Professional development

Being a generalist in a specialised world

Dental business coach Alun Rees reflects on the benefits of taking a broad approach to developing your career

A broad outlook on the world
  • Date: 07 February 2023
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  • 5 minute read

ONE of the common comments I hear from dentists is that they had no idea what they were getting into at the age of 18 when they made their university and, therefore, career choices. It’s true that unless you have a family member who is actually a practising professional it is almost impossible to understand what might be involved both within and beyond working hours.

Many of us may have had a distorted idea of what the finished article might resemble, perhaps from observation of our personal experiences or impression of the life and style of someone in the role.

My own influences came from a wonderful GDP who transformed me from a gibbering nine-year-old phobic patient to someone aged 14 who wanted to emulate her personal skills. The phobia came from the heavy brusque hands of my first couple of experiences. It helped me to understand how just one bad experience might cause so much harm.

Naturally my parents, especially my mother, were delighted that I would want to embrace a clinical profession. She saw the position itself and the respect shown to it by society. She wanted both her sons to be perceived and accepted as such; my brother became a doctor and then a professor.

A broad focus

Would I choose dentistry again? Possibly not. Did I know enough when making my career choices to make such a profound decision? Definitely not. But I did choose, after an early spell in hospital work, to remain as much of a generalist as I possibly could. To that end I chose to “serve my time” in different types of practice, from 100 per cent NHS, six-handed, “amalgam factories” where production was the focus, to more laid back (and more mixed) rural practices where relationships were the key requirements. I also enjoyed clinical assistantships in orthodontics and oral surgery to provide some diversion. I have written that I worked in a range of practices to discover how I didn’t want my own practice to run; in that I was largely successful.

A more rounded clinician

Although I chose solo practice I ensured that my clinical and non-clinical interests meant that I had frequent excursions from my silo existence. Nothing had adequately prepared me for practice ownership, so I kept searching for the “one thing” that would make the difference. Of course one thing never existed, and still does not. But by following different paths I became a better generalist. Certainly my trips into the topics of cranio-sacral therapy and osteopathy, kinesiology, acupuncture, hypnosis, nutrition and behaviour opened up new interests that I believe made me a better, more rounded person and clinician.

I have recently re-read David Epstein’s book Range, which I recommend. Its subtitle, “How generalists triumph in a specialised world”, says much about his conclusions from his research. Epstein examined the world’s most successful athletes, artists, musicians, inventors, forecasters and scientists. He discovered that in many fields - especially those that are complex and unpredictable - generalists, not specialists, are primed to excel.

Generalists often find their path late, and they juggle many interests rather than focusing on one. They’re also more creative, more agile, and able to make connections their more specialised peers can’t see.

I felt that dentistry as a subject was more than specialised enough for my enjoyment and fulfilment. Seeking broader and more diverse experiences helped me to find a better place in my chosen profession. Certainly it made me more flexible and often assisted me in seeing a bigger picture.

Of course one must have experts and, like everyone, I have relied upon them time after time. Yet by being broader based I hope that I understood where my knowledge ended and which specialist within, or often outside, the dental tent was best placed to help my patients when I was not able.

Built-in flexibility

My outlook also meant that when, in my early 50s I became tired of my life as it was, I was able to move away from clinical work and pursue my changed career with enthusiasm and to embrace the personal and professional development opportunities that allowed.

Success has many definitions and it is unique to each and every individual. I have become concerned in recent years that school/to university/to work can become like a tunnel for many. The paths laid out offer few opportunities to stop, to move laterally and to learn broader sets of skills, other philosophies and alternative approaches.

I hear from people who are facing those “is that all there is?” moments, finding themselves confused and frustrated that the path they are on is not their path. I often suggest that they consider doing something perhaps not perceived as popular, but they know to have a value to recipients and practitioner. Even in such a specialised field as dentistry there are opportunities to embrace another facet to make you a more rounded and useful generalist.

This page was correct at the time of publication. Any guidance is intended as general guidance for members only. If you are a member and need specific advice relating to your own circumstances, please contact one of our advisers.

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