Have You Thought of a Career in Public Health?

In Impact by Dental Entrepreneur

Are you reading this article because you are interested in dental public health? Or perhaps public health in general? I hope so, because the field of public health is growing and looking for passionate, forward thinking, generous professionals like yourself. The information provided is derived from personal experience and from the wisdom of my great mentors at Nova Southeastern University and the Harvard School of Dental Medicine. The field of dental public health is small, so the women who helped contribute to this article are examples of some of the great mentors that you will have if you choose to follow this path.

In fact, Mary Tavares of the Harvard School of Dental Medicine says that her favorite part of dental public health is “the people. My colleagues in this field are a diverse, well-rounded and interesting group with an amazing commitment to their work. My students also fit that description, and it is very gratifying to help them find their path in this field.” I echo these sentiments. Being a new in the world of public health, I’ve been welcomed with open arms.

Here is a list of the amazing women who contributed to this article and continue to enrich the profession of dental public health:

  • Linda Niessen, Dean of Nova Southeastern University College of Dental Medicine
  • Monina Klevens, Director of Research and Evaluation Bureau of Infectious Disease and Laboratory Sciences at the Massachusetts Department of Public Health
  • Mary Tavares, Program Director of the Dental Public Health Residency at the Harvard School of Dental Medicine
  • Kathryn A. Atchison, Professor UCLA School of Dentistry
  • Jane A. Weintraub, Alumni Distinguished Professor, UNC School of Dentistry and former UNCSD Dean.

What is Public Health Dentistry?

Public health dentistry is one of the nine recognized specialties by the American Dental Association.

“Dental Public Health (DPH) is that part of dentistry providing leadership and expertise in population-based dentistry, oral health surveillance, policy development, community-based disease prevention and health promotion, and the maintenance of the dental safety net.”1

Dean Linda Niessen of Nova Southeastern University knew that when she was drawn to dental public health early in her career. Early in her career she wondered, “Why do certain populations have more dental diseases than others? Why was oral cancer more prevalent in African Americans? Why were the Pima Indian people more likely to get periodontal diseases? Why did certain population groups seem to have less access to dental care?” Do you find yourself asking the same or similar questions? If so, maybe a career in dental public health is your dream career. 

I love public health dentistry for the constant diversity it offers. If you ask 10 orthodontists what they do, you might get a pretty similar answer. “I have a private practice in …” But if you ask 10 public health dentists what they do, it will seem like you spoke to professionals with 10 different degrees. The versatility in this specialty is unique and something that I personally needed. I am always looking forward to my next project, and every project seems to be totally different from the last. Beyond the flexibility in career choices it offers, it speaks to my passion for giving back to the human race. I have the opportunity to offer my time and care to patients, but I also have the education to help change the policies behind what affects oral health and access to care in our communities.

While conducting these interviews, I learned that these six women have worked as dentists at neighborhood health centers, private practices and hospitals. They have been employed at the Massachusetts Department of Health, conducted dental sealant programs, conducted research, worked at the Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) and the Indian Health Service (IHS). They have led other government organizations, had full-time academic careers, part-time academic careers, worked as a Chief Clinical Officer for a global dental product company and have had careers as academic provosts or deans. In my opinion, career diversity is an underappreciated aspect to dental public health.

One unique story is that of Dr. Klevens. She was completing her MPH years ago when she heard about the Epidemic Intelligence Service (EIS) through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and she was encouraged to apply. She did so and “24 years later, I can say that the EIS program and a career at CDC transformed my interests and skill set.  Anyone interested in learning more about it can visit the website2.”

If you are truly interested in public health, take a look at the competencies for a master degree in public health3 and a dental public health specialty4. They are the cornerstones to many other educational programs across the country. If these topics leave you salivating and dreaming up ideas in your free time, this is the right career choice for you.

How Can You Make an MPH Fit in Your Schedule? 

There are multiple reasons why students don’t go on to pursue an education in dental public health. One is the perception of possibly receiving a lower income, and the other is the time that it takes to achieve another degree.

In my opinion, there are four ways to incorporate an MPH into your lifestyle:

– Participate in a dual DMD/MPH track during dental school. Today, many schools offer a dual degree through their dental school. Be sure to ask your administrators if this is offered through your school. 

– Take a quick one-year sabbatical! In the grand scheme of life, one year is a blip, and there are numerous MPH degrees that you can complete in one year. The top two in the country are John’s Hopkins (Baltimore) and Harvard (Boston).5 Take a look at programs in your area and see if they have a one-year track.

– Take night classes. Many of you cringe at the thought, but this was the absolute best option for me. Nova Southeastern University offered an online/onsite hybrid program where I could go home and take certain classes in the evenings and complete my capstone project onsite. Depending on where you do your MPH this might be a great option. You could even do this while working or during a two-year residency program. Just so you know, since you will be going in the evenings part-time, this program usually takes two years. I completed mine in four semesters and one summer, during which I took 1-2 classes.

– Lastly, take an extended GPR. One of my good friends decided to do a two-year GPR that involves special-care dentistry. While she was in the residency, she pursued her MPH in the evenings, and ta-daa, completed both degrees on time!

