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How to Become a Dentist

By Lace Brunsden

Published:

Are you considering a career as a dentist? The decision to pursue dentistry is an important one that can shape your professional life and personal fulfillment. Before embarking on this path, it is crucial to gather relevant information on how to become a dentist, evaluate your interests and goals, and weigh the various factors that come into play.

Career Summary

Dentist Salary

Your salary as a dentist can vary a great deal depending on the specialization that you select and how much experience you have.

According to Glassdoor, the salary of a standard dentist can be summarized as follows:

  • Entry Salary (US$190k)
  • Median Salary (US$251k)
  • Executive Salary (US$338k)

When comparing this to the general average salary across the United States, even the lower-paid dentists receive a high salary.

What does a Dentist do?

A dentist is a healthcare professional who specializes in the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of oral health issues. Dentists are responsible for maintaining and improving the overall oral health of their patients. 

If you become a dentist, you can expect to perform a wide range of tasks, including dental examinations, teeth cleanings, cavity fillings, tooth extractions, gum disease treatments, dental restorations, and oral surgeries.

Dentist Career Progression

  • Dental Assistant: As a dental assistant you will provide support to dentists during patient procedures. This includes basic administrative tasks, and performing basic dental procedures under supervision.
  • Dental Hygienist: Dental hygienists perform dental cleanings, take X-rays, assess oral health, educate patients about proper oral hygiene techniques, and assist dentists in treatment planning.
  • Associate Dentist: As an associate dentist, you would work under the supervision or partnership of an established dentist. You will provide comprehensive dental care, diagnose and treat oral health issues, perform dental procedures, and build patient relationships.
  • Lead Dentist/Clinical Director: As a lead dentist or clinical director, you oversee the clinical operations, supervise the dental team, coordinate patient care, and ensure the quality and efficiency of dental services.
  • Dental Specialist: Dental specialists are dentists who have completed advanced training and education in a specific area of dentistry and focus on specific treatments and procedures within their specialized field.
  • Dental Consultant/Educator: Some experienced dentists choose to pursue careers as dental consultants or educators. They provide guidance, training, and expertise to other dentists or dental organizations.
Dentist Career Progression

Pros:

  • Making a Positive Impact
  • Building Meaningful Relationships
  • Continual Learning and Advancement
  • Flexibility
  • Professional Fulfillment and Financial Rewards

 Cons:

  • Physical and Mental Demands
  • Dealing with Patient Anxiety and Dental Phobia
  • Complex Cases and Unexpected Complications
  • Administrative and Regulatory Burdens
  • Professional Liability and Legal Risks

Useful Skills to Have as a Dentist

  • Clinical Competence
  • Diagnostic and Problem-Solving Skills
  • Manual Dexterity
  • Attention to Infection Control
  • Business and Practice Management Skills

Popular Dentist Specialties

  • Orthodontics
  • Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery
  • Periodontics
  • Endodontics
  • Pediatric Dentistry

How to become a Dentist

Dentist 8 Steps to Career

Becoming a dentist typically involves several steps, including a combination of education, practical training, and licensure. Here are the common steps to becoming a dentist:

Obtain a Bachelor’s Degree

Do I Need a Bachelor’s Degree to Become a Dentist?

Yes, to become a dentist, you typically need to earn a degree. To be eligible for admission to a dental school and ultimately earn a dental degree, you will typically need to complete a bachelor’s degree program.

The specific requirements for the bachelor’s degree may vary among dental schools, but most dental schools have prerequisite coursework in subjects such as biology, chemistry, physics, and mathematics.

Why is it Important to Get a Bachelor’s Degree in Dentistry?

It’s important to note that a bachelor’s degree in dentistry is necessary in order to qualify for the postgraduate degree obtained in dental school.

This is largely because a basic knowledge of science is required in order to fully understand the information you will be exposed to in dental school.

How Long Does it Take to Get a Bachelor’s Degree in Science?

The duration to obtain a bachelor’s degree in science can vary depending on the specific program requirements. However, in general, a bachelor’s degree in science that will qualify you for dentistry-related fields typically takes around 4 years of full-time study to complete.

How Much Does It Cost to Study Dentistry at University?

The cost of studying dentistry at a university can vary significantly depending on factors such as the country, the specific university, whether you are a domestic or international student and other individual circumstances.

Dental education can be quite expensive, and it’s important to consider tuition fees as well as other associated costs, such as the cost of living while studying.

The cost of studying for a bachelor’s degree in science can vary greatly. It can be as low as US$ 15,000 or as high as US$ 45,000. Then the cost of a postgraduate degree in dentistry can be estimated between US$ 33,000 to as much as US$ 90,000.

