Dental Student Research

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Student Debt's Effect on Career Choices

Among dental students in the U.S., 85% "graduated with an average of $287,000 in student loans." Our research found that there is a direct correlation between plans to pursue a dental career in private practice and higher levels of student debt. We also found a direct correlation between plans to pursue a dental career in a government practice setting and lower levels of student debt.

The Affects of Student Debt on Dental Students' Career Choices

1. American Dental Education Association Survey Results

  • In 2017, the American Dental Education Association (ADEA) surveyed 4,799 U.S. dental students in their senior year about their post-graduation careers plans.

A. Private Practice

  • Private practice was most popular among the three groups with $200,000 or more in student debt, as 50% or more of the participants in each group planned to pursue a career in private practice after graduation.
  • Of those three groups, private practice was most popular among those with $250,000 to $299,999 in student debt, as 55.1% of the participants in that group chose such.

B. Internship or Residency

  • Plans to pursue a dental internship or residency is weakly correlated with student-debt level.
  • That is demonstrated through the fact that 41.8% of those with $150,000 to $199,999 in debt planned to pursue this career option, while about the same percentage of those with no debt said the same (40.8%).

C. Armed Forces

D. Federally Qualified Health Center

E. Unsure & Other

  • The percentages of those who said they were unsure of their career plans after graduation were relatively equal among all debt levels.
  • However, the group that had the most participants unsure of their careers plans was those with the highest level of debt ($300,000 to $349,999), as 3.5% said so.
  • The last career plan category that yielded meaningful results (about 1% to 2% of respondents per debt level) was titled "other position related to dentistry." This intended career choice was relatively equal in popularity among all debt levels.
  • However, none of the 85 participants in the $30,000 to $49,999 debt level chose this post-graduation career choice.
  • Yet, this career choice was most popular among those with $29,999 or less in student debt.

2. Private Practice vs. Government Practice

  • In addition to the previously discussed 2018 ADEA survey, we also found an article that analyzed findings from the ADEA's 2015 survey specifically comparing dental students' plans to pursue a career in either private practice or a government practice setting.
  • Though this data is from a few years ago, we included it as supplemental to the aforementioned 2017 survey for two reasons: (1) It shows the extent to which dental students' career plans have changed since; and (2) It provides an excellent, visual depiction of how career plans change based on student-debt level.
  • The 2015 findings made one point crystal clear: (1) The higher the level of a dental graduate's debt, the more likely they are to choose private practice (and by a lot).
  • Among those who graduated with no debt, around 40% planned to pursue private practice, while around 17% planned to practice in a government setting.
  • At the $30,000 to $50,000 debt level, around the same percentage of dental graduates planned to pursue private practice versus a government-service practice.
  • However, above the $30,000 to 50,000 debt level, there was a vast disparity between plans to pursue private dental practice or government-service practice.
  • At and above the $200,000+ student-debt level, nearly all the graduates planned to pursue private dental practice.

3. Additional Findings (Location, Underserved Populations, & Specialization)

  • Dental school debt is believed to lead dental graduates to look for jobs in urban locations, since there are larger client bases there.
  • That premise is further supported by the fact that people in the U.S. who reside in rural settings generally have a more-difficult time finding a dentist.
  • Student debt has affected some dental graduates' career choices in that their financial obligations have dissuaded some from pursuing full-time practices dedicated to rendering services to underserved populations, since they have to focus on making a lot of money to pay off their loans.
  • An article published in the Journal of the American Dental Association explained that dental graduates with higher levels of "debt were less likely to specialize."

Research Strategy

To analyze how student debt affects dental students' career choices, we prioritized quantitative data illustrating such because it directly shows the career choices of dental students. The source of the quantitative data we cited came from a very reputable source, the American Dental Education Association. All our findings, both quantitative and qualitative, pertain to the U.S. Examples of sources we consulted and cited to throughout our research were the American Dental Association and Decisions in Dentistry, among others. Together, this research approach provided us with insights about how student debt affects dental students' career choices.