An MPH is the stepping stone to starting your dental public health residency. You can see in the chart below how they compare. 

Many students ask if you do dentistry in a DPH residency. I think that’s a great question. A dental public health residency is a specialty program just like periodontics, orthodontics or endodontics. When you apply, most programs require an MPH prior to admittance. Some programs have clinical components, and other programs are more focused on research and didactic learning. Most programs have a yearly tuition that ranges from $30,000-60,000. Most dental public health residencies accept foreign trained dentists, but be sure to check the ADA Pass website prior to application. The majority of programs accept dentists to either full-time or part-time positions, which makes it easier to work into your schedule. On average, full-time residencies can be completed in 12 months, and part-time residencies can be completed in 24 months.Very few MPH programs offer an emphasis in dentistry, however the program at A.T. Still University located in Arizona does! If you are interested in specifically working in dental public health, you may want to look into one of the 16 residencies across the country.

The way I like to summarize the differences between an MPH and DPH is that an MPH is the stepping stone to a dental public health residency (DPH). Many students receive the MPH prior to becoming a dentist if they took a year to re-apply to dental school and strengthen their application, or they applied for a dual-degree program. Many professionals with an MPH and a DMD/DDS work in public health, and those who pursue a specialty degree are looking for training to be qualified for more intense research roles, leadership roles or advanced roles in academia.

The students I mentor always ask me if they need an MPH. My answer is that it depends on what your goals are. Former Dean Jane Weintraub from UNC School of Dentistry helped answer this question. She said, “It is a big advantage to have an MPH degree if you want to pursue a career in public health. You will gain a population perspective that is different from the individual patient care focus that is emphasized in dental school. If you want to pursue a research career, a PhD or equivalent, it is increasingly helpful and recommended for obtaining an academic position, but it is not absolutely necessary if you have strong research mentors and obtain research experience in another way.

“I recommend thinking about what makes you get up and go every day, what really invigorates you? This will help you design a vision for your career and education.”

I love how Katherine Atchison from the UCLA School of Dentistry stated, “Whether as a student or dentist, you can start by getting involved in community-based activities, because as a dentist there is so much need out there! I learned as a young dentist that nursing homes and public schools always need guidance in oral health. Your local dental society and departments of public health often have programs to provide dental care, administer exams or participate in a sealant program. Many dental schools offer programs to let dental students explore each of the dental specialties. Get involved in a research study and submit an abstract to the National Oral Health Conference—the most exciting DPH conference.”

For many, you are starting these projects while you are in school. Don’t forget, even when you graduate from dental school, communities need dentists like you to be involved. Stay involved in your local environment and continue to give back in a positive way. Over the years, you will see what a positive impact you can make on the smiles of mankind.

One the other hand Mary Tavares, reminds us that “it is important to learn as much as possible about the field of DPH and realize that it goes far beyond community outreach projects that are common in dental school.”

She explained, “Joining a student chapter of AAPHD and attending their national meeting (National Oral Health Conference) is a very good way to learn more. Also, reading the Journal of the AAPHD can highlight the vast variety of activities that encompass the DPH profession. “

Lastly, one of the many benefits of the field of dentistry—and more specifically dental public health—is the ability to maintain a work/life balance. As a female dentist, Dean Niessen offered great advice.

“Balancing career and family is an art and a science,” she said. “You learn quickly that you don’t have to get an A+ in everything. Sometimes balls drop but the sun still rises in the east the next day.”

For many women, not getting an A+ is a difficult transition, remembering the big picture of your life and your career are important. Raising children who grow into young professionals and seeing positive change in the communities that you serve are great reminders that the key to life is to not worry about the ball that dropped, but get up and be ready for the next one coming.

Hopefully, this guide to dental public health serves as a starting point for you to begin exploring, asking questions and digging deeper into your future career serving in dental public health. And if you are ever on the fence remember, “Just DeW it!”


1. “Oral Health Topics.” Dental Public Health. American Dental Association, n.d. Web. 28 Apr. 2017.

2. “Epidemic Intelligence Service.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 20 Apr. 2017. Web. 28 Apr. 2017.

3. “Core Competencies in Public Health.” Master Public Health. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 Apr. 2017.

4. Altman, Donald, and Ana Karina Mascarenhas. “New Competencies for the 21st Century Dental Public Health Specialist.” Journal of Public Health Dentistry 76 (2016): n. pag. Web.

5. “Top Public Health Schools – US News Best Graduate Schools.” U.S. News & World Report. U.S. News & World Report, n.d. Web. 28 Apr. 2017.

Erinne Kennedy DMD, brings to you real life experience in public health,wellness, and leadership for women. She graduated from Nova Southeastern University’s College of Dental Medicine in 2015 and then attended a one-year general practice residency at the VA Hospital in Baltimore,MD. Erinne has a passion for giving back,and is currently working toward a dental public health specialty at Harvard University in Boston, MA. She is currently a blogger forIgniteDDS, an alumnus writer for ASDA, a contributing editor for Dental Product review, and on the Junior Editorial board for DeW.

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