Take the Dental Admission Test (DAT)

The Dental Admission Test is a standardized exam that assesses your academic and scientific knowledge, perceptual ability, and critical thinking skills. Dental schools use these scores as part of their admissions process.

Apply to Dental School

Once you’ve completed your bachelor’s degree and taken the DAT, you can apply to dental school through the American Dental Education Association’s (ADEA) centralized application service. This service allows you to apply to multiple dental schools using a single application.

Complete Dental School

Dental school is where you will get a post-graduate dental degree. During this time, you’ll receive classroom instruction, laboratory work, and clinical training. You’ll study subjects such as anatomy, physiology, biochemistry, dental materials, radiology, oral pathology, and dental specialties.

How Long Does it Take to Get a Postgraduate Degree in Dentistry?

The length of time it takes to obtain a degree in dentistry can vary depending on the country and the specific program. In most countries, including the United States, a dental degree typically takes four years to complete. However, it’s important to note that there can be variations in the duration of dental programs among different dental schools.

In some cases, dental programs may have integrated undergraduate and dental degree programs, which allow you to earn a bachelor’s degree along with your dental degree. These programs can take longer to complete, usually around six to seven years in total.

Different Dental Degrees

In the field of dentistry, there are several different degrees that you can obtain. Here are the main dental degrees:

  • Doctor of Dental Surgery (DDS): The DDS degree is one of the most common dental degrees in the United States. It is typically awarded to you upon completion of a four-year program in dental school. Dentists with a DDS degree are trained in all aspects of general dentistry and are qualified to diagnose, treat, and prevent oral diseases and conditions.
  • Doctor of Dental Medicine (DMD): The DMD degree is similar to the DDS degree and is also awarded upon completion of a four-year program in dental school. Dentists with a DMD degree receive the same comprehensive training in general dentistry as those with a DDS degree. The main difference between DDS and DMD degrees is the terminology used by the respective dental schools.
  • Master of Science in Dentistry (MSD/MScD): The MSD or MScD degree is a postgraduate degree that focuses on a specific area of dentistry. Dentists who pursue an MSD or MScD degree typically complete advanced coursework and research in a specialized field, such as orthodontics, periodontics, or oral and maxillofacial surgery.

Obtain Clinical Experience

Dental schools usually provide opportunities for students to gain practical experience by treating patients under the supervision of faculty. This clinical experience is crucial for you to develop the necessary skills and knowledge to become a competent dentist.

What Are Internship Opportunities For a Dentist?

As a dentist, there are several internship opportunities available that can provide valuable practical experience and further your professional development. These internships allow you to work under the supervision of experienced dental professionals and gain hands-on experience in various aspects of dentistry.

Here are some common internship opportunities for dentists:

  • Dental Clinic Internships: Many dental clinics offer internship programs where you can work alongside experienced dentists and dental hygienists. These internships provide you with opportunities to observe and assist in dental procedures, interact with patients, and gain practical skills in patient management, treatment planning, and dental instrument handling.
  • Hospital Dentistry Internships: Some hospitals have dental departments where you can intern and gain experience in providing dental care to patients with complex medical conditions or special needs. Hospital dentistry internships can expose you to oral surgery, dental emergencies, trauma management, and collaborative care with other healthcare professionals.
  • Public Health Dentistry Internships: Public health organizations and government agencies often offer internships in public health dentistry. These internships focus on oral health promotion, community outreach, and delivering dental care to underserved populations. Public health dentistry internships can provide you with insight into public health programs, preventive dentistry, and dental public policy.
  • Research Internships: Research internships allow you to engage in dental research projects and contribute to scientific advancements in the field. These internships are typically offered by dental schools, research institutions, or dental industry companies. Research internships can enhance your critical thinking skills, research methodology knowledge, and understanding of evidence-based dentistry.
  • Specialized Dental Internships: Some dental specialties, such as orthodontics, oral surgery, periodontics, endodontics, and pediatric dentistry, may offer you specialized internships. These internships allow you to gain focused experience and knowledge in a specific dental specialty. Specialized internships often involve more advanced clinical procedures and specialized patient care.
  • International Dental Internships: There are opportunities to participate in dental internships abroad, often in underserved communities or through volunteer organizations. These internships provide a unique cultural and clinical experience while allowing you to contribute to oral health initiatives in different parts of the world.

What Skills Will I Learn as a Dentist?

As a dentist, you will acquire a diverse range of skills that are essential for providing comprehensive dental care and effectively managing oral health.

