Developing your Dental Nurse Career

I'm sure we're all aware that our lives are changing, society is going through massive change and so is dentistry. Our working lives are changing as much as our home live. On the positive side, we are living longer healthier lives, technology has given us fresh, exciting developments and the opportunities for variety in our career are broader than ever. As people live longer and keep their teeth into a ripe old age, periodontal disease will become even more important. It seems likely that dentists will develop their specialist skills whilst more routine dental treatments will become the province of dental therapists, dental hygienists and dental nurses. Direct access will become a driver. However it isn't the only factor, patient demographics, health, disease and technology will also play a role. Dentistry and the dental profession is entering a period of radical change, probably not seen since the inception of the NHS. The career opportunities for dental care professionals are, in my opinion, very bright, with a number of ways to develop.

All change!

This is a particularly exciting time for dental nurses to think about their future and where they want their career to go. On the less positive side, we are expected to prepare economically for retirement, which is likely to come at a later age. We are probably going to change our careers several times and maybe even re-train. I qualified from Birmingham Dental School in 1983. This was already my second career as I had trained as a Medical Laboratory Technician after leaving school and worked in Haematology and then Cytogenetics hospital laboratories for some years. In 2003, I made the decision to leave behind clinical work to try my hand at a non-clinical dental career and I can honestly say I have not regretted it.


Your career should not be static, it should be forever growing and evolving and the good news is that dentistry has a rich diversity of jobs and roles. I am a firm believer in a portfolio career, one that has a number of different aspects usually within one profession. Of course, there is nothing to prevent a portfolio spanning more than one profession, so you could have a role in dentistry and a role outside dentistry – it's your career, it's your portfolio. Because you build the portfolio careers, it means teach one is unique. You can't apply for a portfolio career in the same way you can apply for a senior dental nurse position. There is no one portfolio career, there are as many as the people who have them and that means, thousands, probably millions.

When making decisions about your career there are five steps that can help. These are:

  • What are your career goals?

  • What routes can you take?

  • What will you need to get there?

  • Develop your skills

  • Get prepared

Thinking about your career goals should take you some time. You should take time to consider what aspects of dentistry you really enjoy rather than think about a specific job. If you are too specific you could miss out when a job comes up that you hadn't thought about. Coaching can help here, a coach will support you to explore and clarify what your goals are, to set your vision for your future. The route map and the tools you need are steps that a mentor can help you with. A mentor is a more experienced, usually senior colleague who can share their experience with you, sometimes opening doors or introducing you to ideas that you hadn't considered.

In the table below I have given you some areas of dentistry to think about and some of the roles that you could find there. It is not comprehensive, but it will give you an idea of the breadth of opportunity out there.

So, how do you go about developing your career, what do you need to do?

Before you can reap the rewards you need to put the work in and build a solid foundation. It doesn't just happen and it won't happen overnight. How can you build a solid foundation? Here are some ideas:

  1. The basics, knowledge and skills Before you can build a portfolio, you need a solid knowledge of dentistry. It's vital to have this for credibility and to ensure you have the confidence to branch out and diversify. Five to ten years working with patients should ensure that you know your ‘stuff’.

  2. Try different things Be the person who says ‘yes’ when a new project is talked about. Be curious about new ideas and new opportunities. Get involved. Remember that opportunities can be both clinical and non-clinical. Getting involved means saying yes. Yes to serving on a committee, yes to project managing a new development in your practice or organisation, yes to being a trainer. Often it may not be obvious how it will aid your career, career development is not always linear, in fact it probably almost always isn't. If you know how to, you can gain from most of what you do. These are the jobs that you don't usually learn about when you are training, but they will build your skills in communication, leadership, management and politics. For example, working on a committee can strengthen your negotiation capability.

  3. Experience This is linked to basics, knowledge, skills and trying out different things. Together these will increase and broaden your experience. For a truly solid foundation you need both breadth and depth in these areas. It will take time, probably a few years. If you work with a mentor they can share their years of experience with you and give you confidence to build your own. Rarely is experience lost and even if a new project/role/piece of work doesn't seem to immediately apply to your current work, it probably will in the future.

