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Seven Suggestions for Initially Exploring a Possible Associateship Opportunity

Dental students may be given a checklist and/or a list of specific questions to ask an owner-dentist regarding associateships.  These types of resources tend to be geared for fairly detailed and targeted discussions and negotiations (e.g., regarding compensation, benefits, patient assignment) AFTER an initial meeting or two with the owner-dentist.  Over the years, I've been asked many times a more general question about how to approach an initial, exploratory meeting with an owner-dentist about a possible associateship opportunity.  These meetings often involve lunch or dinner, significant others, and tend to be on the informal side.

Following here are several recommendations for participating in these types of initial meetings.  Remember, if you are pursuing this engagement through a consulting firm, the company may have its own protocol and/or process.

1.  The most important task for you is to get a sense of compatibility for practicing together, particularly as related to practice philosophy and personality.  Ask open-ended questions such as, "Tell me about your practice philosophy…about managing patients…about dental treatment…about staff management."  As Dr. David Neumeister, a practitioner in Vermont advises, stay curious, ask open-ended questions with an open mind and withhold judgment when listening. 

The goal here is for you to gain an understanding of how the owner-dentist views practice, and then you have a better sense of whether this is consistent with what you envision.

2.  The second most important objective is to get a sense of the vision the owner-dentist has for the associateship relationship in the short and long term.  Again, ask open-ended questions such as "Where do you see the practice in two years?” Or, “In five years, where do you see the practice?"  "Describe the kind of relationship you are hoping for with an associate," and, assuming this is a future interest of yours, "How do you envision for a future buy-in/buy-out?”

The goal is for you to get a sense of the overlap of your career goals with those of the owner-dentist.

3.  In most cases, I would recommend that you NOT ask in this initial meeting about compensation, benefits, patient assignment, or other specific issues related to a future associateship contract.  These issues are usually reserved for future meetings.  Also, the owner-dentist may already have a contract in mind with these issues delineated.

4.  Pay keen attention to the way you are treated in the communication up to and including the initial meeting.  Does the owner-dentist follow-up with you on time or do you have to prompt him or her to follow through in scheduling the meeting?  These subtle but critical early signs may point toward future problems.

5.  Importantly, go with your intuition and that of your significant other.  If something doesn't seem right, this may be your heart forecasting future problems that would be better avoided than confronted. 

6.  Answer the owner-dentist's question in honesty and completeness.  Remember, he or she is also trying to discover if you will be a good fit for the dental practice.

7.  Obviously, you should dress and act professionally. 

Evaluating a possible associateship can be an exciting time in the career of any dental professional.  By using the above questions, and others that prompt candid discussion among you and the owner-dentist, a dialogue that can ultimately translate to a win-win opportunity for you both.

(Continued from page 1 )

Suggested Sources for Additional Reading


  1. American Dental Association. Associateships: A Guide for Owners and ProspectiveAssociates. Edition revised by Berning R and Domer LR. Chicago, IL: American Dental Association, 2005.
  2. American Dental Association. Transitions: Navigating Sales, Associateships & Partnerships in Your Dental Practice.  Edition by Hill R.  Chicago, IL: American Dental Association, 2008.
  3. Callan RS.  About associateships.  In: Dunning DG, Lange BM, eds.  Dental Practice Transition: A Practical Guide to Management.  Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell, 2008:387-409.
  4. Dunning, DG.  Walking with dental students through the minefields of associateship opportunities.  Dent Hypoth 2011;2:83-86.
  5. Halley MC, Lalumandier JA, Walker JD, Houston JH. A regional survey of dentists' preferences for hiring a dental associate.  J Am Dent Assoc 2008;139(7):973-979. 
  6. Heller E.  Top ten reasons associateships fail.  Preview Fall 1999:12-17.  A condensed version of this article was published again in 2009 in a two part series at www.dental-tribune.com.  The first part was accessed on July 31, 2009 at http://www.dental-tribune.com/articles/content/id/507. 


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