With the proper education and experience, you can work as any member of a dental team. Laboratory technicians, hygienists, and assistants diagnose, prevent, and treat oral conditions and diseases under the guidance of a licensed dentist.
This guide can help you start a dental career by providing an overview of the academic and industry requirements in the field. You can also gain insight into professional development sources, including major dentistry associations and publications.
Why Pursue a Dental Career?
Dental careers allow you to transform the lives of patients by carrying out procedures that eliminate pain, restore oral health, and prevent future problems. In addition to excellent earning potential, dentists can be their own bosses by opening up private practices. Even entry-level dental careers tend to come with flexible schedules and stable employment opportunities.
Although dentists must have advanced knowledge and manual dexterity, they still depend on the support of their team members. Successful practitioners are expert communicators who prioritize collaboration and conflict resolution. Dental professionals also need to develop research skills to educate their communities and shape the future of healthcare.
Dental Career Outlook
The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects that most careers in the dental field will grow at a rate faster than the average U.S. occupation. General dentist positions are projected to increase by about 8% between 2018 and 2028. Dental laboratory technicians, dental hygienists, and dental assistant positions are each projected to undergo 11% growth over the same time period.
Dentists earn some of the highest salaries in the healthcare field. According to the BLS, dentists earn a median annual salary of $159,200, making slightly better salaries if they run their own business. Additionally, orthodontists, prosthodontists, and oral/maxillofacial surgeons regularly earn more than $208,000 each year.
Factors like geographic location, employer, and experience impact dental salaries. The table below provides wages for four common dentistry occupations based on a worker's experience level.
|Job Title||Entry-Level (0-12 months)||Early Career (1-4 Years)||Midareer (5-9 Years)||Experienced (10-19 Years)|
|Dental Laboratory Technician||$33,250||$38,230||$45,940||$51,240|
Skills Gained in a Dental Program
To succeed in dentistry, professionals need several hard and soft skills. Higher education programs develop vital interpersonal, organizational, and research skills.
Dental professionals must communicate effectively with their colleagues and patients. These workers must listen to and understand patient concerns, explain complex dental information to laypeople, and collaborate with colleagues.
Dental professionals frequently retrieve, evaluate, and update patient records, often using a combination of physical and digital storage systems. Professionals must also keep track of dental tools and effectively manage their time to adhere to appointment schedules.
Dental professionals must assess patient needs and develop appropriate treatment plans. Professionals consider cases individually and evaluate many factors, including a patient's budget, a patient's preferences, and a treatment's efficacy.
- Stamina and Manual Dexterity
Dental careers regularly require bending over, manipulating small tools, and working with larger equipment. Coursework and fieldwork help dental students develop the physical dexterity required to safely handle dental tools.
To provide the best care for their patients, dentists must demonstrate a commitment to lifelong learning. Dental professionals should possess strong research skills to keep up with advancing technologies and maintain a modern practice.
Dental Career Paths
Dental degrees typically do not offer traditional concentrations. Instead, students can prepare for a specialized dental career by completing several years of additional training after graduating from dental school.
Most dentists do not pursue a specialization, instead working as general practitioners who offer many types of preventative and diagnostic care. Only about 20% of dentists work exclusively in a specialization. The American Dental Association (ADA) currently recognizes several dental specializations, including the four detailed below.
- Dental Anesthesiology
These specialists apply dental and anesthesiology skills to manage patients' pain, anxiety, safety, and overall health before and during surgical and diagnostic procedures. Dental anesthesiologists administer local and general anesthesia, adjust dosages, and monitor patient response and recovery.
- Orthodontics and Dentofacial Orthopedics
Orthodontists specialize in the diagnosis, prevention, interception, and correction of orofacial issues and abnormalities. Orthodontists straighten patients' teeth by applying precise pressure through braces and other wearable devices. Patients may see orthodontists for cosmetic or health reasons.
Specialists working in periodontics focus on the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of diseases affecting dental supporting structures, such as the gums. Periodontists may work with patients for cosmetic or health reasons. Common periodontics procedures include scaling, root planing, and dental implanting.
- Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery
Oral and maxillofacial surgeons diagnose and treat diseases, injuries, and defects affecting the hard and soft tissues of the mouth and jaw. These specialists work with patients for cosmetic and health reasons. Common procedures include removing impacted teeth and performing reconstructive surgery of the jaw.
How to Start Your Dental Career
There is a large wage and required educational gap between different dental careers. You can work as a dental assistant or laboratory technician by completing a certificate program, while earning an associate degree enables you to apply for dental hygienist positions.
To become a licensed dentist, you must earn a doctor of dental surgery (DDS) or a doctor of medicine in dentistry (DMD) degree.
Most students who want to become dentists spend four years earning a bachelor's degree and another four years in dental school. Some colleges and universities offer accelerated tracks that combine the two programs, allowing learners to graduate in about six years.
Dental Careers by Education Level
Dental Assisting Certificate
Entry-level dental assistants do not always need formal education or training. Some dental offices train their own assistants, while others prefer to hire dental assistants with a certificate. Some states also require these workers to be certified.
The Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA) accredits more than 250 dental assistant programs throughout the United States. Even in states that do not require formal education, enrolling in a CODA-accredited program can boost a dental assistant's job prospects and salary.
Dental assistance certificate programs typically require about a year to complete, although part-time, accelerated, and online options are also available. Coursework typically offers a mix of classroom lectures and lab work, covering subjects like sterilization, disinfection, dental tools, and X-rays.
What Can You Do With a Certificate in Dentistry?
- Dental Assistant
Dental assistants help dentists with administrative and medical tasks. They schedule appointments and maintain patient records. These professionals also sterilize equipment and prepare the work area for procedures. During treatment, assistants hand instruments to dentists and make sure patients are comfortable.
Median Annual Salary: $40,080
- Dental Laboratory Technician
Technicians work closely with dentists to create dentures and other prosthetics for individual patient needs. They can specialize in areas like crowns/bridges, orthodontic appliances, and partial and full dentures. Dental laboratory technicians can work with dentist offices, medical wholesalers, and manufacturers.
Median Annual Salary: $41,340
Associate Degree in Dentistry
No schools currently offer associate degrees in dentistry. Aspiring dentists should begin their education by enrolling in a bachelor's program.
Associate programs in the dental field are geared toward students pursuing entry-level careers, like technicians and hygienists. Associate degrees in dental assisting are not especially common — certificate programs typically fulfill the minimum education requirements for this career.
Dental assistants who do choose to pursue an associate degree can expect to complete the same type of coursework as a certificate program. They also complete general education courses, and some learners may participate in a dental office internship.
Most dental associate degrees are awarded by dental hygiene programs. Typically offered at community colleges and technical schools, dental hygiene associate degrees fulfill the minimum education requirements for many entry-level positions. To ensure future licensure eligibility, students should enroll in a CODA-accredited program.
In an associate program, dental hygiene students learn through a combination of classroom instruction, lab work, and clinical experiences at dental facilities. Common areas of study include anatomy and physiology, nutrition, medical ethics, and patient management. Students improve their professional communication abilities, develop an affinity for dental tools, and learn skills related to radiography.
What Can You Do With an Associate Degree in Dentistry?
- Dental Hygienist
These professionals look for signs of oral disease and provide preventative care like removing tartar and plaque. They also educate patients on proper oral hygiene and develop personalized treatment plans. Dental hygienists sometimes work part time in several dentist offices.
Median Annual Salary: $76,220
Bachelor's Degree in Dentistry
Before applying to dental school, aspiring dentists must earn a bachelor's degree. Since there are few bachelor's in dentistry programs, students typically major in biology, chemistry, or a closely related field.
Enrolling in a nonscience discipline may make completing dental school prerequisites difficult. Some universities offer pre-dental or pre-dentistry tracks, either within a larger science major or as a supplemental option to a bachelor's track. A pre-dental program ensures that students will fulfill dental school prerequisites, which typically consist of several credits of biology, chemistry, and physics classes.
In some cases, dental hygienists may also seek a bachelor's degree. Common courses at this level include practice management, dental hygiene research, and instructional methods. While an accredited associate degree typically fulfills the minimum education requirements for state licensure and entry-level employment, a bachelor's can open the door to higher salaries and advanced career opportunities.
