What is a Shadow Day for Dental Students?

It's a smart move to schedule a shadow day with a dental practice. Shadowing is an excellent way to get a feel for the reality of practicing dentistry before you are the one doing the actual practicing. Moreover, you can get an idea of how different types of dental practices operate and witness actual working clinical and office cultures firsthand, with a behind-the-scenes perspective.

There are some ways that you can make the most of this time with a practicing dentist. Let's look at the purpose of a shadow day for dental students, how to get the most out of a shadow day with a dentist and what you should do to follow up afterward.

A shadow day for dental students helps you fill in those details & determine your career goals.

So, What Is a Shadow Day?

A shadow day is when a dental student reports to a dental practice to observe the daily activities of a dentist.  It is a chance to see what different types of practices are like, learn the terminology, and watch techniques for dental procedures. Plus, the dental student can ask the clinician about their journey to practicing dentistry. ​​​​​​[1]

Job shadowing happens regularly in business hiring today. It allows job candidates to experience a typical day on the job. [2] Shadow days are the same idea for dental students as they near graduation, exposing future dentists to the many options they have to practice dentistry.

Dentistry has changed, and dentists can do more than graduate and go into private practice. There are also associateships and working in group practices, among other options. So, it’s a good idea to schedule a few different shadow days to experience the various workflows and clinical cultures available today.  Shadowing can help a dental student find the type of practice that meets their personal preferences, family plans, risk-aversion, financial budget, and, more importantly, business ownership interest level. [3]

In addition to these critical, long-term benefits of dental shadowing, there are short-term benefits. First, you get excellent networking opportunities from shadow days. Also, the dentist might write you a letter of recommendation. Shadowing a dentist is helpful for interviews; sometimes, interviewers ask dental candidates about their experiences in the field. [4]

In some cases, the shadow day might be part of an interview process.  The clinical and office cultures are set by the dentist and the team, so all dental practices have their unique brand and feel. If a dentist or a dental student nearing graduation is considering joining a practice, it is an excellent idea to ensure that the practice is a good fit. 

When you picture yourself as a practicing dentist, what does that look like?

How to Get the Most Out of a Shadow Day

Having a shadow day scheduled is one step. The next step is planning how to get the most out of the shadow day with a dentist. By taking a moment to prepare before the first day shadowing a dentist, you set yourself up for success with this critical exercise. 

When you picture yourself as a practicing dentist, what does that look like? Are you practicing alone or working with a team of dentists? Is it a general practice, or do you want to focus on a specific area of dentistry, one of the specialties? What kind of clinical culture and office culture do you want to work in? 

If you haven't thought about it at that level of detail, that's okay. A shadow day for dental students helps you fill in those details and determine your career goals. However, even if you have pictured your career down to the most mundane detail, participating in a shadow day at different dental practices might change some of those elements or the path you take to get there to create a dental career that you never imagined for yourself.

How Long Should You Shadow a Dentist? 

There is no hard and fast rule for how long each shadow day with a dentist will be. However, a former UIC College of Dentistry student suggests that scheduling a few hours, two to three, is an excellent place to start on the first day of shadowing a dentist. Then, if the relationship is working, you can come back for a full or half day. [5]

What Should You Wear to Shadow a Dentist? 

You might have heard the expression, "You never get a second chance to make a first impression." That's because it's true, and your appearance is a big part of that impression.The ASDA (American Student Dental Association) recommends dressing for success to improve how you are perceived in the office. [6]

However, you can make it easy on yourself by asking the practice what they would prefer you wear before you arrive. It could be business casual or scrubs and the office lab coat. Some offices might like you to wear their shirt, like a polo with the logo on it. Whatever it is, you'll know because you asked ahead of time. [7]

Should You Shadow More Than One Practice?

Shadowing dentists in different practice settings is critical to making this a successful exercise in assessing your options for practice after graduation. Plus, seeing various clinical cultures is good exposure while planning your future. [8] As one dentist writes, "With this knowledge, you can form the professional career mold that will be filled on your terms." [9]

What Questions Should You Ask During Your Shadow Day? 

Asking questions is an essential part of the shadowing exercise. Not only will it give you insight into areas that you are interested in, but it also shows the dentist that you are engaged with the process. [10]

Here are a few questions we think are essential to include among any you have for the dentist you are shadowing: [11]

About the practice

  • Do you have clinical and personal expectations for your associate dentists? 
  • What expectations regarding mentorship should an associate dentist have for you and the staff? 
  • How would you describe the clinical culture you want for the practice? 
  • What advice do you have for someone like me who wants to succeed in this environment? 

About dentistry in general

  • What should I expect in my first year of being a dentist? 
  • For the first six months, what goals would you recommend for me? 

And perhaps most importantly

  • Would you be open to staying connected if I have further questions?

