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How to Become a Dentist

What Does a Dentist Do?

dentist with patient

Dentists are health care professionals who specialize in caring for the teeth, gums, and other tissues of the mouth. Dental care isn’t just about having clean teeth and a beautiful smile. Regular visits can ward off painful tooth decay, prevent infections, and help catch conditions like cancer and diabetes early.

Typical duties of a dentist include:

  • Diagnosing and treating dental conditions, including tooth decay, injuries, malformations, and gum disease
  • Ordering and interpreting X-rays of the teeth and jaw
  • Straightening teeth and correcting bite issues
  • Applying sealants to help prevent tooth decay
  • Administering anesthetic during procedures
  • Prescribing medications
  • Modeling and fitting dentures, crowns, and other prosthetics
  • Administering cosmetic treatments such as tooth whitening
  • Counseling patients on health topics such as teeth-brushing, flossing, diet, and fluoride use

About 80 percent of dentists practice general dentistry. However, those with advanced education and training can also practice a dental specialty like surgery, pathology, orthodontics, pediatric dentistry, or dental public health.

Dentists play a very important role in their patients’ overall health. Left untreated, conditions like gum disease can allow bacteria in the mouth to spread through the body, resulting in a serious infection. Dentists may also be the first health professionals to notice signs of systemic conditions like cancer, diabetes, and heart and kidney disease. Finally, good dental care helps to keep chronic health problems like diabetes, heart disease, HIV/AIDS, and osteoporosis under control.

Choosing a career in dentistry has many benefits. Dentists do a great deal of good for their patients by relieving pain, restoring function, and helping them look their best. A career in dentistry provides a great deal of flexibility and autonomy, even for new professionals. And with a wide range of practice options and specialties from which to choose, dentists can shape their careers as they see fit.

Workplace Details

As of 2010, 86 percent of dentists were self-employed and working in solo or group practices. However, dentists can also work as:

  • Associates of another dentist who’s in private practice
  • Employees of a corporation or managed care organization
  • Professors or clinical instructors at a dental school
  • Researchers for universities, government organizations, or private companies
  • Clinicians working with the World Health Organization and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to train dentists in developing countries and provide low-cost services where needed
  • Policy makers helping formulate public health law and regulations through universities, professional organizations, and government agencies
  • Military officers treating service members
  • Self-employed dentists usually work full time but have a great deal of flexibility to set their own hours. Many work some evenings and weekends to accommodate their patients’ schedules.

Like all health care professionals, dentists are at increased risk of exposure to contagious diseases, including HIV and hepatitis. Proper use of protective clothing and equipment reduces the risk of disease transmission.

Salary and Job Outlook

State
Average Wage
California
$164330
Texas
$171850
New York
$170300
Florida
$166180
Illinois
$156150

Hover over any state to explore local income and job growth data.

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ALABAMA

Median Salary: 
$163,800
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $51,300
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): Over $187,200

2014-2024 Job Growth: 18%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 50

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Birmingham$44,580$107,520Over $187,200
Huntsville$37,280$153,320Over $187,200

ALASKA

Median Salary: 
Over $187,200
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $133,600
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): Over $187,200

2014-2024 Job Growth: 20%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 10

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Anchorage$140,890Over $187,200Over $187,200

ARIZONA

Median Salary: 
$166,700
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $65,400
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): Over $187,200

2014-2024 Job Growth: 15%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 80

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Phoenix$64,040$173,050Over $187,200
Tuscon$72,770$108,410Over $187,200

ARKANSAS

Median Salary: 
$150,600
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $62,600
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): Over $187,200

2014-2024 Job Growth: 18%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 40

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Little Rock$124,220$163,160Over $187,200
Fort Smith$80,060$131,380Over $187,200

CALIFORNIA

Median Salary: 
$153,700
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $61,600
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): Over $187,200

2014-2024 Job Growth: 15%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 590

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Los Angeles$56,600$156,570Over $187,200
San Francisco Bay$93,100$184,140Over $187,200
San Diego$68,300$150,600Over $187,200
Sacramento$61,690$158,520Over $187,200

COLORADO

Median Salary: 
$158,200
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $73,900
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): Over $187,200

