On the perfect smile

Andrew SAsides, Culture, Humor, LDS, Money, Mormon, Mormons 37 Comments

I really don’t know if it’s just me, but have you ever noticed that there are a lot of LDS dentists?

I mean, sure, we’ve already heard from reliable sources that Mormons like professions, but what is the deal?

What Mormons Like often spins off aspects of note in Mormon culture in a lighthearted way, but the scary thing is that I usually understand where the guy is coming from — for the vast majority of his posts, when I read them, I think, “I can definitely see that.”

And so, as he notes that Dentistry seems to be the true calling of Mormons, I can’t help but agree. My home ward is a military ward, and generally, we can count on having four or five dentists moving in or moving out at any time of the year (and I guess that’s not even counting the permanent dentists and the dentists in the other ward in the area).

Really, I can only ask, what is the deal?

I guess it probably isn’t just the easy access to medicine. But it does seem spot on that the careers that seem to be popular in the church 1) have big bucks (or big buck potential, 2) a useful skill, and 3) some entrepreneurialism. I can understand that dentistry is a useful skill…but still. Really?

The source of power?

The source of power?

Could it be that LDS culture has such a premium on that standardized cleancut missionary look (complete with perfect smile) that makes dentistry seem more appealing? It seems kinda silly to conjecture on that alone.

I guess the question really should be to ask if this isn’t just my imagination. In your anecdotal evidence, do there seem to be a disproportionate number of dentists? What are other careers that seem to stick out in your mind? Are there any official statistics about popular jobs for church members?

If you are a dentist and LDS, can you say that the church had anything to do with it? Why dentistry? This isn’t necessarily 20 questions, but it certainly appears to be an odd social phenomenon.

Comments 37

  1. Andrew–

    Major league selection bias in the military-dentist thing. Mormons–above almost anyone I know–like to do school on the cheap. The military offers tuition and housing payments year-for-year to dental students. There is major league saturation in LDS applicants for military scholarships because of this.

    This doesn’t explain why so many Mormons want to be dentists in the first place (I personally don’t believe the statistics bear this theory out, actually. I would be willing to bet that the doctors, lawyers, educators, and general business-types all outnumber the dentists by such a large margin that it’s not worth discussing), but it does partially explain why you see so many in your ward.

  2. As I said above, I don’t really believe the theory to begin with, but…assuming you are correct, then I will go with the following:

    A large portion of dental students once desired to be medical students. They did not become so for a variety of reasons: Changes in preferences, bad test scores, too much time in school for an MD, etc…All of these things lead me to the following (very cynical) hypothesis, which I believe IS supported by the numbers:

    (With no offense intended to any dentists out there reading this):

    Many Mormons, especially recently returned missionaries, impose on themselves a silly requirement of making a career out of “helping” people. Thus, they choose medical school. However, not everyone gets into medical school, and some realize that far enough in advance to avoid taking excess courses in biology, chemistry, and anatomy and become something useful (like, say, economists).

    However, for the remaining group, all of their time is spent preparing for medical school, until they realize they’re going to be in school until the 2nd coming, and their new fiance wants a home with a two (or three!) car garage, and the famous Mormon guilt-over-not-being-a-good-provider sets in and makes them reconsider decade-long poverty. And then they have a baby…and they realize that rotations with kids will mean that they’re bad fathers (not really, but this is Mormon self-loathing at its finest), and they further question medical school. But because they’ve learned nothing that is useful outside of medicine, they’re stuck…until that one glorious day when someone points out that dentists earn a (relatively) comparable wage, and only go to school for 4 years…with NO rotations.

    All it takes is a quick self-convincing that they’re still “serving” people, and Boom! They get to be righteous husbands and fathers, blessings to the community, and incur half of the debt (see my earlier comment).

    Voila: Mormon dentists.

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    No problem Scott…after all, I don’t really take too much stock in this as a theory either…I was just amused because it seems to be brought up by others elsewhere. But thanks for the “cynical case” hypothesis too.

  4. I don’t know how reliable the cynical case theory is in reality; My experience, while only anecdotal, is that almost every Mormon dentist I’ve ever known started out wanting to be a doctor. I’m certainly curious to hear if other people can rebut or confirm this.

