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The Toronto Sun CareerConnection

Sink your teeth into dentistry

By Susan Poizner
Special to The Toronto Sun

Once, the dentist's office was a very functional place. Some people remember visiting bleak rooms in the 1950s filled with frightening-looking equipment. There was no classical music or pictures to distract them from the often-painful work being done.

Fast forward to a private practice in 2003. The Springfarm Dental Centre in Thornhill is warm and welcoming. There are toys in the lobby for younger patients. Each treatment room is cheerfully decorated, and cartoons or talk shows play on wall-mounted TV sets.

Dr. Steven Colomby is one of the two partners in this centre. The 37-year-old clearly enjoys his work and loves chatting and joking with his patients. He decided to become a dentist early on, as a teenager with braces who had to visit his orthodontist once a week.

"I liked the interaction the orthodontist had with the kids. He always seemed to be having a good time, and I thought the idea of working with your hands was intriguing. My dad was an accountant, and to me the idea of working in dentistry seemed like a lot more fun."

To be a good dentist, you have to enjoy working with people, according to Dr. Benoit Soucy, director of membership and professional services at the Canadian Dental Association (CDA). "You also need a lot of common sense to diagnose and propose treatment plans."

With this type of medical career, manual dexterity is also essential. "A dental handpiece turns at 400,000 RPM. It can cut through almost anything. To use that kind of equipment you need to be very skilful," Dr. Soucy explains.

Dentistry is a popular and often lucrative career. Recent graduates starting a new practice may earn as little as $30,000 in their first year, according to Dr. Soucy. But with experience and a longer patient list that income can rise to more than $100,000.

Before applying to dental school, an aspiring dentist must take the DAT (Dental Aptitude Test) exam. Run by the CDA, it includes both a written test, and a manual dexterity component calling for students to carve a complex three-dimensional pattern into a tiny piece of soap.

The test, which is runs in 17 test centres across the country and takes place twice a year, attracted almost 1,900 students last year. Canada has 10 dental schools offering about 400 places for new students.
Dr. Steven Colomby

For those who make it, the work has only just begun. Often students will have to juggle four hours of lectures with six hours of clinical practice a day, leaving little time to relax...or even do course work. "It's a pretty gruelling pace," Soucy says.

Brian Laski, a second year dental student at the University of Toronto and the son of an orthodontist, explains that there are times you even have to put your own mouth on the line in order to better understand what patients go through.

"As part of our course, we all had to practice local anaesthetic injections on each other," says 24-year-old Laski, who's never had a cavity or dental injection. "I was very nervous but it turned out to be a positive experience and very worthwhile. Now I can explain to patients what they're going to be experiencing."

And what appeals to him about dentistry as a profession? "I see dentistry as a challenge, because it's an area where I know I'll never stop learning."

For more information on oral health research or going into dentistry as a career, check out the CDA's Web site at

(Susan Poizner ( is a Toronto-based freelance writer.)

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