2014-2024 Job Growth: 20%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 120

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Denver$72,430$156,190Over $187,200
Colorado Springs$108,440Over $187,200Over $187,200

CONNECTICUT

Median Salary: 
$167,900
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $90,500
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): Over $187,200

2014-2024 Job Growth: 14%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 90

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Hartford$52,500$183,710Over $187,200
Bridgeport$129,690$156,550Over $187,200
New Haven$86,590$129,930Over $187,200

DELAWARE

Median Salary: 
Over $187,200
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $110,200
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): Over $187,200

2014-2024 Job Growth: 6%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 10

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Wilmington$115,240Over $187,200Over $187,200

DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA

Median Salary: 
$90,100
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $33,600
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): Over $187,200

2014-2024 Job Growth: 19%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 10

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Washington DC$53,580$122,170Over $187,200

FLORIDA

Median Salary: 
$143,500
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $70,800
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): Over $187,200

2014-2024 Job Growth: 24%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 320

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Miami$66,370$124,020Over $187,200
Orlando$71,370$134,430Over $187,200
Tampa$90,840Over $187,200Over $187,200
Jacksonville$73,110$146,810Over $187,200

GEORGIA

Median Salary: 
$157,500
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $81,600
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): Over $187,200

2014-2024 Job Growth: 17%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 110

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Atlanta$86,920$142,050Over $187,200
Augusta$70,670Over $187,200Over $187,200

HAWAII

Median Salary: 
$120,900
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $85,800
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): Over $187,200

2014-2024 Job Growth: 6%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 20

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Honolulu$86,000$117,810Over $187,200

IDAHO

Median Salary: 
$178,200
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $59,800
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): Over $187,200

2014-2024 Job Growth: 18%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 220

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Boise$108,480Over $187,200Over $187,200
Idaho Falls$72,590Over $187,200Over $187,200

ILLINOIS

Median Salary: 
$130,900
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $56,100
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): Over $187,200

2014-2024 Job Growth: 11%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 140

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Chicago$54,310$122,690Over $187,200
Rockford$76,810Over $187,200Over $187,200

INDIANA

Median Salary: 
$127,000
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $58,300
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): Over $187,200

2014-2024 Job Growth: 15%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 90

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Indianapolis$55,750$111,220Over $187,200
South Bend$98,180Over $187,200Over $187,200
Fort Wayne$76,860Over $187,200Over $187,200

IOWA

Median Salary: 
$157,500
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $91,900
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): Over $187,200

2014-2024 Job Growth: 14%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 50

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Des Moines$96,740$129,880Over $187,200
Cedar Rapids$115,760Over $187,200Over $187,200

KANSAS

Median Salary: 
$152,500
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $96,100
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): Over $187,200

Job Growth Data Not Available

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Wichita$94,210$163,400Over $187,200
Kansas City$80,240$143,470Over $187,200

KENTUCKY

Median Salary: 
$142,900
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $70,700
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): Over $187,200

2014-2024 Job Growth: 20%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 50

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Louisville$86,920$142,600Over $187,200
Lexington$72,640Over $187,200Over $187,200

LOUISIANA

Median Salary: 
$123,800
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $36,500
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): Over $187,200

2014-2024 Job Growth: 3%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 30

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Baton Rouge$108,570Over $187,200Over $187,200

MAINE

Median Salary: 
$176,600
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $100,600
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): Over $187,200

2014-2024 Job Growth: 8%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 20

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Portland$109,530$183,330Over $187,200

MARYLAND

Median Salary: 
$142,300
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $53,500
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): Over $187,200

2014-2024 Job Growth: 22%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 110

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Baltimore$66,500$176,990Over $187,200
Frederick$52,170$106,200Over $187,200

MASSACHUSETTS

Median Salary: 
$155,100
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $80,700
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): Over $187,200

2014-2024 Job Growth: 7%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 130

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Boston$65,040$153,200Over $187,200
Worcester$115,060Over $187,200Over $187,200
Springfield$118,530$181,120Over $187,200

MICHIGAN

Median Salary: 
$156,200
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $61,900
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): Over $187,200

