Don’t do it for the money

Cleveland in color

This is sound advice. Not just from me, but from seven-year-old you, who couldn’t ever imagine becoming a doctor, dentist or lawyer just for perks. At seven, you wanted to be an astronaut, a teacher or an artist. One boy in my seocnd grade class, named Gregory, wanted to be an elephant.

Maybe you wanted a professional degree, either because your parents spoon-fed you a life plan since diaper days, or because you genuinely found the career enticing. You can see yourself in heels or a tie, rushing to the clinic, fighting traffic to get to the courthouse. You can change lives. People look to you for guidance. The meaning of “all grown up” and your final feat as a student: the professional degree.

And eventually, you become great at what you do, and you’re paid a very pretty penny for it.
Problems ensue when reality comes before the dream. That is to say, when the driving force behind your pre-medicine, pre-dental or pre-law decision is strictly financial and—in your mind—practical. Doctors make six figures. You want a BMW. The math checks out, but this preemptive greed can be altruistic too. You want the white picket fence for your family, the golden retriever and the summers in Europe.

Enter our current academic stairway. You go to school for a long time until you grow into your white coat. You could never earn this living as a teacher or an artist—an unfortunate fact most adults have preached to you already. And only very few have been able to make it as an elephant—sorry, Gregory.

I am still growing into my white coat. After graduating from Case Western Reserve University, I pursued a degree in dental medicine at Case School of Dental Medicine. No, my parents are not dentists. My decision to go into the field was a hybrid of two passions. Sarah at seven, like other seven-year-olds, wanted to make sick kids feel better. Sarah at 21, after years of hard work and $5,000 in savings, finally got the braces taken off and couldn’t believe her orthodontist had transformed her into a girl. I instantly wanted to fix faces for a living, too. Thus began my love affair with teeth, and I’ve been smitten since.

Dental medicine is a subspecialty of medicine that is notoriously lucrative and notoriously terrifying. One study ranked “fear of the dentist” right under the number one fear in the U.S., “public speaking.” Brandishing the lidocaine syringe takes time and talent, but not all dental—or medical—students are in it for the right reasons.

As the daughter of middle-class immigrants, here is what I’ve learned. Professional school is expensive, more than what you make at a side job. (Believe me. And tip me, because I’m there.) It is thousands upon thousands of dollars, but it’s an investment, a tab you will pay off once you’re established. Getting established takes years, usually the best years of your life. Unless your parents or a divine creator is helping you pay, don’t expect to get rich quick. The government no longer throws money at you to seduce you—regardless of wealth or skin color. You are lucky to get in. They know it. So do you.

Professional school is hard. People who sailed through college without trying are especially at risk, because they enter their graduate programs thinking a few all-nighters are all it takes. You’ll learn that you have to eat, sleep and breathe your profession just to keep your head above water. You will likely graduate with grays, bags, adult-onset acne and a permanent 5 o’clock shadow. School will challenge you every day.

This is a career for life, a rewarding purpose that you must fall in love with every morning before work. Call me a freak (you won’t be the first), but teeth are my life now, and I couldn’t be happier. My dream is to give back to underserved neighborhoods, because I spent the bulk of my childhood in Cleveland’s west side. These areas need the most attention and are often the last to get it. Truth be told, I probably will not live “like a dentist” in this lifetime.

What disappoints me are the medical and dental students who are already planning their post-graduation shopping sprees or complaining about their rounds in the Free Clinic or the patient who cannot afford care but does not qualify for insurance.

Is it every student? No, absolutely not. Most students are grateful for where they are. But the unkind, insensitive few don’t know how big of an impact they make with their words. If you are in it for the money (and only the money), you are going to be a crummy doctor, a terrible dentist, a bad lawyer.

In Sept. 2014, a prominent Michigan doctor made the news for falsely diagnosing cancer in healthy patients and putting them through agonizing rounds of chemotherapy. His is an extreme case of health care fraud, but I don’t believe he is alone.

I dislike like the unspoken smugness inherent to our field. The vibe is that we’re above it all, the best of the best. The reputation is not unearned. We work hard and learn a lot to serve our fellow man.

And to be clear, I’m not saying you have to dream about Doctors Without Borders or represent clients who can’t afford to pay you. You are permitted (and you definitely deserve) to live a wealthy life after all the years of hard work. But if you are going into it for the wrong reasons, you also deserve to reconsider. You owe it to yourself and the people whose lives you’ll touch to self-reflect, to plot your decision carefully. Do it because it makes you happy, because you are ready to work hard, ready to be good at it.

Don’t do it for your parents, for the prestige or the title—and definitely don’t do it for the money.

Sarah Jawhari is a student at the Case Western Reserve University School of Dentistry.