Programmer to Pediatric Dentist

Dentistry, Lifestyle

One evening my father came home from a dinner party and told me that he had an interesting conversation with a gentleman he met there that said computers were going to be the future. This was in 1997. That, sadly, is how I resolved to be a computer science major in college. Which was okay by me since I was addicted to AOL chat rooms anyhow. I had no idea what computer science entailed, no clue about programming languages, no concept of coding at all. But a degree that lets me sit at the computer all day and allows me to talk to random strangers in chat rooms? Sign. Me. Up!

To this day, I have no idea how that random stranger at the party knew the world would be dominated by Microsoft, Amazon, Netflix, Google and AOL. Okay, maybe not so much AOL. But oh how I miss that thrilling static sound of the modem connecting, and the euphoric notification that I have mail once it finally logged in. But I digress.

Come to find out, the field of computers and information technology certainly did not need another Indian person. I did not know it until I began taking classes, and quickly came to realize the fact that everyone in the department looked like me.

It’s hard for me to say if I ever really became passionate about programming. I would guess not. I learned several languages relatively well (e.g. C++, Java, Assembly, Visual Basic, etc.). I liked very much the critical thinking component of it, and thoroughly enjoyed the challenge of troubleshooting and debugging code. For four years, I went through the motions and became technically just adequate. However, that intrinsic passion hackers have? It wasn’t in me.

I could not have picked a worse time to graduate. The year 2001, the dot-com era was crashing, programmers were getting laid off everywhere you looked, and tech companies were over-working the few people they did retain. I was fortunate enough to land a job shortly after graduating for a local company that invented and promoted casino games. It was not so much hardcore programming as it was web-design and some Flash scripting; but beggars can’t be choosers. The pay was embarrassingly low, but the owner of the company owned several properties around the world he would allow employees to vacation at, plus I had an office with an amazing view overlooking the world-famous Las Vegas Strip; perks like that mixed with a low-stress work environment prompted me to stay for several years. I had designed some logos, some websites, some online Flash games; all-in-all, it was a chill and semi-creative (but not professionally challenging) position.

A couple years into that job, a college friend reached out and let me know of an opening for a programming instructor at a trade school he was working at. I had a fear of public speaking at the time, and I immediately applied for that job for no other reason but to set myself on a path to conquer that fear.

When you are afraid, do the thing you are afraid of and soon you will lose your fear of it.
-Norman Vincent Peale

Let me tell you, it was stressful. Class typically ran about 5 hours between the lecture and the hands-on component, and averaged about 20 to 30 students. Coming up with a weekly curriculum that keeps peoples attention for such a long period of time was not easy. And I was teaching to people from all walks of life; different personalities, different motivations and pursuing different types of degrees. I would have multimedia majors, engineering, and of course programming students. It also took a minute for me to accept the fact that I was now the one delivering the PowerPoints, administering the tests and grading the assignments.

Throughout the week I would teach some evening classes from 6-11 pm as well as some Saturday morning or afternoon classes. I was lucky my 8-5 gaming job offered me a little flexibility to bow out early so I could drive across town to get to job #2 on time. Looking back, I am still not sure how I managed to balance both jobs successfully. In fact, years went by complacently, but then slowly I started to feel the tides changing.

My gaming job hired a new manager, who introduced stricter (and often times unrealistic) project deadlines. Within months of his arrival, that same manager brought on the bookkeeper’s husband to be an additional I.T. ‘support’ guy; which had an unsettling “I’m training my replacement” kind-of feel to it. I put in my two-week resignation soon after. Even the teaching job had some dark truths slowly come to light; their aggressive recruiting and marketing practices brought in just any warm body willing to pay their steep tuition costs, and ultimately lead to their closure by the Department of Education in 2016. Luckily I saw the writing on the wall well before that, and realized it was time for a life change.