Master's Degree in Dentistry
No dentistry fields require a master's degree, but earning this degree can bolster your dental school applications and provide career advancement opportunities.
Graduate students in dental hygiene focus on dentistry, public health, management, and education. Programs typically require an internship or a practicum.
Depending on the program, students can expect to develop skills related to research, management, and classroom teaching. Earning a master of science in dental hygiene can lead to advanced employment opportunities. For example, graduates can secure management positions in dental practice settings or begin careers in academia or research.
Students may pursue a master of science in dentistry before or after dental school. Earning this degree immediately after a bachelor's can enhance a dental school application. It can also help working professionals earn a higher salary or begin a career in a specialization, such as orthodontics, periodontics, or endodontics.
Doctoral Degree in Dentistry
Aspiring dentists should complete a doctoral degree at one of the 66 accredited dental schools in the United States. Dental school graduates earn a DDS or DMD. Despite the difference in title, these two credentials require the same courses.
Earning a doctoral degree in dentistry typically takes four years. Students begin their education by studying human organ systems, including normal and abnormal functions. Learners also take courses in microbiology, pathology, radiology, oral medicine, and anaesthesia.
As their program progresses, students spend less time in the classroom and more time gaining clinical experience. A doctoral degree in dentistry provides students with the advanced knowledge and skills required to succeed as competent and compassionate healthcare providers, practice managers, and lifelong learners.
After gaining licensure, students may begin working as dentists.
What Can You Do With a Doctorate in Dentistry?
- General Dentist
Dentists diagnose and treat oral conditions like sensitive teeth, periodontitis, gum disease, and mouth cancer. They repair or remove damaged teeth, prescribe medication, and apply whitening agents. These knowledgeable professionals also teach patients about brushing and flossing techniques.
Median Annual Salary: $155,600
These dental specialists focus on straightening their patients' teeth. To accomplish this goal, orthodontists use braces and other means to apply targeted pressure to teeth.
Median Annual Salary: $208,000 or more
Dental careers typically require government or state licensure. To work as a dental hygienist, students need to earn an associate degree from a CODA-accredited school. Candidates then sit for the National Board Dental Hygiene Examination. If they pass, they can apply for a registered dental hygienist license from their state.
Similarly, individuals who want to become a dental laboratory technician must earn a certificate or associate degree from any of the 24 official training programs. Upon graduation, they can take the National Board for Certification in Dental Laboratory Technology exam and apply for a certified dental technician state license.
After earning a bachelor's, prospective dentists must complete four years of intensive training at one of the 65 CODA-accredited dental schools to earn their DDS or DMD. Students who want to specialize in an ADA-approved subfield add two more years to their doctoral program.
How to Advance Your Dental Career
The following sections provide guidance on how to advance your dental career after earning initial licensure.
The steps you should take depend on your location, employer, and specific role. However, regardless of your target dental career, networking and continuing education are crucial to expanding your professional contacts and staying current on changes in the field.
Practicing dentists can advance their careers by earning certification in a dental specialty. ADA currently recognizes 12 specializations, including oral medicine and orofacial pain, which received formal approval in early 2020.
Each specialty is governed by a national organization that maintains professional guidelines and training programs. For example, generalists can become a certified oral pathologist by passing the American Board of Oral and Maxillofacial Pathology exam. They can gain the skills needed to work as a dentist anesthesiologist by completing an official residency.
Similarly, dental assistants can access more lucrative jobs by earning professional certification. Laboratory technicians may hone their skills to support the prosthodontics and orthodontics dental specialties. Advancement opportunities for dental hygienists include corporate, research, and administrative roles.
Dentists who want to add a specialization usually need to complete additional residency training to obtain certification. Professionals may also pursue continuing education by completing a fellowship program. ADA offers grant funding to general dentists who want to transition into an academic career or work as a dental education program director.
Entry-level dental professionals who want to become licensed dentists must earn a doctoral degree. However, individuals who are not ready to take this huge step can still take affordable online courses to gain knowledge in areas like infection prevention in dental settings and sedation in pediatric dentistry.
Likewise, dental hygienists can take online courses from the American Dental Hygienists Association (ADHA), which offers on-demand and self-paced options.