2014-2024 Job Growth: 5%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 110

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Detroit$61,390$148,430Over $187,200
Grand Rapids$107,180Over $187,200Over $187,200

MINNESOTA

Median Salary: 
$166,600
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $112,400
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): Over $187,200

2014-2024 Job Growth: 11%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 70

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Minneapolis - St. Paul$117,150$162,520Over $187,200
Rochester$80,850Over $187,200Over $187,200

MISSISSIPPI

Median Salary: 
$155,100
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $68,300
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): Over $187,200

2014-2024 Job Growth: 8%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 30

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Jackson$104,880$159,830Over $187,200
Gulfport$74,450$141,050Over $187,200

MISSOURI

Median Salary: 
$145,600
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $71,100
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): Over $187,200

2014-2024 Job Growth: 15%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 80

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
St. Louis$83,550$152,630Over $187,200
Kansas City$80,240$143,470Over $187,200

MONTANA

Median Salary: 
$129,500
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $71,700
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): Over $187,200

2014-2024 Job Growth: 6%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 10

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Billings$79,370$121,500Over $187,200
Missoula$54,840$100,130Over $187,200

NEBRASKA

Median Salary: 
$139,800
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $57,900
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): Over $187,200

2014-2024 Job Growth: 11%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 20

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Omaha$59,520$151,610Over $187,200
Lincoln$72,410$186,900Over $187,200

NEVADA

Median Salary: 
$181,300
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $77,200
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): Over $187,200

2014-2024 Job Growth: 12%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 40

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Las Vegas$74,960$169,240Over $187,200
Reno$121,600Over $187,200Over $187,200

NEW HAMPSHIRE

Median Salary: 
Over $187,200
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $124,600
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): Over $187,200

2014-2024 Job Growth: 15%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 20

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Manchester$125,930Over $187,200Over $187,200
Nashua$122,090Over $187,200Over $187,200

NEW JERSEY

Median Salary: 
$146,200
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $96,200
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): Over $187,200

2014-2024 Job Growth: 11%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 100

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Newark$105,610$137,010Over $187,200
Trenton$62,100$149,000Over $187,200

NEW MEXICO

Median Salary: 
$163,000
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $43,400
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): Over $187,200

2014-2024 Job Growth: 14%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 30

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Albuquerque$42,040$155,790Over $187,200
Las Cruces$49,350$108,970Over $187,200

NEW YORK

Median Salary: 
$148,800
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $106,600
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): Over $187,200

2014-2024 Job Growth: 19%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 440

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
New York City$100,850$142,180Over $187,200
Buffalo$113,490Over $187,200Over $187,200
Rochester$112,330Over $187,200Over $187,200
Albany$112,780$163,980Over $187,200

NORTH CAROLINA

Median Salary: 
Over $187,200
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $90,200
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): Over $187,200

2014-2024 Job Growth: 25%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 190

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Charlotte$92,920Over $187,200Over $187,200
Raleigh$84,460Over $187,200Over $187,200
Greensboro$148,160Over $187,200Over $187,200
Winston - Salem$131,080Over $187,200Over $187,200

NORTH DAKOTA

Median Salary: 
Over $187,200
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $93,500
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): Over $187,200

2014-2024 Job Growth: 19%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 10

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Fargo$118,550Over $187,200Over $187,200
Bismarck$70,070Over $187,200Over $187,200

OHIO

Median Salary: 
$171,200
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $87,000
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): Over $187,200

2014-2024 Job Growth: 16%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 160

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Cleveland$72,410$164,220Over $187,200
Columbus$106,960$171,170Over $187,200
Cincinnati$74,310$149,980Over $187,200
Dayton$92,700$163,870Over $187,200

OKLAHOMA

Median Salary: 
$125,900
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $66,300
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): Over $187,200

2014-2024 Job Growth: 14%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 60

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Oklahoma City$76,150$104,290Over $187,200
Tulsa$55,010$95,580Over $187,200

OREGON

Median Salary: 
$177,800
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $102,700
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): Over $187,200

2014-2024 Job Growth: 14%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 60

