How to Become a Dentist

Overview

dentist examining a patient's teeth

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.

Work Environment

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.

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.

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.

Dentists in 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.

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.

Requirements

Typical steps to becoming a dentist:

Undergraduate Education and Dental School

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.

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).

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.

Training

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).

Licensing

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.

Necessary Skills and Qualities

  • Communication. 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.
  • 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.
  • Coordination and dexterity. Dental procedures require precise manipulation of drills, probes, scalpels, and other tools.
  • 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.

Opportunities for Advancement

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.

If you would like to gain the necessary education to become a dentist, we highly recommend that you check out our free School Finder Tool located HERE.

Salary

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, general dentists earned a median annual salary of $164,570 in 2013. The lowest-paid 10 percent earned less than $72,240, and the highest-paid 10 percent earned more than $187,199.

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.

Job Outlook

Dentists should be in demand over the next few years. According to the BLS, employment of dentists is expected to grow by 16 percent between 2012 and 2022, which is 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 area 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.

Further Reading

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