These skills can be categorized into several key areas:

  • Clinical Skills: Dentists develop clinical skills to diagnose, prevent, and treat various dental conditions. These skills include everything from oral examinations to restorative or cosmetic procedures, to more complex orthodontics and even dental surgery.
  • Diagnostic Skills: Dentists develop the ability to diagnose dental diseases and conditions through various diagnostic methods, including radiography and physical oral examinations
  • Professional Skills: You need to develop general professional skills such as ethics, professionalism, and critical thinking in order to make the best decisions for your patients and business.
  • Manual Dexterity: Dentistry requires you to have precise hand-eye coordination and manual dexterity to perform delicate procedures and handle dental instruments with accuracy.

Pass the National Board Dental Examinations

In the United States, dentists must pass the National Board Dental Examinations, which consist of two parts: the written examination (NBDE Part I and Part II) and the clinical examination (NBDE Part II Clinical).

Complete a Residency Program (Optional)

Some dentists choose to pursue additional training through a residency program, which can last anywhere from one to six years. Residencies allow you to gain advanced skills and knowledge in specialized areas such as oral surgery, orthodontics, periodontics, or prosthodontics.

Obtain Licensure

After completing dental school and passing the national board exams, you must obtain a dental license to practice dentistry. Licensure requirements vary by state but typically involve passing a state board examination. Some states may also have additional requirements, such as a jurisprudence exam or an interview.

How Long Does It Take to Become a Dentist?

There is a lot to take into account when considering how to become a dentist. Due to the complex nature of getting qualified, the amount of time that it might take you to complete all of the steps can vary greatly.

However, assuming that you study full-time, following the most optimized route, you should be able to become a regular dentist in as little as 8 years.

Can I Become a Dentist Through Online Education?

Becoming a dentist typically requires a combination of theoretical knowledge, practical skills, and clinical experience, which makes it challenging for you to complete the entire dental education program solely through online education.

You might be able to take a lot of your bachelor’s degree coursework online, but after that, it does not seem to be an option.

What Are Some Web Resources to Learn Skills to Become a Dentist?

There are several reputable web resources available that can help you learn and develop skills related to dentistry.

  • Dental Schools and Universities: Many dental schools and universities have online resources available for students and the public.
  • Dental Associations and Organizations: Professional dental associations and organizations, such as American Dental Association (ADA), often provide resources and educational materials for dental professionals and students.
  • Dental Anatomy and Procedure Resources: There are web resources and apps available that provide interactive tools, visual aids, and virtual simulations to help learn and reinforce knowledge in these areas. A good example is the 3D Dental Anatomy Software Program by the University of Minnesota.
  • Dental Journals and Publications: Dental journals and publications provide up-to-date research, clinical case studies, and articles on various dental topics. Some prominent dental journals include the Journal of Dental Research, the Journal of the American Dental Association, and the British Dental Journal.

What’s the Career Outlook for Administrative Assistant?

The career outlook for dentists in the USA is generally positive, with steady demand for dental services. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects a 6% employment growth rate for dentists from 2021 to 2031. This is slightly faster than average.

The demand for dental services is expected to remain strong due to an aging population, increased awareness of oral health, and the continued need for preventive dental care.

Dentist Popular Career Specialties

What are the Job Opportunities of a Dentist? (Different Types of Dentists)

There are several different types of dentists, each specializing in a specific area of oral healthcare. It is important to consider all of these when considering becoming a dentist so that you optimize your career pathway. These dental specialists have additional training and expertise beyond general dentistry.

Here are some of the main types of dentists:

  • Orthodontist: Orthodontists specialize in diagnosing and treating dental and facial irregularities, such as misaligned teeth and jaws. As an orthodontist, you will use braces, aligners, and other orthodontic appliances to straighten teeth and improve the bite.
  • Endodontist: As an endodontist, you will focus on the diagnosis and treatment of dental pulp and root canal-related issues. They perform root canal therapy, which involves removing infected or damaged dental pulp and preserving the natural tooth.
  • Periodontist: Periodontists specialize in the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of gum diseases and conditions affecting the tissues surrounding and supporting the teeth. When working as a periodontist, your job description might require you to perform procedures such as scaling and root planing, gum grafting, and dental implant placement.
  • Prosthodontist: Prosthodontists are experts in the restoration and replacement of missing teeth and oral structures. They design and fit dental prosthetics such as dentures, dental bridges, dental implants, and cosmetic dental restorations.
  • Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeon: Oral and maxillofacial surgeons are dental specialists who perform surgical procedures on the mouth, jaw, and face. If you become an oral surgeon, you will commonly handle procedures like tooth extractions, dental implant placements, corrective jaw surgery, facial trauma reconstruction, and treatment of oral pathologies.
  • Pediatric Dentist: Pediatric dentists specialize in providing dental care to infants, children, and adolescents. As a pediatric dentist, you will focus on oral health and development in children, including preventive care, early intervention, and education for children and their parents.
  • Oral Pathologist: Oral pathologists specialize in diagnosing and managing diseases, conditions, and abnormalities affecting the oral and maxillofacial regions. In this position, you will often work in collaboration with other dental specialists and healthcare professionals to diagnose oral cancers, oral infections, and other oral pathologies.
  • Oral and Maxillofacial Radiologist: Oral and maxillofacial radiologists specialize in interpreting and diagnosing dental and maxillofacial imaging, such as X-rays, CT scans, and MRI scans. In this position, you will play a crucial role in diagnosing dental diseases and conditions through radiographic imaging.

