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The Importance of Mentors and Identifying Compatibilities

Aspen Dental

Date: March 9, 2018

In studies by THE NEXTDDS, dental students have overwhelmingly expressed their interest in identifying mentors to assist in their career progression.

Mentoring relationships can range from loosely defined, informal associations between peers in which a mentee learns by observation to structured, formal agreements between expert dentists and novice clinicians where each develops professionally through the two-way transfer of experience and perspective. Whether the relationship is formal or informal, the goal of mentoring is to provide career advice as well as professional and personal enrichment.


Types of Mentoring Relationships

One of the most important distinctions is whether the mentoring relationship is considered formal or informal. Formal mentoring relationships are often mandatory—leadership in the practice, school, or organization assigns mentor dentists to newly hired associates. Their meetings are scheduled, tracked, documented, and evaluated based on clearly articulated goals and milestones.


Informal mentoring relationships are more spontaneous and based on loosely defined results. Often the mentee enters an informal mentoring relationship because of a self-motivated desire to do better. Whereas formal mentoring relationships tend to be more hierarchical, with seniority, status, and even age defining the mentor/protege relationship, informal mentoring is more likely based on trust or admiration. Dental schools that promote “bigs” and “littles” or such mentor structures are often the latter type.


Despite the benefits of mentoring throughout one’s career, the skills and type of advice needed inevitably change over time. At the beginning of a career in dentistry, a mentor with an emphasis on chairside proficiency or treatment planning may be appropriate. For example, a suitable mentor dentist might be someone who is highly technically skilled and can provide advice on ways to build hand skills or confidence in patient management. As organizational roles evolve, mentor dentists who can provide more practice related, organizational, and leadership skills can be beneficial. In the latter part of a career, retirement and succession planning guidance may become more important for a dental professional.

Types of Mentors

If you’re seeking for a mentor to support your dental school training, it is important to identify a compatible candidate or style:

  • The wise leader is usually a faculty member who is worthy of and willing to impart knowledge and wisdom to dental students
  • The life coach is a professional mentor, either from the school or community, who provides the necessary guidance.
  • The teacher is traditionally an educator, working with students to build their professional talents and skills, or someone who assumes the "honorary" role of teacher.
  • Peer mentors participate in informal, relationships in which colleagues or friends pair up to help each other grow professionally.
  • The confidante is not so much a mentor as someone to use as a sounding board.
  • The self-help mentor takes the form of books, articles, software, websites such as THE NEXTDDS, and so forth that provide guidance and/or advice on how to grow.
  • The inner mentor calls upon intuition to glean and mold life experiences into a personalized leadership philosophy.

Recognizing that professional development through mentorship can be highly beneficial to both mentor and mentee dentist, mentoring is a critical element in preparing students for daily practice. Mentorship represents an individual commitment to seeking out, identifying, and developing in a variety of ways into the leaders of the future.


Mentor Guiding Principles
Strive for mutual benefits
ach participant should openly share his or her goals for the relationship and work collaboratively to help achieve them.


Agree on confidentiality
Maintaining an environment of confidentiality is critical in building trust between the participants and allowing their relationship to reach its full potential.


Commit to honesty
Participants should candidly share what they expect to gain from the relationship and be prepared to offer frank feedback, even if the feedback is critical.


Listen and learn
Mutual benefit and honesty can only be achieved when both members feel their viewpoints are heard and respected.


Build a working partnership
Consider structuring a working partnership that includes project consultation or active collaborations rooted in the common ground of shared professional goals.


Lead by example
Actions create the most lasting impression.

Be flexible
It might help for a mentoring relationship to have defined goals, but the process may be as important—or more so—than the goals.