International Dentist Guide for Volunteering vs Shadowing: Where to Start

Some U.S. work experience is considered almost mandatory for admissions to an Advanced Standing Program as an international dentist these days. This is most commonly done by either shadowing or assisting a dentist in the states. This has always been a pretty standard thing for traditional dental students, but for foreign-trained dentists it started to become an “unspoken requirement” as competition became fierce and as everyone started to do everything they could to improve their chances.

The biggest reasons programs like to see this experience is because it’s proof that you are a normal person that can get along with and work with other people in the U.S. culture, and it shows that you know what a U.S. dental office is like and you still want to become a US dentist – you know what you are getting yourself into and you’re sure you want it. So it’s like a safety net for them.

If you know a dentist to shadow or assist already, that’s fantastic. The trouble starts if you have no connections to a dentist in the states, need to make connections somehow, but have no idea where to start. It’s intimidating just having to reach out to someone cold, ┬ábut on top of that you have a favor to ask – “May I shadow you?” and you’re thinking, ‘maybe after a while if the dentist starts to like me I can even assist, someone will say yes, and when that happens I can finally write about it on my CV and ask for a recommendation letter’.


Well, not exactly.

That scenario can play out if you meet an angel-dentist, but we have a better way of tackling this situation than finding that ‘really nice person’.

Why would a dental office, which is essentially a business, want to “help” you, a stranger?

‘Because,, I don’t know. That’s why it’s so hard to find an office to shadow at, I don’t know what to do!’

Well, let me tell you, they are not interested in helping you, they are interested in their business. Having someone shadow means their already-cramped operatory becomes even more crowded because someone is in the way. The hallways are small and people are busy, not interested in having one more body blocking the hallways. More importantly, patient’s don’t like to be watched. Patients are their customers, why on earth would the doctor want someone to observe in their office?

But. Dental offices are always concerned of overhead, ALWAYS. So why not present yourself as a help (a.k.a. free labor) for the office?

Most dental offices always have staff issues. They could use another assistant but their not always busy enough, and they don’t want to increase their overhead. Sometimes their busy but not always, and when they are slow they often even try to send their assistants home so they don’t need to pay them for those hours. And sometimes people quit with a short notice and they really need someone to fill-in, fast. Whatever their story might be, you can help.

Everyone loves free (I bet you do to), who wouldn’t love free workforce? Someone to work at their office that already knows so much about dentistry, and they don’t even need bo be payed?!! What’s not to love about that? Doesn’t this sound like a much better angle to approach them than “May I shadow you, please?”

Will everyone say yes if I say “I’ll work for you for free?” NO, absolutely not, and here’s why.

  1. Most dentists don’t feel comfortable having another dentist watch them practice, it’s their insecurities. If you tell them that you are a dentist from your country, their response might be defensiveness and not wanting you close-by watching them work.
  2. They might just not need an extra hand at the moment, that’s possible too.
  3. They might be super-careful people that want to make sure everyone that works in their office has certain personality traits to keep their brand image a particular way.
  4. They might be managed by a bigger company, in which case, they might not be able to accommodate you even if they wanted to. A lot of offices are like that these days, and you can’t always tell from their name.
  5. They might feel wary and not trust you. Free labor is hard to come by, and it sounds too good to be true. Why would anyone come work for free, especially when you are already a dentist, what are you here for?

You can’t do anything about the second,third, and fourth cases, but for the first and fifth objections, it’s all about communication. Always think from their point of view and make them feel comfortable having you by. Make sure they feel you as a trustworthy ally and not an enemy or someone to be careful of.

Here are some tips.

  1. If you are already in the states, rather than emailing or calling, try visiting the office and talking face-to-face. No need to tell the front-desk staff too much, but just ask if you can talk to the doctor when she/he gets a chance. They will ask what it’s for and you can just say something like, you are wanting to go to dental school and wanted to see if you volunteer in the office. Most likely they’ll connect you with the doctor.
  2. Don’t send or hand over your CV, they don’t need it.
  3. Be honest, when you have a few minutes with the doctor, explain that you’ve graduated from dental school in your country and thinking about going to dental school in the states, and would like to know more about a U.S. dental office by volunteering.
  4. Be humble, don’t position yourself as a doctor (even though you are one). Most likely when you do that they will show you respect and maybe even treat you as a equal doctor.
  5. Don’t be afraid, the worse that can happen is them saying “no” to you, and many will. Expect some rejections before finding the right place, but remember that even though rejections aren’t fun, they do you no harm. You only need one office to say yes to you.

I promise you, one day this will all be a distant memory you can smile back at work, so stay focused on your goal and keep on going!

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  1. payal September 27, 2014 at 1:19 pm - Reply

    Really helpful tips…thank u so much ­čÖé

  2. Shravanthi July 15, 2014 at 1:42 am - Reply

    Hi Dr.Alyssa,

    Im a foreign trained dentist, and was wondering if any universities allow shadowing on campus? Iv been researching online but havent found anything useful. Please help!

  3. orchid January 21, 2014 at 12:28 pm - Reply

    Thanks a lot for such valuable information regarding how to approach a dentist to ask for shadowing. I had been pretty lucky regarding shadowing opportunities. Have many good, down to earth dentists in the area. Almost everyone I e-mailed replied and said yes for shadowing.
    I am curious regarding options with dental schools, I contacted one of the schools and they are willing to allow shadowing in their dental camp for a fixed day. Can I mention shadowing of just 1 day at a dental school camp in my resume. Is it beneficial?

    • Dr. Alyssa January 23, 2014 at 10:02 am - Reply

      Hey Orchid,
      I’d say mention it. It’s just a day event but shows that you actively found a way to be involved, even better if you can participate in more than one. Good luck!

    • slk April 15, 2014 at 1:15 pm - Reply

      hi orchid,
      I am a foreign trained dentist and looking for volunteering oppurtunities ..can u please tell me how to write mails for dentists for shadowing…good luck for your interviews in dental schools.

  4. Shruti August 18, 2013 at 8:25 am - Reply

    Thats so true..I came to your article after i hv already got the opportunity to shadow in a clinic .All u hv written is 100% true and i can relate to each and every point of urs.While i was going thru the article,at every point i felt as if my experiences hv been jotted down.Definately,’persistence’is the key to success..

    • Dr. Alyssa August 18, 2013 at 12:05 pm - Reply

      Yes persistence it is, thanks for leaving your thoughts and good luck with everything!

  5. diyathampi May 10, 2013 at 3:04 pm - Reply

    Awesome post Dr. Alyssa.. This really motivated me to do the right thing now that I know how to do it. I have been finding it difficult to decide how to approach a dentist and improve my resume. Thank you for the helpful insight. Really appreciate it. ­čÖé

    • Alyssa May 10, 2013 at 3:09 pm - Reply

      Happy to hear it inspired you to take action, thanks for your feedback!

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