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Portland$59,280$153,600Over $187,200
Salem$145,350Over $187,200Over $187,200

PENNSYLVANIA

Median Salary: 
$133,200
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $53,900
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): Over $187,200

2014-2024 Job Growth: 8%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 130

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Philadelphia$75,720$155,530Over $187,200
Pittsburgh$48,760$84,380Over $187,200
Harrisburg$108,370$156,640Over $187,200
Allentown$131,850$167,840Over $187,200

RHODE ISLAND

Median Salary: 
$169,300
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $78,800
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): Over $187,200

2014-2024 Job Growth: 2%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 10

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Providence$79,290$155,350Over $187,200

SOUTH CAROLINA

Median Salary: 
$186,800
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $81,900
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): Over $187,200

2014-2024 Job Growth: 15%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 70

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Greenville$18,060Over $187,200Over $187,200
Columbia$77,450$151,910Over $187,200
Charleston$93,380Over $187,200Over $187,200

SOUTH DAKOTA

Median Salary: 
$136,200
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $88,200
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): Over $187,200

2014-2024 Job Growth: 13%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 20

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Sioux Falls$91,370$149,760Over $187,200
Rapid City$86,170$101,700$122,990

TENNESSEE

Median Salary: 
$150,100
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $94,400
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): Over $187,200

2014-2024 Job Growth: 8%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 50

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Nashville$83,440$157,880Over $187,200
Memphis$95,710$122,130Over $187,200
Knoxville$60,570$136,030Over $187,200
Chattanooga$90,780$185,510Over $187,200

TEXAS

Median Salary: 
$159,200
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $64,200
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): Over $187,200

2014-2024 Job Growth: 24%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 460

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Dallas - Ft. Worth$105,400$181,300Over $187,200
Houston$67,060$147,360Over $187,200
San Antonio$59,150$149,330Over $187,200
Austin$106,870$151,600Over $187,200

UTAH

Median Salary: 
$107,500
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $53,200
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): Over $187,200

2014-2024 Job Growth: 32%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 80

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Salt Lake City$90,410$135,850Over $187,200
Ogden$48,190$81,980$126,090

VERMONT

Median Salary: 
$166,300
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $95,800
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): Over $187,200

2014-2024 Job Growth: 7%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 10

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Burlington$87,670$170,320Over $187,200

VIRGINIA

Median Salary: 
$128,000
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $68,700
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): Over $187,200

2014-2024 Job Growth: 24%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 170

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Virginia Beach$54,320$118,760Over $187,200
Richmond$80,210$112,840Over $187,200

WASHINGTON

Median Salary: 
$162,400
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $62,800
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): Over $187,200

2014-2024 Job Growth: 22%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 120

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Seattle$85,600Over $187,200Over $187,200
Spokane$62,520$136,300Over $187,200

WEST VIRGINIA

Median Salary: 
$138,500
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $87,500
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): Over $187,200

2014-2024 Job Growth: -3%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 10

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Huntington$83,640$172,990Over $187,200
Charleston$79,950$123,520Over $187,200

WISCONSIN

Median Salary: 
Over $187,200
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $107,800
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): Over $187,200

2014-2024 Job Growth: 5%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 60

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Milwaukee$114,630Over $187,200Over $187,200
Madison$101,790$184,940Over $187,200

WYOMING

Median Salary: 
$164,200
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $86,700
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): Over $187,200

2014-2024 Job Growth: 13%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 10

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Cheyenne$106,500Over $187,200Over $187,200
Casper$95,030$169,880Over $187,200

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, general dentists earn a median annual salary of $159,770. The lowest-paid 10 percent earned less than $67,660, and the highest-paid 10 percent earned more than $187,200.

Dentist salaries vary considerably by specialty. An orthodontist or oral surgeon will generally earn considerably more than someone practicing general dentistry. Earnings also increase with years in practice and hours worked.

Dentists should be in demand over the next few years. According to the BLS, employment of dentists is expected to grow by 18 percent between 2014 and 2024, which is a lot faster than the average for all occupations.

The growth of the elderly population is one factor driving the need for dentists. Today’s Baby Boomers are more likely than previous generations to keep their natural teeth into old age. Older people generally consume more dental services as their teeth experience age-related wear and tear.