  4. Network A network is essential. Your network should begin early in your career and grow throughout your career. Some people in your network will remain and some will come and go. The people in your network will support you, either personally or professionally and sometimes both. Some people in your network will be there for a very specific reason, they may have a particular skill or experience that you may only call upon occasionally. Some people in your network will act as sounding boards to give you their advice, others may be able to put you in touch with people from their own network that have helpful advice for you. Keep contact details of colleagues, you meet, build your LinkedIn profile. It's important to make the most of the skills and experience you have. I don't mean over doing it, but many dental professionals are poor at understanding or appreciating the non-clinical skills they have. Yes, most of us have great chair-side skills, but we are all so much more.

  5. Training and Qualifications In the dental profession we all have our basic training and qualifications, those we need to apply for registration. To build a portfolio career additional training, education and qualifications will pave the way. I don't mean continuing professional development which is more about maintaining our knowledge and competence. Think about taking a short course to gain management skills, perhaps undertake extended duties training. You could take a certificate in medical education. There are lots of training and further qualifications you can take, all of them will help you to expand your portfolio.

  6. Self knowledge The better you know yourself, the easier it will be to tailor your development and know those opportunities to take advantage of. You can do that by asking colleagues to help you with 360 feedback, you could work with some one trained in Meyers Briggs feedback to help you understand your personality preferences, you could take a short course in neuro linguistic Programming. A mentor or coach will be able to introduce you to other tools, for example Honey and Mumford or Belbin. There are a lot out there.

  7. Build a core curriculum vitae (CV) A core CV is one that you build for yourself alone, it is not used when applying for jobs. It will include all of your training, education, qualifications, the projects you have undertaken, the skills and experience you have developed. It's an aide memoire so that when you apply for a job you don't forget what you have done, as your career progresses and you do more and more, it's easy to forget. You can also tailor a CV much more quickly when you already have a core prepared.

It's never too late

You can build your portfolio at any stage of your career and the longer you have worked in dentistry the easier you may find it. You will have more experience, you will have developed more skills and your confidence in your own abilities should be better developed. Of course, sometimes the reverse can feel true and you may need the support of a coach or mentor to boost your confidence. As you gather years of experience your ability to expand your career will increase and you can achieve a varied portfolio of professional interests and roles. I also believe full retirement to be a concept that is undergoing radical change in society, therefore older professionals may find this the perfect time to take a further qualification and become an adviser, trainer, coach, mentor or inspector. It's never too late.

To conclude this article I have the permission of two colleagues to share with you a little of what they do. The first outlines the role of a fitness to practice investigating panel member, the second is a potted curriculum vitae. Both began their careers as dental nurses and both are truly inspirational members of the profession who demonstrate a flavour of the opportunities available to dental nurses in developing their career.

Fitness to Practice (F2P) Investigating Panel Member

Mrs. Geraldine Birks (by kind permission)

Ms. Sophie Beard, Orthodontic Therapist (by kind permission)

After leaving school in 1993, I went to Equine College for two years. I then went to the USA in the summer of 1995 to do Camp America. Coming back, I really wanted to start some kind of career and went looking for a job. I found a dental nurse job and that's where it all began. I studied for my dental nursing qualification and got hungry for study. I have enjoyed completing various courses and exams along the way working in various practices from general dental to specialist practice (implantology, periodontics, endodontics and orthodontics) and was so happy when all my qualifications came together as a diploma in dental nursing. The same year I started orthodontic therapy. I have always worked full time until three years ago I had my son and worked part time. I have just had twin girls and will be going back this year to work part time. I continue to examine on the RCS (eng) OT exam. I qualified as an Orthodontic Therapist in 2008 from the Yorkshire Orthodontic Therapy Course after receiving a City and Guilds Diploma in Dental Nursing in 2007. Previously I was a qualified dental nurse for 12 years and in that time I completed post registration courses in; Dental Radiography, Oral Health Education and Orthodontic Nursing. I am an examiner for the Orthodontic Therapy Examination at the Royal Collage of Surgeons in England and a member of the Orthodontic Nurses and Therapists National Group. Continuing professional development is important to me and I attend courses with the British Orthodontic Society and other teaching bodies.

Potted Curriculum VitaeSource: How to develop your career in dentistry

In writing this article, I have drawn on some of the source material and research I undertook to write ‘How to develop your career in dentistry’, published in 2015. Brooks J (2015) How to develop your career in dentistry. Wiley Blackwell, Oxford.


Related links

Back to listing