The cost of dental school can total hundreds of thousands of dollars, leaving graduates with significant debt before they even begin their career. Options are available, though, for aspiring practitioners who have a passion to serve both their patients and their country.
The US Navy is now recruiting students and recent graduates as well as established professionals for its Dental Corps. Those who enlist can benefit from scholarships and other financial aid that cover the costs of going to school completely, including specialty training after graduation, plus bonuses.
“If you’re an undergrad—say, a junior—and you’re about to take the Dental Admission Test (DAT) this summer, it would be best to talk to us right around the time you take the DAT,” said Chief Justin Rains, a naval recruiter. “That way we can start an application prior to your senior year and get it completed by the time you start applying to dental schools.”
The Navy then will pay for the dental school’s full tuition, regardless of whether it is a public or private school. It also will cover all books and fees. Plus, the Navy offers a $20,000 signing bonus and an approximately $2,200 a month stipend for expenses so students don’t have to worry about working to support themselves while they’re studying.
“Once you’re in dental school, you’re in dental school. That’s your main focus,” said Rains. “After that is when the service obligation will take effect, once you’re a fully trained dentist.”
Graduates report to Newport, RI, for the Navy’s 5-week Officer Development School as commissioned lieutenants. There, they learn leadership techniques in addition to naval history and culture. After that, they serve for 4 years with the Navy’s medical centers, with more than 250 facilities around the globe.
These recruits also could serve at sea on board the USNS Mercy and USNS Comfort, which are the Navy’s dedicated hospital vessels, or other larger ships like its aircraft carriers, where practitioners are responsible for the care of everyone on board. Procedures in any of these locations can range from exams to oral surgery. Dentists treat combat injuries as well.
“If you’re one dentist on a ship, and you have thousands of Marines and sailors, you do everything,” said Rains.
That broad range of treatment gives these recruits a wider variety of experiences than they would expect to get in the early years of private practice, Rains said. Naval dentists also can concentrate on treatment without worrying about malpractice insurance or getting reimbursed for providing care. The equipment is cutting-edge, too.
“We are on the forefront of emerging technologies,” Rains said. “Everything that comes out, the Navy is one of the first to get it. We’re a government agency, so a lot of the technology you see, we’re already into it.”
And like the civilian world, the Navy is concerned with ongoing learning. Its dentists can go on temporary assigned duty to attend seminars at conferences. For instance, many of its dentists in Newport travelled to the recent Yankee Dental Congress in Boston to catch up on their continuing education units. Courses also are offered in house.
These benefits aren’t just available to young dentists looking to establish themselves, though. The Navy is recruiting practitioners who are already working and willing to commit one weekend a month and 2 weeks a year for 3 years to the Naval Reserves. Typically, reservists simply report to a naval facility in their area for duty.
“You can keep your civilian job. You stay where you are. Your home is your home. Just that one weekend a month you travel to the nearest base to you. We have more than 10 in the New England area,” said Rains. “And then 2 weeks a year is when we utilize you more for your specialty.”
In fact, Rains said, many veterans who were on active duty in their youth join the Reserves later in life because of their commitment to service—though there are financial benefits too, including a $10,000 signing bonus for general dentists. New positions for general practitioners up to the age of 58 open up each October.
Right now, the Navy especially needs oral and maxillofacial surgeons. These specialists will receive a $75,000 signing bonus for the Reserves and a $300,000 signing bonus for active duty. Regardless of the specialty, and like their active duty colleagues, dentists in the Navy Reserve are commissioned as officers after completing training requirements.
To qualify for the Dental Corps, dentists must be US citizens currently practicing in the United States or graduates of an eligible dental school approved by the ADA. They also must be licensed to practice in a US state or territory. New graduates must get their license within a year of beginning active duty service.
Recruits get more out of serving than monetary rewards and practical experience, though. Dentists who serve gain valuable leadership skills, Rains said. Plus, there are opportunities for travel and a sense of community that can’t be found anywhere else.
“My family has grown while I’ve been in the Navy,” Rains said. “It’s been great to me. I’ve been able to see the world. I’ve been able to complete my education, and it’s given me security and a job that I love.”