling comfortable in your new reality. New beginnings are not attainable without first moving through the other stages of the process. In fact, he says a successful transition requires more than persevering; it means launching new priorities. That can be difficult to do unless you experience the stages of the transition process. He learned that without going through each step, it makes it impossible to truly move forward.

For the dentist who has recently graduated from dental school, it is a wonderful achievement, but also a time of great loss. While in dental school there were always other students around who shared in the trials and tribulations of hard nights of studying and learning dental techniques that take more than one attempt to get right. There was a sense of unity. However, when the dentist graduates and takes on his/her first job as a practicing professional, often there is no one to confide in or share insecurities. The student becomes the leader without counsel. There is no one to tell the new dentist when he/she completes a restoration that it met all the needed criteria. The new dentist is now expected to have all the answers for patients, manage and help direct staff, and participate in the “business” of dentistry. For many it is also a time for seeking to establish when, where and how they want to practice for the next 35 years.  

The dentist in the middle stage of his/her career often places unrealistic pressure on themselves to take care of or please everyone in their lives. They become all things to all people. They feel pressure to be the best dentist, the best spouse, the best parent, the best employer, and best professional dentist they can be. Their time is divided between what they love to do and what they have to do. Often, they lose sight of why they wanted to become a dentist in the first place. They may feel that they are no longer good at anything because they are overcommitted and cannot get away from the expectations they create for themselves. The changes and transitions at this time in their career even if good and fulfilling, can become extremely stressful to the point the dentist struggles to manage all the balls in the air at the same time.

In the later phases of a dentist’s career, he/she considers retiring or slowing down from the day-to-day practice of dentistry. Initially, it may feel like a sense of relief to have finally reached the end of the road. However, there can also be a sense of guilt for wanting to leave or “abandon” their patients and staff. Deciding to end a career is one of the hardest decisions they will ever make. They often view it as “not just about them,” but rather all the people they may be letting down. They also have a feeling they could have done more or completed a goal they didn’t accomplish or maybe even reached a financial measurement of success that didn’t happen. The losses can seem like they outweigh the gains. The reality of the future becomes a barrier instead of a new road toward another path in their lives.

William Bridges offers some guidelines for experiencing the changes in our lives and how to work toward finding transition solutions that can help to keep us well while moving forward.

10 Tips on How to Manage the Stages of Change and Transition

  1. Take your time: Each person moves at a different speed when going through a change and transition process. Not all change processes are the same. One may be harder than another. Taking time to work through your decision process can bring clarity.
  2. Arrange temporary structure: Work out ways of going on until the inner work of transition is done. This may mean finding a temporary solution to a stress or change process such as a temporary job until you find a permanent one. Or it may mean just accepting your change process as temporary until you know you can effectively move on with your life.
  3. Don’t act for the sake of action: It is important to allow the process to work long enough to complete the cycles of transition. Premature action can lead to more difficulty if you haven’t been able to let go of the past or accept the future.
  4. Recognize why you are uncomfortable: Distress is not a sign that something has gone wrong but that something is changing. Understanding the transition process can help to make sense of why the process seems challenging.
  5. Take care of yourself in little ways: With major changes happening in your life, this is not the time to add more stress. Remember the small things that you can do to help you feel better. Do something that feels “normal” while change is happening all around you that you don’t control.
  6. Explore the other side of change: Some changes are chosen; some are not. Even if you didn’t choose the change, seeing some benefits and viewing it from another side, can help bring perspective.  If you did choose the change but the process is more of a challenge than you expected, weighing the pros and cons may help you to see it more objectively.
  7. Find someone to talk to: Whether you chose a professional or just a good friend, talking with someone else can help you work through your situation by allowing you to express your thoughts to someone who will listen without advising.
  8. Find out what is waiting in the wings of your life: Transitions clear the road for new growth. Try writing down what might be ahead in your life. Don’t plan, just write down the possibilities.
  9. Use change and transition as an impetus to a new kind of learning: What do you need to learn to help you move forward with your transition process? What support, what knowledge, and what resources can help you reach the next stage?
  10. Recognize that transition has a characteristic shape: Things end, there is a time of fertile emptiness, and then things begin anew.

Susan Spear is a licensed broker and business intermediary with SAS Transitions Dental Practice Brokers. Contact her at 303-973-2147 or, or visit