    Less cynically, if you look at the originating article on this (the What Mormons Like article) it contains commentary from the author and comments later with confusion about the “30% of the class was LDS, but only 1% of the population was LDS” type of phenomenon. The fact is, a simple look into the emphasis LDS culture places on education will reveal ‘disproportionate” numbers of LDS people in nearly every program across the spectrum–dentistry, law, animal science, literature, and so on. Thus, to see if Mormons really like dentistry that much–and not just graduate school (or higher incomes!)–you should look not at the general population vs the number of LDS dental students, but the proportion of LDS grad students in dentistry.

  5. My dentist is not only LDS but lives in our ward as well. I am just grateful that it is my dentist that lives in our ward and not my OB/GYN.

    My experience is that there is a saturation of LDS dentists in the area where I live. I literally receive mailings with pictures of dentists and their families (all smiling with their beautiful teeth, of course :)) several times a week promising me free teeth whitening until I die if I will let them be my dentist. Not only are there a lot of LDS dentists (in my experience), but there are a lot of them trying to set up their practice in the same place as well.

    I think the fact that dentists make good money, have “family-friendly” hours they work (except in the rare occasion they have a true emergency),and the fact that a beautiful smile is much more important to people these days (take a look at your grandparent’s teeth or even your parent’s teeth (if they still have their real teeth)…. they don’t have the perfectly straight, white smile that many of the younger generation do), makes it even that much more attractive to the LDS man. I could be wrong but it seems more people are seeking out dentists for services these days than they were in the past strictly for aesthetic reasons alone.

    I have to agree, at least from my experience, that there are a lot of LDS dentists….and they all live by me!

  6. I left this comment on that blog post:

    In my small Alberta ward, with a regular attendance of about 160? we have:

    2 Chief Crown Prosecutors (D.A in the US)
    1 prosecutor
    3 dentists (one more becoming a dentist)
    2 doctors
    1 journalist
    1 accountant
    1 chiropractor
    who knows how many teachers– 5? 6?
    2 researchers
    1 optometrist

    That’s just off the top of my head.

    One thing I’ve noticed as I’ve moved around: The more educated people are, the less judgmental and open-minded they are. Then again, I hear from friends that Utah is the Mormon capital of intolerance of imperfection….

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    re 7:

    Natasha, less judgmental *and* open-minded?

    or less judgmental and more open-minded? I should probably do stats on my own ward…

    Re 6: I would totally go for *free teeth whitening until I die*

  8. Cute post.

    My stake patriarch was my dentist. My dentist was my stake patriarch. I’m not sure the best way to say that.

    As the predental advisor at the U of U, I do see some cross-over from med to dental among the students, but I also see students going the other way too.

    To be entirely honest, most students I see their freshman year who want to be dentists versus physicians are the same students who end up applying to those respective programs later. There are enough disincentives to switch from premed to predental and vice versa in terms of coursework, exams, and extracurricular activities that it’s fairly rare to see a switch.

    To be more honest than I probably should be, I would say predental and premed students represent two distinct personality types. I have seen so many now I can almost distinguish between them on sight when they arrive in my office, before they even open their mouths.

    One interesting thing I’ve noticed is that Mormon dentists typically never rise above the level of mission president in the LDS hierarchy. I think Elder Mickelson of the Seventy may have been an orthodontist, but lawyers seem like the preferred profession these days, what with Prop 8 and all that.

    It should be mentioned that American Jews have the joke among themselves that dentistry and medicine are the professions every Jewish mother wants her sons to enter. Check out a few Leonard Cohen songs to verify this.

  9. I don’t know why there are so many dentists, but Utahns do seem to have far higher standards for dental perfection, so maybe it’s the proliferation of dentists or maybe the other way around (supply creates demand?). In PA, my dentist always told me what nice teeth I had compared to everyone else he worked on. Then I moved to UT, and immediately, I had several dentists and technicians crowded around my mouth saying things like: “Oh, yeah, we’re going to have to break the palate and start all over here.”