What Should You Observe on Your Shadow Day? 

There are a few things to look for on your shadow day. Overall, the shadow day should be about looking for a practice type that aligns with your career goals. Also, you want to see what the clinical culture is in the operatory and observe the work culture throughout the practice. In some cases, you might also be looking to see if mentoring opportunities are available. 

You should observe a few other components that make up good dental practices. These include things like: [12] 

  • Highly skilled clinicians: The doctors and hygienists should be knowledgeable and capable. 
  • Compassion for patients: Good people skills are essential for the team to deliver a good patient experience, particularly for nervous people. 
  • Lots of experienced staff: Low turnover is a good sign of a well-managed practice; happy employees are less likely to look for greener pastures. 
  • Investments in technology: It is essential that dental practices keep up with technology; it reflects not only an awareness of developing science but also a concern for patient outcomes and comfort.  
  • A culture of learning: Like technology, dentistry changes a lot; dental practices should emphasize growing knowledge and skills as dental science improves. 
  • Clean and comfortable: The office should feel clean and safe and provide comfort for patients and staff. 

In addition, there are a few other things to look for when shadowing a dentist. The work culture of a dental practice reflects leadership, which should come from the dentist. Some things that reflect a healthy culture are team members that have good relationships and communicate well. A clear vision for the practice should also be reflected in how the team delivers patient care. In addition, everyone should have a clear role where they contribute to the patient flow and practice workload. [13] Perhaps most importantly, there should be a feeling of professionalism and fun that creates an environment that engages patients and creates lasting relationships that bring them back, ideally at least every six months. [14]

How to Follow Up After Your Shadow Day 

It is important to follow up after spending time at a dental practice. It's a good idea to thank people verbally or in writing. It sends a signal of sincere gratitude to people helping you at the beginning of your career. Your follow-up can be the beginning of a long professional relationship too. [15]

We find that sometimes the owner dentist will hire students who came in for a shadow day. The owner dentist can get a comprehensive view of the dental student's character. Plus, a shadow day offers the dentist a chance to see more than they would have in a job interview. [16]

Want to schedule a shadow day with us? Contact universityrelations@pacden.com for more information on setting up a shadow day at a PDS-supported practice.

Tell me more about working at PDS.


[1, 15]How to Shadow a Dentist (2023). Available at: https://datbooster.com/study-guide/how-to-shadow-a-dentist/ (Accessed: 19 January 2023). 

[2]What Is Job Shadowing? (2023). Available at: https://www.thebalancemoney.com/what-is-job-shadowing-2062024 (Accessed: 20 January 2023). 

[3, 9]The Sculptor of Your Career - The New Dentist (2023). Available at: https://thenew.dentist/article/the-sculptor-of-your-career/ (Accessed: 19 January 2023). 

[4]Dental Shadowing: Definition, Importance, Tips, and FAQs – Indeed.com (2022). Available at: https://ca.indeed.com/career-advice/finding-a-job/dental-shadowing (Accessed: 20 January 2023) 

[5]How to Get The Most From Shadowing A Dentist | College of Dentistry | University of Illinois Chicago (2023). Available at: https://dentistry.uic.edu/news-stories/how-to-get-the-most-from-shadowing-a-dentist/ (Accessed: 20 January 2023). 

[6, 7, 8]McKenzie, C. Six tips to shadowing success, ASDA Blog. (2015) Available at: https://www.asdablog.com/six-tips-to-shadowing-success/?doing_wp_cron=1674153880.2734169960021972656250 (Accessed: 20 January 2023). 

[10, 11, 16]Shadow opportunities: Taking your career for a test drive, ASDA Blog. Available at: https://www.asdablog.com/shadow-opportunities-taking-your-career-for-a-test-drive/?doing_wp_cron=1666902690.4736289978027343750000 (Accessed: 19 January 2023). 

[12]What Makes a Good Dental Office: Things to Look For - Serene Smiles, Serene Smiles (2021). Available at: https://westervillefamilydentist.com/what-makes-a-good-dental-office-things-to-look-for/ (Accessed: 19 January 2023). 

[13]Valerie McClure, M. 10 Ways to Build a Positive Dental Office Culture for Employees & Patients, Today's RDH. (2019)  Available at: https://www.todaysrdh.com/10-ways-to-build-a-positive-dental-office-culture-for-employees-patients/ (Accessed: 19 January 2023). 

[14] 8 Tips For Running A Successful Dental Practice - Patient News (2023). Available at: https://patientnews.com/article/8-tips-running-successful-dental-practice/ (Accessed: 19 January 2023). 

The information provided by Pacific Dental Services in this blog is intended to educate readers about oral health and related topics. However, it is not a substitute for professional advice or career guidance from a qualified dental professional or educator. It is important to seek the help of experts for any concerns related to oral health or career planning.