In addition to helping practitioners develop new insights and skills, continuing education is a requirement for maintaining professional certification and state licensure. For example, certified dental laboratory technicians must complete 12 hours of continuing education during each one-year renewal cycle. This requirement includes six hours of technical/scientific coursework.
Career advancement also involves connecting with colleagues through local gatherings or online using platforms like LinkedIn. Professionals should consider joining organizations in their field and attending national conventions to meet potential mentors and employers.
How to Switch To a Dental Career
Switching to a dental career is relatively straightforward if you want to work as a hygienist, laboratory technician, or dentist assistant. Enroll in a six-month certification program or earn an associate degree in about two years and apply for state licensure, if necessary.
To become a dentist, you must earn a doctorate. Depending on the program and your academic background, you may need to complete prerequisite coursework before taking the Dental Admission Test. ADA-accredited dental schools are notoriously competitive, so do not be discouraged if you are not admitted on your first try.
You could also consider an alternative dental career that allows you to apply some of your current skills. For example, finance professionals can work for a dental insurance provider, and sales representatives may find employment with a dental products company. Additionally, radiographers can advance their career by specializing in dental maxillofacial radiography.
Where Can You Work as a Dentist?
- Dentists' Offices
Owned and operated by dentists, private practice offices employ assistants, hygienists, and sometimes multiple dentists. These professionals work together to meet the ongoing oral care needs of their patients.
Average Annual Salary: $180,660
- Outpatient Care Centers
Often owned and operated by corporations rather than individuals, outpatient centers — including dental clinics — may employ general dentists and specialists to meet patient needs in one location without the need for referrals.
Average Annual Salary: $157,950
- General Medical and Surgical Hospitals
Dentistry professionals working in hospital settings meet the oral care needs of individuals in inpatient settings. Hospitals may also employ specialists, including maxillofacial surgeons, orthodontists, and pediatric dentists.
Average Annual Salary: $145,650
- Residential Intellectual and Developmental Disability, Mental Health, and Substance Abuse Facilities
Facilities housing patients in a residential setting may employ dentists and dental hygienists to care for patients' oral health needs. Professionals may provide preventative care and treatment to residents.
Average Annual Salary: $197,370
- Physicians' Offices
Though considerably less common than dental office employment, some dental professionals may find work in doctors' offices, where they work closely with physicians and nurses to meet the oral and overall health needs of patients.
Average Annual Salary: $160,670
Location can impact a dentist's earning potential and employability. Due to the size of its general population, California houses the most dentists (16,220 workers). New York, Texas, and Florida follow with dentist populations of 8,780, 8,590, and 7,110 individuals.
Rhode Island and Vermont offer the best salaries to dentists, who earn average annual salaries of $262,900 and $261,790, respectively. However, these states each employ fewer than 400 dentists, which could indicate scarce employment opportunities. When looking at where to practice, you should also factor in cost of living.
Interview With a Dentist
Dr. Mica Bartels, DMD
Dr. Mica Bartels, DMD, is a family and cosmetic dentist who has practiced in the Stow-Munroe Falls community in Ohio since 2001.
She earned her bachelor of science in biology at Asbury College before heading to dental school at the University of Kentucky. Dr. Bartels strives to bring her patients the gentlest, most up-to-date dental care possible. Her recent continuing education pursuits include a series of lectures on the latest techniques in cosmetic and esthetic dentistry taught by Dr. Ross W. Nash.
- What got you interested in dentistry?
I've always loved science, and I love that dentistry combines art and science together. Also, my dad and uncle were dentists, so they inspired me quite a bit.
I started working in my dad's office when I was 14 years old. I loved how his office atmosphere felt more like a family than a workplace. We got to know entire families through multiple generations.
Also, I loved how people would be transformed during their time there. They would come in frightened or in pain but would leave confident and smiling!
Ultimately, I saw firsthand how compassionate dental care truly improves people's lives, and I knew that I wanted to help others, too.
- Having worked in both family and cosmetic dentistry, is there one area of practice that you find particularly rewarding?
Well, even with cosmetic dentistry, it's still really family dentistry!
Many times, the patients I see as cosmetic patients have been my patients since they were children. I've been through their awkward teenage years and braces with them, and we work together to perfect their final results. Or I'm there when a sports injury knocks out a tooth!