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    ugh. breaking palates does not sound like my idea of a fun time, hawkgrrrl. even though I suppose that eventually, I’m going to have to get braces for a *second* time because of my impropriety in not wearing my retainer the first time around.

  11. I second the “second” time with braces due to poor retainer usage. Maybe there is a high number of dentists among Mormons because Mormons don’t take care of their teeth properly (at least, for the data sample of me, Andrew, my DW).

  12. In my experience (and from what I’ve heard from the myriad of dental students attending UKY), it’s all about *money.* Dentistry provides a fat paycheck, great hours (seldom is a dentist called in on an emergency), and the ability to take time off without serious repercussions. The loans for school are big, but no bigger than a doctor or lawyer. Meanwhile, would-be doctors spend half a decade being someone’s slave as a resident and attorneys put away 60+ hours per week during their first five years. So the wealth and convenience to Mormons=great family life.

  13. Been giving some thought to this whole professionalisation of the church thing.Do we have plumbers any more?My son is no rocket scientist and would make a perfectly good tradesman,but i fear that he will learn from church that trades are less acceptable to the Lord than professions and consequently that he has no place in mormonism-should the fancy take him.Are we becoming class ridden?We’re now seeing unemployed returned missionaries who could be making a perfectly good contribution to society who will not accept work that does not require a ten year commitment to education when they could be establishing and providing for a family.Someone’s got to collect the trash,and s/he’s as good as me.

  14. Wayfarer:

    I wouldn’t worry about the professor-trade divide. I have been pursuing a very academic degree (history–not exactly practical) for the past couple years. Academic degrees hold much less clout, I’ve found, in Church culture than executives/doctors/lawyers. And don’t think that having a Ph.D. in history constitutes a contribution to society per se. It’s a cloistered environment we live in where old documents make up today’s news. And plumbers, I’ve found, do pretty well for themselves (50/hour)…I wouldn’t compare plumbing to garbage collecting.

    Moreover, President Hinckley instructed us to get as much education as we could. For some, that opportunity simply does not present itself–through no fault of their own. And while it’s true that someone needs to collect the trash, the reality is that we should all live up to the opportunities given us. If we have the (realistic) opportunity to find a better job/get more education, should we say: “you know, I’m just fine collecting trash”?

    Think of Good Will Hunting where Will (Damon) says that bricklaying is a noble service, then Sean (Robin Williams) responds: “Ah, and that’s why you wanted to be a janitor…for the nobility of it.” I mean, seriously??

  15. I’ll vouch for statistics quoted by others. I live in a fairly new neighborhood on the west side of the Salt Lake valley, so my demographics are a little skewed because we have a lot of students, police officers, and some blue-collar types as well. But among the professionals in my ward, we have three dentists (including the current and former EQ presidents), five accountants, one lawyer (he’s just starting out and I’d imagine he’ll move to the east side as soon as he can), and several general business types. What I think is interesting is that my profession has many if not all of the perks enjoyed by doctors, dentists, lawyers, accountants, etc. but I’m the only LDS consultant I know of. Maybe it’s the road warrior aspect…

  16. I think some of the main reasons are that you can support a large family (most dentists make considerably more than the average physician), you have a job with regular hours that you control (you are your own boss usually) which allows you to take important callings and be there for your family (physicians are on call a lot, and especially surgeons, are gone on weekends and at night), and you are a respected professional in the community. There is also professional satisfaction in that you are doing something for individuals that they need done. The main drawback as I see it, is that it looks terribly boring, and people cringe to think of seeing you professionally.

  17. Natasha: One thing I’ve noticed as I’ve moved around: The more educated people are, the less judgmental and open-minded they are. Then again, I hear from friends that Utah is the Mormon capital of intolerance of imperfection….