Begrudged and disillusioned, I started brainstorming alternative career paths. By now I was in my mid 20’s, never worked in a real software-development setting, and was resolved to pursue a profession where I could be my own boss. I knew something in the medical field should meet that criteria, I just didn’t immediately know what to do. My younger brother was already on his path to becoming a physician and advised me that it may be too long of a road to medicine for me to start over with. My girlfriend (now wife) was a pharmacy-tech (now pharmacist) and cautioned me that there were constant patient complaints and insurance issues that comprised her day, and she would not recommend that pharmacy life for me. Thus the decision to pursue the field of dentistry was born. I could put in 4 years of professional school, graduate and jump right into private practice.

I began by just enrolling in a couple of pre-requisite classes that pretty much all health professionals would need to take. Basic biology, chemistry, organic chemistry, and biochemistry. Fortunately some pre-req’s overlapped my Computer Science bachelors degree and I did not need to put in any more time towards retaking them. Unfortunately, some recommended classes, like immunology, histology, anatomy and physiology, I had no time to squeeze in before the next application cycle for dental school. Something about returning to school, more focused and driven, gave me the determination and perseverance to excel and perform better the second time around. I got high mark’s in my classes, scored within the 90th percentile for my Dental Admissions Test (DAT), and was accepted into the UNLV School of Dental Medicine Class of 2011.

Unlike my computer science classes, I was the only Indian person in my dental school class. Not that it really mattered any, but I also felt like I did not have the same strong science foundation that most of my classmates learned while acquiring their undergraduate degrees. I quickly regretted not taking those recommended courses I mentioned earlier, and struggled with the plethora of didactic material my first couple of years. I also had a tough time early on with waxing teeth, and even had to remediate a bit over my first summer session.

Around third year, I started to find my element. Operative dentistry was going well, fabricating dentures was fun, and I had some successfully completed root canals. My confidence was building. However, in my fourth year – as graduation neared – a bit of reluctance started to kick in as I realized how slow a dental student’s schedule was compared to that of the real world, and how I had only barely skimmed the surface of the advanced procedures in dentistry like doing implants, veneers, and molar root canals.

Some soul searching, some profound apologizing to my wife that I needed an extra year to get comfortable, and a willingness to endure yet another stressful round of applications – but after jumping through those hoops, I got accepted into a year long post-graduate General Practice Residency (GPR). Meanwhile, as an attempt to get some real-world experience, I also chose to moonlight at a dental clinic on Saturdays. The office they assigned me to, interestingly enough, mostly saw children on weekends.

The more I worked around children, the more I loved it. I dreaded my week in the residency doing general dentistry, and absolutely adored my weekends with pediatrics. To the point that, I just knew, deep down, I wanted it to be a full-time gig. If asking my wife for a year long extension to my dental school training was difficult, imagine the sheer agony of having to tell her I wanted to return yet again for an additional two years of training. My brother’s advice about the medical route being too long was a moot point now, because I will have essentially dedicated seven years of my life to becoming a dentist.

I LOVE being a pediatric dentist. My personality type does well with monotony. I do a handful of procedures very well; as opposed to a general dentist needing to be competent at a large range of things. I don’t have to sell anything; I diagnose disease and present a plan to treat it. And best of all, I get to work with children; every one of them are so unique and it keeps the day exciting and entertaining.

“Find a job you enjoy doing, and you will never have to work a day in your life.”
― Mark Twain

I still do not own my own practice. I am still an employee, which, goes against one of my original goals for wanting to become a dentist. But I graduated with well over $200,000 in student loans; and opening up a dental office is pricey. My practice owners allow me a generous amount of autonomy, I am incredibly grateful to be able to work (in a lot of ways) by my own terms. Plus, my own kids are young; and instead of having the headaches of practice ownership, lease negotiations, staffing, billing, payroll, etc. – once I physically leave the office for the day and I also get to mentally check out and go spend time with my family.

Well, that was the journey. I worry about the long-term physical demands of dentistry. And just like everyone else, I get burnt out and drained from time to time. But I feel truly blessed to do what I do. I hope you are all able to find a job you can find some joy in.

Thanks for taking the time to read this lengthy post. Please, contact me with your own journey or with any questions about my own! Take care!