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The Catalyst

Dentist admits 'there's a trade off to achieve balance'

by Cindy Abole
Public Relations

Elizabeth "Betsy" Pilcher, DMD, is a female dentist striving to have it all.

This career practitioner, dental educator, mentor and single mother has pushed to achieve a successful work-life balance with her family and career responsibilities.

And, she's doing well in making it work.

Elizabeth "Betsy" Pilcher, DMD, is a female dentist striving to have it all.
Dr. Betsy Pilcher is excited to be part of the university's changing environment.

Dr. Betsy Pilcher is excited to be part of the university's changing environment.

Throughout her career, Pilcher has made important strides at home and at work to achieve her goals. This mother of two, one of which has special needs, managed to defy the odds and enjoy success in both areas.

Pilcher grew up around big cities along the East Coast. During summers she visited her mother's family in Charleston. Her journey to dental school came by way of some adversity. Choosing to attend college in South Carolina, Pilcher was intent on going the pre-med route. She remembers being discouraged by a chemistry professor who told her that women should not be pursuing careers in medicine or dentistry. Not wasting any time, she immediately dropped that course and resumed classes with another instructor.

Pilcher thought dentistry would provide an ideal career without sacrificing family time. In 1977, she was one of seven women enrolled in a class of 56 dental students at MUSC. Women in Pilcher's dental class banded together and became close. In 1970, only 1 percent of dental students in the U.S. were women, according to the American Dental Association.

"There were many perceptions about women in dentistry, such as women in dental school weren't serious about their studies and not maximizing their training and education in the same way men were. These perceptions have changed greatly over time," said Pilcher. It was striving to balance work and family life that drove Pilcher to choose dentistry over medicine as her profession of choice. Since then, she has been committed to changing the perception of women in dentistry and in the workplace.

After graduating from dental school in 1981, Pilcher worked in public health for eight years and on Saturdays in a private dental practice. It was an ideal time for Pilcher to begin her family with the arrival of Christopher, born with Down syndrome in 1984, and Beth in 1987. In 1989, she returned to the dental school as a full-time instructor. For years she was the college's sole full-time female faculty member, working in the Department of Crown & Bridge Dentistry, Division of Fixed Prosthodontics and later in the Department of Restorative Dentistry. For guidance early in her career, she networked and connected with women professionals outside of the dental school for mentoring support and career direction.

"It was tough balancing life – first as a wife and dental student, and later as a mother and practitioner. There's constantly a trade off to achieve balance," said Pilcher, who chose to become active in the Charleston community as a mother of a child with disabilities. In 1991, she was among several parents who organized the Down Syndrome Association of the Lowcountry chapter, a local support group and resource for families. She also was a local trailblazer for special education in area public schools. In 1989, Pilcher approached school administrators and advocated for her son and other children with special needs to receive their education in regular education classrooms through Charleston County Schools. "Chris was highly functional, and I knew the best place for him was to attend school in a regular education setting with the proper support and an adaptive curriculum," she said.

Despite her early struggles, Pilcher feels happy with both her personal and career choices.

"I love working in a campus environment where there are lots of people, and I can watch and participate in the institution's progress. I love teaching and working with faculty and preparing the next generation of dental educators. Working in academics provides the right amount of excitement and variety that's different from working in private practice," Pilcher said.

The College of Dental Medicine consists of about 30 percent women faculty. Yet the ratio of women holding leadership roles in dental schools and managing state dental associations remains low. Pilcher believes this can be attributed to fewer qualified women professionals in the pipeline due to age, lack of experience and mentoring opportunities. "It takes mentoring to know when to promote one's self. Chances are women won't do this on their own," she said.

Pilcher is doing her share by leading the college's mentoring efforts with both faculty and staff and serves as associate dean for Institutional Effectiveness. She's also involved in leadership development efforts with the American Dental Education Association's new Emerging Academic Leader's program, mentoring eight junior dental faculty professionals in a peer group that offers training in negotiating skills, leadership development, goal setting, career building and advancement. Its goal is to prepare the next level of chairpersons, deans and administrators in academic medicine.

Within the past five years, Pilcher also has emerged as a leader sharing her skills as director of university strategic planning to help guide MUSC's core missions and direct strategies for the future. She's a graduate fellow of the Higher Education Resource Services Institute, ADEA Emerging Leaders Program, and Hedwig van Ameringen Executive Leadership in Academic Medicine Program for Women. She's also involved in campus activities through the Women's Scholars Initiative.

For now, Pilcher's goals are to stay involved in academic leadership and strategic planning. "It's a joy to come to work in the morning, blink and realize its 5 p.m. Time passes by quickly at work, and that translates to how much I enjoy my job and what I do. It's exciting to watch and play a part in enacting change through the institution's strategic plan initiatives and programs. We have some great leaders on MUSC's campus that I've been privileged to learn from. I'd like to continue working with them and others in many areas."

Today, Pilcher's children are grown and have lives of their own. She has more time to devote to her job through teaching, working in academic leadership and treating patients. She also enjoys travel and sailboat racing, a long-time hobby and passion.

"I find it exciting to be part of the university's change. At both the university and college level, I play a part in something that is very important and, to me, it's very rewarding," she said.

Editor's note: In honor of National Women's History Month, The Catalyst will feature women who are making a difference at MUSC.


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