Similarly, many of my cosmetic patients are adults who I've seen for years for routine care who are now ready to improve their smiles. This continuity of care, I believe, leads to superior cosmetic results. I'm not just trying to sell someone a "better" smile. Rather, I'm responding to their changing dental needs as they go through their life's journey.
- What did your career path look like after graduation? How did you end up where you are now?
After graduating, I was fortunate to get to work in my dad's multigenerational practice while I looked for the right fit close to home. The office was an hour commute each way from where I was living with my husband.
The long commute became too much when I became a new mother, so I took an independent contractor position at a practice closer to home. Though not ideal, it bought me the time I needed to research and find a practice that fit my vision of what a dental practice should be like.
During my commute at the time, I would pass Munroe Falls Family Dentistry every day. The parking lot was always full, it looked like a homey cottage, and the bird feeders outside gave it that extra touch of home. The dentists, Dr. Young and Dr. Evan, had excellent reputations in the neighborhood.
So I stopped in one day to see if they might be able to use another dentist! My timing was perfect. Dr. Young was looking to retire, and Dr. Evan was looking to find the right partner who would honor the practice's vision of "dentistry done by the golden rule."
That was in 2001, and I've been there ever since! I enjoy a collaborative, supportive partnership with Dr. Evan.
- What does continuing education look like for you? How do you stay up to date with new research and developments in the field?
I seek out continuing education opportunities that offer hands-on learning with tools and materials. My local dental society offers excellent options each year.
I also seek out lectures and series taught by leaders in their field, and I'm willing to travel to attend them. For instance, in 2017, I attended aesthetic continuum courses at the Nash Institute for Dental Learning.
In addition, I see great value in collaborating with other dental professionals locally. Sometimes this collaboration comes in the form of bringing in a speaker we can all learn from. Other times it's simply getting together for lunch to discuss new ideas or trends in our particular areas.
The more I know about other dental treatment options, even if they are not ones I can offer my patients myself, the better I can meet my patients' dental needs!
Finally, I read the dental journals regularly.
- What advice would you give to someone interested in a career as a dentist?
Learn to love the people you're serving. If you make it about your patients, your dental practice will grow and thrive. Don't view other dentists as competition but as peers to help you grow and learn.
Stay current, not just in the field of dentistry but in business practices and marketing. We don't learn much in dental school about running a business, but you'll need many of those skills! Seek out some business courses and resources to help you keep that part of your practice up to date and running smoothly.
Resources for Dental Professionals
The following sections provide tools to help you start and advance your dental career. These resources include free massive open online courses (MOOCs) through platforms like Coursera and edX, as well as influential research journals and professional magazines. You can also learn about major organizations in the industry.
- Professional Organizations
American Dental Association: ADA is the nation's largest professional association in dentistry and a leading source of oral health information for dentists and patients. ADA offers free online resources and information, as well as paid membership resources related to areas like research, financial planning, and insurance.
American Student Dental Association: More than 23,000 student members comprise the ASDA community. This student-run organization protects and advances the rights, interests, and welfare of dental students. Members receive access to professional mentorships, scholarship opportunities, certification exam prep, and health and wellness webinars.
American Dental Hygienists Association: ADHA advances the dental health profession and supports dental hygienists during school and throughout their careers. ADHA offers students one year of free membership. Members enjoy access to an online career center, continuing education opportunities, and grant funding.
America's Dentists Care Foundation: ADCF facilitates the delivery of oral healthcare to underserved populations through a collaborative network of individuals and organizations. Dental professionals and students can gain valuable experience by volunteering at one of ADCF's dental clinics.
National Dental Hygienists' Association: NDHA encourages underrepresented minorities to enter the dentistry profession and provides support for their careers. NDHA also offers scholarships for dental hygiene students and annual memberships to students, professionals, and retirees. Benefits include continuing education, mentorship, and networking opportunities.
Dental Hygiene Education: Created and maintained by a registered dental hygienist, this website offers information and resources for dental hygiene professionals and students. To help students prepare for the National Board Dental Hygiene Examination, this site offers free access to more than 200 case studies.