In addition, the public is becoming more aware of the link between oral health and overall health, making them more likely to seek regular dental services.

Finally, a growing number of people have dental insurance, thanks to federal laws mandating payers to cover certain services. This should reduce the financial barriers to dental care for lower- and middle-income families and increase the demand for services.

Dentists can improve their job outlook by working in areas where dentists are in short supply or entering a high-demand specialty such as cosmetic dentistry.

Dentist job openings are often posted on the websites of private and corporate practices, universities, and government agencies.

Compare Salaries by City

New York City NY Median Pay

$142180 Per Year

$68.35 Per Hour

Los Angeles CA Median Pay

$156570 Per Year

$75.27 Per Hour

Steps to Become a Dentist

1

Complete a high school diploma.

High school students considering a career in dentistry should take a full college-preparatory curriculum, including as many advanced math and science classes as possible. Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate, or dual-placement science classes are desirable. This is also a good time to explore health careers through employment, shadowing, or volunteering.

2

Earn a bachelor's degree.

No specific college major is required for dental school, but students should complete the following prerequisites:

  • Two semesters of biology with lab
  • Two semesters of general chemistry with lab
  • Two semesters of organic chemistry with lab
  • Two semesters of physics with lab
  • Additional prerequisites (check the programs you are applying to)

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3

Enroll in dental school.

Admission to dental schools can be quite competitive. Schools prefer well-rounded candidates who maintain a high GPA while taking a challenging course load. Leadership, community service, and health-related work and research experience are also desirable. College students planning to apply to dental school should take the Dental Admission Test during junior year.

Most students enter dental school with a bachelor’s degree, though some schools accept promising applicants with 2-3 years of solid undergraduate achievement. The first two years of dental school are classroom-based and cover anatomy, physiology, microbiology, radiology, pharmacology, dental techniques, and practice management. Third- and fourth-year students rotate through clinics specializing in surgery, pediatric dentistry, restorative dentistry and more, where they practice their skills under supervision.

Be sure to graduate from a program accredited by the Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA).

4

Complete a residency or advanced education program (if desired).

While a residency isn’t required for general dentistry, a growing number of students are choosing to pursue advanced training through one of the following programs:

  • Advanced Education in General Dentistry (AEGD) is a one-year program emphasizing clinical care and practice management
  • General Practice Residency (GPR) is an intensive 1- or 2-year program that prepares general dentists for hospital practice

All dental specialties require a residency after dental school. Residency typically lasts 1-3 years, but can span as long as six for oral and maxillofacial surgeons (who often earn a medical doctorate, or MD, in the process).

5

Obtain state licensure.

All dentists must be state-licensed in order to practice. Requirements vary by state, but usually include:

  • Graduation from a CODA-accredited training program
  • Passage of Parts I and II of the National Board Dental Examinations, a multiple-choice test covering biological science, anatomy, ethics, clinical knowledge, and patient management
  • Passing performance on a practical examination covering clinical skills

Board exams are integrated into the dental school curriculum. Part I is taken after Year 2 and Part II and the clinical exam after Year 4.

Some states have additional requirements. For more information, contact your state board of dentistry.

6

Continue to challenge yourself.

For many people, the long road to becoming a dentist represents a pinnacle career achievement in itself. However, those seeking additional challenges often pursue opportunities in research, dental education, and public policy.

Exploring Degree Paths

BACHELOR'S DEGREE

4 years

In order to get into dental school, you’ll first need to complete some undergraduate coursework. You can major in any subject so long as you fulfill your dental school prerequisites. These are very similar to medical school and vary a bit between dental programs. But almost every dental school wants to see at least a year each of the following:

  • Biology with lab
  • Chemistry with lab
  • Organic chemistry with lab
  • Physics with lab

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Other common prereqs include biochemistry, anatomy, physiology, and English composition.

Students planning to apply to dental school should also take the Dental Admissions Test (DAT). This exam covers biology, general chemistry, and organic chemistry, among other subjects. Most students take it junior year after completing their prerequisite coursework.

