How to Negotiate Your Dental Salary

Aside from the interview, salary negotiation is the most stressful part of job hunting. On one hand, you don’t want to ask for too little and cripple your income potential. On the other hand, you don’t want to ask for too much and force the employer to prefer other candidates.

In the dental industry, salary negotiation is especially difficult because you tend to work closely which is the practice owner. You aren’t negotiating with a neutral human resources manager. A poor negotiation can sour the whole relationship.

Nevertheless, you can’t avoid this part of the process. If you don’t take this part seriously, there’s a good chance you’ll end up underpaid. In this article, we’ll teach you how to negotiate a dental salary.

Two Winners

A lot of people go into salary negotiations trying to “win.” Employees and employers are both guilty of this. But if there’s a winner, there’s a loser, and that isn’t good for the relationship.

If the practice feels like they’re paying you too much for the job, the leadership could grow to resent you. Or they might pile additional duties and responsibilities on you to even out the deal. Ultimately, they might look for reasons to replace you.

If you feel underpaid, you’ll struggle with resentment as well. And like many people, you might “downgrade” your work ethic to make the deal fair. (Just please don’t ever compromise patient health.)

These issues are especially apparent in small practices where you work closely with your employer. You don’t want a pay dispute manifesting into tension while you work side-by-side over a patient. So keep in mind that your goal isn’t to beat your would-be employer in a contest. The goal is to arrive at a fair number that accurately reflects your value.

If you don’t take salary negotiation seriously, there’s a good chance you’ll end up underpaid.

Pay Systems

Before you can negotiate your dental salary, it’s critical that you understand how you will be paid. Employees of dental practices are typically paid differently depending on their role.

Assistants, lab techs, and hygienists are almost always paid hourly. You won’t have much luck asking to be paid differently.

If you’re an associate at a dental practice, you can expect at least part of your salary to come from collections or production. In fact, there’s a growing trend of paying hygienists this way as well.

In a production-based pay system, employees receive a commission based on the value of the work they perform. In a collection-based pay system, employees receive commissions based on the amount collected. Each system has positives and negatives, but it’s important to understand how they’ll affect your final pay.

For example, if you’re paid on collections, you won’t be paid for every service. Inevitably, some patients and insurers will fail to pay. So you want a higher commission rate if you’re paid on collections than if you’re paid on production to compensate for some loss.

In some cases, associates are also responsible for a portion of lab fees. This portion is typically equal to the percentage of collections/productions you receive. For instance, if you receive 30% of the collections, you’ll pay 30% of the lab bill. Make sure you calculate this cost when you negotiate your salary.

Your Two Numbers

Before you start any salary negotiation, it’s important to have two numbers: 1) The salary you’ll ask for, and 2) the lowest salary you’ll accept.

The salary you’ll ask for should be a bit higher than what’s appropriate for the area and your experience. If you’re a hygienist who’s worth $38/hour in your area, ask for $44/hour. If you’re an assistant who’s worth $20/hour, ask for $24.

Your bottom number must be the lowest you’ll accept. Think carefully about this number because it’s the “conversation ender.” If your bottom number is $25/hour and the practice owner can only pay you $23/hour, the interview process is over and you should move on.

How do you determine those numbers?

  • Check salary websites like, or PayScale to find similar salaries in your area (as costs of living will affect pay rates).
  • Talk to other assistants, hygienists, and dentists in the area to find out what’s appropriate for your experience level.
  • Talk to a dental staffing agency to learn what rates they charge (how much goes to the employee and how much the agency keeps).
  • Consider the duties of the job. A harder job deserves more pay. For instance, if a Cavitron isn’t available, a hygienist should ask for more money because hand scaling is much harder on the body.


The Right Moment

When is the right time to start talking about salary? In most cases, salary negotiations happen at the end of the interview process, either after you receive the final offer or when the employer is trying to choose between a small group of candidates. At this point, both parties are invested and willing to come to some kind of agreement.

In some cases, however, employers like to bring salary into the conversation early to expedite the process. For instance, if an employer knows the best he can pay is below market average, he may mention it early so neither party wastes their time with a pointless interview.

Some employers will ask for salary requirements in the application. This is to help them weed out applicants quickly, as applicants who require too much pay are unaffordable and applicants who require too little may be unqualified. If you aren’t comfortable answering this question right away, tell the practice that you aren’t sure until you know more about the office, your expected role, and the patient load.

Generally speaking, it’s best to wait until you’ve made a good impression on the potential employer before bringing up salary. They’ll be willing to pay more once they like you. If an employer wants your salary requirements, indicate that it will depend on other factors, like the specific role, market average for the area, and the rest of the compensation package.

In rare cases, employers will ask for your salary history, though this trend is coming to an end. As of 2020, California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Oregon, Vermont, New York City, Cincinnati, Philadelphia, Puerto Rico, and San Francisco prohibit employers from asking about your previous salaries.

Articulate Value

A big part of negotiating a dental salary is explaining your worth. You won’t get a salary that reflects your value if the potential employer doesn’t know that value.

Wherever possible, articulate your value with numbers and specific anecdotes. For associates, production numbers are key. If the employer feels confident that you’ll bring in more than you cost, hiring you is an easy decision. Say something like, “At my last job, I brought in $350,000 worth of services in my last year.”

If your role doesn’t involve selling services, use other numbers to explain your value. For instance, you might explain how you worked to shave five minutes off the average hygiene appointment, how you pushed your last practice to buy a tool that saved $20,000 in lab fees over the year, or how you played a role in raising patient satisfaction scores.

If you have any specific skills or experience that make you more valuable than other candidates, be sure to explain these bonuses when you negotiate.

The Counter-Offer

The practice’s first offer isn’t their only offer. If you aren’t happy with the original offer, don’t be afraid to make a counter-offer. You are discussing a business arrangement, so it is not considered rude to ask for more.

In fact, many employers and hiring managers offer a lower salary at first because they expect candidates to make counter-offers. In this sense, if you don’t make a counter-offer, you could be leaving money on the table.

Your compensation is a broad category that can include any number of incentives. Most jobs come with some perks already (like health insurance, paid time off, uniform stipends, etc.), but you can always ask for more to boost your overall compensation without taking more salary.

For instance, let’s say working at an office requires you to incur local parking or public transportation fees. You could ask the employer to pay for all or part of those costs to slightly increase your overall compensation.

If you and practice truly can’t find a middle ground, consider setting a goal that will “level up” your salary. For example, you could ask for a 10% increase in six months if you bring in $150,000 in production. This would incentive you to perform and make your employer more comfortable paying a higher salary.

Going Forward

A salary negotiation is a give-and-take. If you expect to trick a potential practice into paying more than you’re worth, you’ll either fail to land jobs or poison otherwise successful relationships. But if you’re thoughtful, reasonable, and confident during your salary negotiations, you’ll negotiate a healthy compensation package that reflects your worth.