What Type of Companies Hire a Dentist?

Dentists can find employment opportunities in various types of companies and organizations.

Here are some examples of companies and entities that may hire dentists:

  • Private Dental Practices: Private dental practices are owned and operated by dentists themselves. As a dentist, you may choose to establish your own practices or join existing ones. Private practices offer autonomy, the opportunity to build patient relationships, and the potential for higher earnings.
  • Dental Clinics: Some of these, including community health clinics, public health clinics, and corporate dental clinics, may hire you to provide dental care to a wide range of patients. These clinics often serve underserved populations and offer dental services at affordable rates.
  • Hospitals and Medical Centers: As a dentist, you can be employed by hospitals and medical centers to provide dental care to patients with complex medical conditions, trauma cases, or in need of emergency dental treatment. Hospital dentistry often involves collaborating with other healthcare professionals.
  • Academic Institutions: If you have a passion for teaching and research, you can find employment in dental schools, colleges, and universities. You can work as a faculty member, educating and mentoring dental students, conducting research, and contributing to the academic environment.
  • Government Agencies: Government entities such as public health departments, military branches, and correctional facilities may employ dentists to provide dental services to specific populations. As a government-employed dentist, you will often focus on public health initiatives, preventive care, and oral health education.
  • Research Institutions: You can work in research institutions, dental product companies, or pharmaceutical companies. They may be involved in dental research, product development, clinical trials, or marketing and sales of dental products.
  • Insurance Companies: Some dental insurance companies employ dentists as dental consultants or advisors. You will help with claims processing, policy development, and reviewing treatment plans for insurance coverage.
  • Non-profit Organizations: Non-profit organizations focused on oral health and humanitarian causes may hire dentists to provide dental care in underserved communities or participate in outreach programs and dental missions.

What Is the Work-Life Balance of a Dentist?

The work-life balance of a dentist can vary depending on several factors, including the type of practice, work setting, personal preferences, and individual circumstances.

Here are some aspects to consider regarding the work-life balance of dentists:

  • Practice Type: The type of dental practice you choose can impact your work-life balance. Dentists who work in private practice may have more control over their schedule and flexibility in managing their workload. On the other hand, dentists working in group practices, clinics, or hospitals may have more structured schedules and may need to accommodate the needs of the organization or the patients they serve.
  • Practice Ownership: If you own your practice, you have more autonomy and control over your schedule and working hours. You can make decisions about patient load, practice hours, and vacation time. However, practice ownership also comes with additional responsibilities and the need to manage the business aspects of the practice.
  • Work Hours: The number of hours dentists work can vary. Some dentists choose to work full-time, which typically involves around 35 to 40 hours per week. Others may choose to work part-time, which allows for a more flexible schedule and more time for personal pursuits. It’s worth noting that emergencies or unexpected patient needs may occasionally require you to work outside regular office hours.
  • On-Call Duties: Depending on the practice setting, you may have on-call duties, particularly in emergency dental care or hospital dentistry. This can impact work-life balance as it may involve being available outside of regular working hours to provide immediate care for patients in urgent situations.

Should I become a Dentist?

The decision to become a dentist is a significant one that requires careful consideration and an informed approach. It is crucial to emphasize that the choice to pursue dentistry should be based on a combination of factors that go beyond external influences.

When contemplating a career as a dentist, it is vital to evaluate your personal interests, strengths, and skills. Dentistry demands a genuine passion for oral health, meticulous attention to detail, strong manual dexterity, excellent communication skills, and the ability to empathize with patients. Reflect on whether these qualities align with your own attributes and if you feel drawn to the field.

Consider your long-term goals and aspirations as well. Dentistry offers a range of opportunities, from private practice to specialization, research, teaching, or public health. It is essential to envision the path that aligns with your professional ambitions and desired work-life balance. Factors such as autonomy, patient interaction, potential earnings, and opportunities for growth should also be weighed against your personal preferences.

Ultimately, becoming a dentist is a commitment that requires dedication, perseverance, and ongoing learning. It is a profession that holds the power to positively impact individuals’ oral health and overall well-being.

Careers Related to Dentist


Lace Brunsden

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