PROFESSIONAL SCHOOL

Minimum of 4 years (more commonly 5-8 years)

In order to practice as a dentist, you’ll need to earn one of the following professional degrees. There are no real differences between them; different schools simply prefer different names:

  • Doctor of Dental Surgery (DDS)
  • Doctor of Dental Medicine (DDM)
  • Doctor of Medical Dentistry (DMD)

Most dental programs are housed within four-year universities. Accreditation is very important in dentistry. You must attend a program accredited by the Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA) in order to be licensed in most states. CODA currently accredits 66 DDS/DDM/DMD programs.

Dental school admissions are highly competitive. While some programs accept students with 2-3 years of undergraduate coursework, most enter dental school with a bachelor’s degree. Other factors considered are grades, DAT scores, difficulty of undergraduate coursework, leadership experience, and work and volunteer experience in healthcare

During years 1 and 2 of dental school, students take courses in:

Gross anatomy

Study the macroscopic (visible) body structures, with emphasis on the mouth, head, and neck.

Oral pathology

Understand disease processes that affect the mouth and head and practice identifying them on x-rays.

Pharmacology

Learn about common drugs used in dentistry, including their methods of action, contraindications, and dosing.

Radiology

Practice using x-rays to safely diagnose dental conditions.

During years 1 and 2, students also complete lab work, simulations, and early fieldwork in general dentistry.

Years 3 and 4 focus on clinical training. Students rotate through different specialties like surgery and restorative dentistry. They also gain experience treating different populations like children and older people. Clinical placements may be on campus or in the community.

After graduating from dental school, students are qualified to practice general dentistry. However, more and more dentists are pursuing post-graduate training through one of the following programs:

Advanced education in general dentistry (AEGD)

A program lasting 1-2 years that is focused on practice management and advanced clinical care. Students have an opportunity to treat diverse patients with a wide variety of conditions. They also gain experience with the latest treatments and technologies. The two-year version of this program helps prepare students for academic careers.

General practice residency (GPR)

This program, also 1-2 years in duration, offers in-depth training in the medical model of patient care and prepares residents for hospital practice. In addition to treating ambulatory patients, residents rotate through the operating room, emergency room, and inpatient dental service.

Advanced education program (also called postdoctoral training or residency)

In order to practice specialty dentistry, students must complete 2-8 years of additional training. Some advanced education programs also award additional degrees (for example, an MD for oral and maxillofacial surgery).

Keys to Success as a Dentist

Necessary Skills and Qualities

People skills

Clinical dentistry is a very people-oriented career. Dentists spend much of their work time interacting with patients and care team members like hygienists, assistants, and technicians. Those in private practice must also supervise an administrative staff.

Communication skills

Dentists must be able to listen to patients concerns and convey health information in ways patients can understand. They must also manage a busy team of caregivers and administrative workers.

Coordination and dexterity

Dentistry is also quite technical and hands-on. Dentists must be comfortable working with medical equipment like drills, probes, and scalpels. Depending on the practice, they may also operate X-ray equipment, anesthesia equipment, and digital imaging machines. Dental procedures require precise manipulation of drills, probes, scalpels, and other tools.

Management skills

Dentists in a private practice should possess good management and organizational skills. They will need to stay on top of business functions like marketing, inventory, and staffing. Fortunately, the American Dental Association offers a wealth of practice management resources for its members.

Attention to detail

Keen powers of observation help dentists to detect tiny changes that could signal an emerging problem or deterioration in a patient’s condition.

Clinical skills

Dentists rely on their knowledge and experience to assess each patient’s condition and come up with the best care plan and course of action.

Compassion

A calm, empathic personality will help dentists reassure patients who are fearful of dental procedures and comfort those who are in pain.

General health and fitness

Dentists should be comfortable standing and bending for long periods during procedures.

Additional Credentials

Dentists who complete a CODA-approved residency may pursue voluntary board certification. This is usually done near the end of residency or soon after graduation. Board-certified dentists are called diplomates.

Each specialty has a board that administers its certification process. The following boards are recognized by the American Dental Association:

It’s worth noting that many unrecognized specialty boards also offer certification (for example, the American Dental Board of Anesthesiology).

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