DentalPost: Part online community and part job board, DentalPost connects more than 750,000 professionals and 55,000 dental offices throughout the U.S. and Canada. The industry's leading job site offers personality, skill, and work culture assessments to find professional matches between job seekers and employers.
- Open Courseware
Essentials of Global Health - Yale University: This course helps students analyze key issues surrounding why people get sick, who is most affected, and how to address key challenges. Content focuses on healthcare systems issues that lead to global interdependence. In addition to required readings, learners can deepen their understanding by engaging with recommended literature and videos.
HPV-Associated Oral and Throat Cancer - Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai: The department of otolaryngology at ISMMS offers this course to help students and healthcare professionals broaden their knowledge of the HPV disease process. Content is divided into four sections, including an overview of the throat cancer epidemic. Students also learn about risk factors, clinical presentation, prevention, and vaccination.
Implant Dentistry- University of Hong Kong: In this class, students complete five modules over the course of five weeks, exploring successful implant practices. They delve into contemporary theories and clinical work, using real patient cases to discuss treatment plans with peers, instructors, and industry experts. Students also learn maintenance strategies to ensure dental implants last as long as possible.
Introduction to Dental Medicine - University of Pennsylvania: Learners who take this beginner-level course explore the full scope of dental medicine, starting with the anatomy and pathology of the jaw, mouth, and tooth. They analyze differences between individual patients and what professionals can do to meet these diverse needs. Upon completion, 43% of students report that the class helped them pursue a new career in the dental field.
Dental Economics: First published in 1910, this magazine focuses on the business of dentistry, helping readers gain new skills and grow their dental careers. Articles cover effective business strategies as well as updates on emerging technologies, products, and techniques. Dentists and certain dental professionals can subscribe for free.
Dentistry Today: As the leading clinical magazine for dental professionals, Dentistry Today provides comprehensive coverage of the field, including innovations in pain management, infection control, and treatment planning. Readers can also discover new technologies like laser microdentistry. Additionally, the website connects students and practitioners to webinars, online classes, and other continuing education resources.
Journal of Dental Education: This monthly publication provides peer-reviewed articles on scientific and academic research in the allied dental fields. Topics include curriculum structure and learning assessments, soft skills in dental education, and integrating IT tools into instruction practices. Members of the American Dental Education Association can access all content for free.
Journal of the American Dental Association: Since 1913, this journal has published articles on peer-reviewed research, pertinent legal and legislative issues, and clinical information for areas like pharmacology and cosmetic/esthetic dentistry. Readers may also learn about fellowships and other continuing education programs. The publication delivers its content in print, on its website, and through a mobile application.
Pediatric Dentistry Today: Published by the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry, this magazine offers guest editorials and feature stories about changes and trends in the field. Articles cover topics like insurance and coding issues, legislative advocacy, and continuing education opportunities. Readers pay a subscription fee to receive issues on a bimonthly basis.
The Open Dentistry Journal: This open-access publication features case reports, research articles, and product reviews. Readers enjoy peer-reviewed articles on dental specialties as well as news about clinical trials and transnational research developments. The journal welcomes manuscript submissions and offers opportunities for dental students and professionals to engage in the review process.
Frequently Asked Questions
- What are some dental careers?
Career options for dentistry majors depend on an individual's level of education. By completing a certificate, you can become a dental assistant or laboratory technician. An associate degree qualifies you for dental hygienist positions. To work as a licensed dentist, you must earn a doctoral degree.
- What are the 12 dental specialties?
ADA-approved dental specializations include dental anesthesiology; dental public health; endodontics; and oral/maxillofacial pathology, radiology, and surgery. Practitioners may also specialize in prosthodontics, periodontics, pediatric dentistry, oral medicine, or orofacial pain. Orthodontics and dentofacial orthopedics is the last option.
- How do I become a dentist?
To work as a licensed dentist, you must earn a doctoral degree from an CODA-accredited school. You must then sit for the National Board Dental Examination, which consists of a written portion and a clinical exam. With a passing score, you can apply for licensure as long as you have also fulfilled individual state requirements.
- What is the highest-paying job in dentistry?
According to the BLS, oral/maxillofacial surgeons, orthodontists, and prosthodontists earn the highest median salaries; these workers have the potential to make over $208,000 each year.