    I agree completely. This is why I’m hoping with everything I’ve got that I go to grad school in another state. I grew up a few hours away, in a neighboring state, with many educated, open-minded, truly non-judgmental, imperfect and loving church members. So many times I’ve longed to move back from Utah Valley…

    The dentist thing in Utah is pretty funny. There’s a man in my ward whose wife wanted to move out of the Northwest, so they did. But when he looked at the costs of building a practice again from scratch in Utah (because dentists are so abundant here that there’s plenty of competition for patients, he realized that he could work in the NW and live here and make more money than being a dentist here. If I remember right, he flies out Monday morning early, and flies back late Thursday night or on Friday morning. He has a small apartment within a block or so of his practice, and not far from the airport. He works four days a week, sets his own holiday schedule (actually all of his schedule, for that matter), and says he’s able to spend plenty of time with his family and they all seem very happy with the arrangement. And think of all the frequent flier miles!

  18. The more educated people are, the less judgmental and open-minded they are.

    Fwiw, some of the most judgmental, narrow-minded people I’ve met in my life were HIGHLY educated.

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    Re 13:

    Russell, I guess to make a shoutout for history Ph.Ds, my bishop is a historian, history Ph.D, very serious in all of that, and well, he’s been bishop *quite a few times* (I guess they keep on wanting to give him a break but he’s just done the best job of all who’ve been called).

    So even in doctor/lawyer/dentist town, the church is on the lookout for people outside that professional triumvirate, I guess. I guess it would be neat if there were statistics about the careers of different leaders in the church (although I imagine that in the higher levels, professionals would be overrepresented).

  20. I quite like this post; I know of at least a dozen LDS dentists. I’m not a dentist, but in my observation, the reason they are dentists are the following (in order of importance for an LDS dentist):
    Family-friendly working hours
    Excellent pay…perhaps an avenue to better help their children, themselves and their spouse serve missions (among other things)
    The feeling that they are making a difference in the community
    A well respected career

    On a side note, where I’m from, dentistry is no easier to get into than medicine (not an “easy access to medicine” by any means)

  21. “I don’t know why there are so many dentists, but Utahns do seem to have far higher standards for dental perfection”

    I don’t think the higher standards in Utah just apply to our smile. Unfortunately, it seems that the standards for the way you look, the job you have, the way your children behave in public, the activities they are involved in, etc. far exceed those outside of Utah as well. You have to really keep perspective on what’s important and recognize that what other’s think doesn’t matter, but it can be hard to not get caught up in the “perfection frenzy.”

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  24. We have 5 in the ward now, including a husband and wife. We had 2 or 3 more but we split off part of the Ward. I personally know about 10 or 12 LDS dentists in our area. All told, I’ve know close to 20 since joining the Church. For myself, I’ve only had 6 in my whole life, none LDS.

  25. There are quite a few dentists in my stake. I live in California, and thinking of the dental groups along the main street of our town, I’d say about fifteen percent of the dentists are mormon. My dentist is LDS but I didn’t know that till I’d been going to him for awhile.

  26. Ray – no, no, I mean in our ward there is a husband/wife dental practice. I would not be sticking my hands in people’s mouths for a living. I prefer not getting my hands dirty.

  27. We have a funeral director too. It comes in handy. 🙂 We are loaded with military and ex-military. Probably 2/3 to 3/4’s of the ward. Not many of us 4F guys.

  28. I just stumbled upon this post. Consider this angle: My Dad is a dentist and a majority of my family (brothers, uncles, brother-in-laws, cousins, etc.) are in the dental or medical profession. (My degree is in history, but I attempted pre dental.) My Dad, a convert with no medical “heritage” started all of this. It might just run in the family. Things grow exponentially. We’d all have been Southern Baptist farmers if it weren’t for a single fateful decision 60 years ago.
    My Dad chose dentistry long before there was the “dental phenomena” in Mormon culture, but his reason for doing so may also explain why he had joined the Church: Self-reliance. He wanted to be his own boss, to make his own life-decisions. You can’t do that working for someone else, and you can’t do that when you’re poor (as I have sadly found out first-hand). Dentistry is the perfect answer. And the Church is an answer, in some ways, too: universal priesthood authority, doctrine of direct revelation, emphasis on personal growth (learning) and progression, common consent (at least in theory), and diffused responsibility (callings) –all of which you don’t get in other churches (or at least not as much). So, it’s a personality type within us that may make both dentistry and Mormonism attractive.
    This theory probably won’t hold much water if you were to shine anything more than a candle on it, but it might explain a little.

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