Imagine completing dental school, diploma in hand, and striding right into a new job with a decent salary, no startup costs, and NO loan debt. You are probably scratching your head thinking, “Is this a dream or reality?”
For Air Force Captain Matthew Lee, DDS, it was both a dream and reality. As a graduate of the DDS class of 2014 at the University of Oklahoma College of Dentistry, he paid for dental school with a four-year Air Force scholarship. Accepted into dental school on December 1, 2010, he heard he received the Health Professions Scholarship Program (HPSP) just a few months later in February.
“When I was younger I thought about being a pilot or astronaut. It had always been in the back of my mind,” explained Lee. While in college, he heard about HPSP, and figured it was a way not to become buried in student loan debt while pursuing his career.
For Lee, joining the Air Force was a great way to get a dental school education. After four years, “If I want to stay, I can. If I want to leave, I can,” says Lee. “It’s a nice, relaxing way to continue to learn,” says Lee, and in a couple years, he can make an educated decision on whether he will stay in military service.
There is also a place in the military for dental school graduates as Federally Employed Dental Professionals. You can attain a broader spectrum of experience faster with cutting-edge technologies that may not be available in every private practice. Plus, there are many opportunities for continuing education in specialty fields.
HPSP can be an especially enticing idea for first-year students that have just started dental school and see their loan debt building, explained Lee. They can apply to receive a scholarship for the last three years of school.
Generally, each student is commissioned as an officer in the Medical Service Corps and placed on inactive, obligated Reserve status during the course of their studies. This arrangement takes a huge financial worry off students’ minds and allows them to dedicate time for learning. “I didn’t have a uniform until I graduated and headed to officer training,” says Lee.
What’s the catch? Through the U.S. Air Force, U.S. Army, and U.S. Navy, these scholarships are offered for one-, two-, three-, and four-year terms. (There is no program offered by the U.S. Marine Corps, since it receives medical services from the U.S. Navy.).
In exchange for the scholarship, your commitment to your chosen military branch is to serve as an active-duty member with a year-for-year repayment, with a minimum obligation of three years. While each military branch may propose slightly different terms, the concept is the same: you receive up to a four-year scholarship paying for dental school tuition, expenses, and a cost-of-living stipend. Your tour of duty begins after you complete any internship and residency training requirements for your career field.
Following that path, Lee is continuing his schooling in an Advanced Education in General Dentistry (AEGD) residency. Considered de rigor for Air Force dental recruits, AEGD is a one-year (optional two-year) program to enhance a graduate’s skills and knowledge base and usually take place in a clinical setting.
“With AEGD, you get exposed to every specialty. It's not like a traditional dental school educational environment, but more of a ‘learn by doing’ situation,” he explained. “I did quite a few IV sedations, third molar and periodontal surgeries, as well as far more root canals than in dental school. I also became fairly proficient in cuspal coverage amalgam,” says Lee. You find out what it would be like to practice oral surgery, prosthodontics, endodontics, periodontics, and orthodontics by working with specialists from other bases, he adds.
Students and dental school graduates considering starting their career in the military should weigh the pros and cons to figure out what might work best for them as individuals. If you want to be making millions when you finish dental school (that IS a dream, by the way), you might be disappointed with a military salary.
If dealing with insurance company red tape worries you, as a military dentist you’re able to give each patient the care they need without worrying about their ability to pay. If the idea of graduating dental school and jumping directly into private practice overwhelms you, then starting in the military may be a good way to build confidence and your clinical experience. Taking the private practice route may involve hefty startup costs, managing employees, building a patient base, and maintaining enough profit to pay off student loans.
If interested in reading more about Dr. Lee’s adventures as a dentist in the U.S. Air Force, follow his blog at http://usafdds.blogspot.com/