Is a big or small dental office right for you?

signpost with cons and pros text pointing in opposite directions

Ask any assistant whether they prefer working in a larger or smaller dental office, and you’re likely to hear a variety of answers. After all, no two dental assistants are alike, the same way every dental office differs.

Laura R., CDA, CPFDA, CRFDA, has worked in both settings. “I love and have worked well in both. There are always pros and cons to each. Some people thrive in a huge setting, and some people don’t.”

Whatever your preference, the size of the practice where you work can be a factor in whether you experience high job satisfaction — and having high job satisfaction can make a big difference for dental assistants.

Below, we share five questions you may want to ask yourself when choosing the perfect practice size for you.

1. How do you prefer to learn on the job?

You may want to consider whether you’re interested in working and learning alongside just one dentist or two dentists in a small setting, or with multiple dentists in a large practice.

Paula, who has worked as a dental assistant in a variety of offices, prefers a large-practice setting. “I’ve found that the best learning environment has been working in a fast-paced office with several operatories and dentists who were willing to give us a chance.”

However, some dental assistants say working in a small setting, with one dentist or two dentists, provides unique opportunities for mentorship.

Michelle C., CDA, fondly recalls her early experiences assisting in a smaller, slower-paced environment alongside her local dentist. “He was new to the area where we lived, and since we were not busy in the beginning, he took the time to teach me. I will always be grateful to him for that.”

Kelly N., CDA, also believes working with fewer dentists is ideal. “It’s so much more personal to work with the same dentist every day. When this is the case, I believe the dentist as well as the assistant learn from each other more thoroughly about dentistry, as well as each other’s routines, personalities, work preferences, pet peeves, boundaries and more.”

When it comes to learning, Laura adds that the best option comes down to preference. “It really depends on a person’s individual learning style.”

2. Do you like having more or fewer colleagues?

Team size can also be a top consideration when choosing the best dental workplace for you. As you may expect, the larger the practice, the larger your dental team is likely to be. For some dental assistants, there is a positive draw toward this type of setting. Dental assistants who work with larger teams say they enjoy group camaraderie and having more colleagues to learn from and lean on.

“What I loved the most about being in a large practice is we had a wonderful team,” says Laura. “We all worked together really well, and it was nice to have all that extra support — especially if I was having a rough day.”

On the flip side, working with many colleagues could have its drawbacks, Laura adds. “The more employees, the more personalities to learn to work with, especially if there is a lot of turnover.”

Comparatively, in a small setting, some dental assistants say they cherish working in a close-knit team. For these assistants, the dental office can feel like their home away from home. This has been Stephanie B.’s experience: “We are a very small office, and our team is like family.”

Of course, with fewer co-workers, it’s important for the team to communicate. When you see each other every day in a small setting, it can be difficult to keep your distance in the event there’s any team tension. “Working together day-to-day in a small office, with everyone always in each other’s business, can be challenging,” admits Karen M., CDA.

3. Do you prefer a slower or faster workday pace?

Another factor to consider is whether you prefer to work in the fast-paced atmosphere that’s typical of a large office, or in a slower-paced setting that can be true of a smaller practice. Some dental assistants say they prefer the hustle and bustle of a larger office, where you can observe more procedures and work with a variety of people, co-workers and patients. “In a corporate setting, it’s go-go-go,” says Jennifer M.

Those who work for a large practice might even travel to different dental offices under the same practice ownership. For some, this can be a welcomed change of scenery and pace. Such has been the case for Melanie F., CDPMA, who works for a large family-owned dental practice with 14 offices. “Every dental clinic has its own personality,” she says. “I’m constantly learning.”

Other dental assistants look forward to working in one smaller office where the routine and patient workload can be a bit more predictable. “I’m the only assistant in the back, so that gives me a much more personalized approach to the whole clinical area, and I spend more time with our patients,” Laura says. “I have much more control over the organization and management of my environment.”

4. Is flexible scheduling important to you?

You may also want to consider how the practice size may affect your work-life balance. In a smaller office, a busy day might feel more overwhelming if you have fewer colleagues to rely on. “I’m the only assistant most of the time,” says Debbie R. “I very rarely take a break.”

Another dental assistant, who wishes to remain anonymous, adds: “Being the only assistant with one doctor can be very stressful, although it is possible to do.”

In a larger dental practice, flexible scheduling is more likely. Ann Marie L. has observed that someone is always available to provide patient care where she works. “Our office is very large, but we have enough staff on hand that we all take care of each other and make sure breaks happen and that everyone is treated fairly.”

But not all large practices are diligent about employee breaks. As one assistant says: “I have been with the same office for 28 years, which is now corporate-owned. We are extremely overworked due to the scheduling in our office.”

5. Are you comfortable with change?

When it comes to choosing the right practice size for you, you might also want to consider the possibility and effects of turnover or changes in ownership. For example, in a large practice, turnover may have less of an impact for the dental team, since dental assistants are already used to working with a variety of dentists and other team members.

On the other hand, if you work in a small office, changes to the dental team can have a bigger impact — for example, if the dentist decides to retire.

Mona L. experienced some frustration when this happened to her. “I worked for a dentist for 16 years, and I always felt I did everything right each and every time. Under the new owner, it seems that nothing is ever right.”

Melanie S. also has experienced having a new employer in a smaller practice, but she says the change has been a positive one overall. “I started dental assisting in 1979 for an amazing doctor who recently retired. Now, I work for our new dentist. I am so happy to still be employed at this wonderful office. The whole staff is amazing.”

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