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How to Become a Dentist

dentist Careers in dentistry are expected to grow by 21 percent between 2010 and 2020. / Credit: Lucky Business | Shutterstock

Whether you love going to the dentist or hate it, there’s no denying that dentists provide an important service. They’re responsible for keeping patients’ mouths clean and healthy and for promoting good oral hygiene practices, like daily tooth brushing and flossing.

If you’re thinking of starting a career as a dentist, then you should keep reading to learn more about what a dentist’s job entails, where they usually work, and what qualifications they need to practice their trade.

What dentists do

Dentists diagnose and treat problems associated with the teeth, gums and mouth. They also advise patients on the proper care of teeth and gums and promote good oral hygiene.

Some of the common practices of dentists include cleaning teeth to remove plaque, filling cavities, repairing fractured teeth, and removing teeth. They also use X-ray machines and other medical equipment to examine patients’ teeth and gums and make recommendations for correcting misaligned teeth or bite issues.

While the majority of dentists in the United States are general practitioners who handle a variety of dental needs, some dentists choose to specialize in a particular field of dentistry. Dental public health specialists, for example, focus on promoting good dental health to the public. And orthodontists are dentists who specialize in the use of medical apparatuses — like braces — to straighten teeth.

Periodontists focus on treating the gums and bones supporting the teeth, and oral surgeons perform operations on the mouth, jaws, teeth, and gums.

There are also dentists who work primarily with certain groups of people. Pediatric dentists, for example, focus on providing care to children and teenagers.

Prosthodontists, on the other hand, replace missing teeth with permanent fixtures like crowns or bridges. Prosthodontists also provide removable fixtures, like dentures, for elderly patients.

In addition to their responsibilities as oral healthcare providers, dentists working in private practice may also be responsible for certain administrative duties. Just like any business owner, dentists may be responsible for overseeing employees, buying equipment, and bookkeeping.

Where dentists work

Most dentists in the United States work in private practice according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Though many dentists own their own practices, others are part of group practices, where they work alongside one or more colleagues.

Dentists who are just beginning their careers may choose to work as associates for more established dentists before opening their own practices.

A dentist’s schedule varies depending on the needs of his or her patients, but many work full time during normal business hours. Many dentists also choose to work evenings and weekends to accommodate patients. It is not uncommon for veteran dentists to practice part time even after reaching retirement age. 

According to the Occupational Outlook Handbook, careers in dentistry are expected to grow by 21 percent between 2010 and 2020, which is faster than the national average for all occupations. Employment of dentists is expected to grow in coming years partly because of the large number of baby boomers in need of dental care.

The popularity of cosmetic dental services like teeth-whitening and teeth-straightening, as well as a greater national awareness of the importance of oral health, are also believed to be driving the high demand for dental services in the United States.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual wage of dentists was $146,920 in 2010. Dentists who specialize in a particular field, such as oral surgery or orthodontics, earn an average of $166,400 annually.

Becoming a dentist

Dentists must complete a bachelor’s degree, preferably in a science-related field of study, as well as four years of dental school. All states require that dentists obtain a license before starting a practice.

While there are some dental schools that include undergraduate study as a part of their dentistry programs, many schools require that prospective students already possess a bachelor’s degree before entering a dentistry program.

There is no mandatory undergraduate major for prospective applicants to dental schools, but a degree in a scientific field, such as biology or chemistry may further a candidate’s chances of admission.

Dental school candidates must also take the Dental Admissions Test (DAT) before applying to dentistry programs. Scores from these tests, as well as certain prerequisite undergraduate course credits, are necessary for acceptance into a dentistry program.

A doctor of dental surgery (DDS) or doctor of dental medicine (DMD) degree typically takes four years to complete. The first two years of dental school tend to focus on coursework and work in laboratories, whereas the final two years typically include a greater amount of clinical work and the supervised diagnosis and treatment of dental patients.

Upon graduating from dental school, prospective dentists must obtain licensure from the state in which they wish to practice. Requirements for licensure vary by state; however, all states require passage of the National Board Dental Examinations.

Dentists seeking to practice a specialized field of dentistry must receive further education in their specialty, which usually takes two to four more years of study in a post-DMD or post-DDS degree program. In some cases, specialists must also complete a residency of one to two years before obtaining their specialty state license.

Elizabeth Peterson

Elizabeth writes about innovative technologies and business trends. She has traveled throughout the Americas in her roles as student, English teacher, Spanish language interpreter and freelance writer. She graduated with a B.A. in International Affairs from the George Washington University. You can follow her on Twitter @techEpalermo or .