How to Become a Dentist
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- A dentist is a doctor who specializes in treating teeth, mouth, and gums.
- Dentists train for years as undergraduates, dental students, and dental residents.
- Dentists are well paid, with the average dentist earning a six-figure salary.
- Dentists can specialize in areas like advanced surgery and specific patient populations.
While you've probably been to a dentist before, you might not know the full scope of their work. A dentist is a doctor specializing in the treatment of the mouth, teeth, and gums. They help maintain healthy oral hygiene and treat oral conditions. Dentistry may be a strong career choice for someone interested in healthcare and science and passionate about helping others.
A dentist must complete a bachelor's degree, dental school, and, for some specialties, a dental residency. Learn more about how to become a dentist and salary expectations.
What Does a Dentist Do?
A dentist holds either a doctor of dental surgery (DDS) or doctor of dental medicine (DDM) degree. After earning their dental degree and passing licensing exams, they can practice general dentistry and treat various oral conditions. After working in a dental practice, some general dentists choose to become small business owners and open their own practices.
Some dentists choose to pursue a residency after graduating from dental school. These programs, typically 2-4 years in length, train dentists in specialized procedures and specific populations (such as pediatric dentistry). Specialists tend to have a narrower scope of practice but often command higher salaries.
- Examine patients' mouths for disease and damage using visual exams and imaging techniques, such as X-rays.
- Treat diseases of the mouth, teeth, and gums, such as gingivitis, cavities, chipped teeth, impactions, and infections.
- Educate patients about good oral hygiene, instructing them on oral health and maintenance, such as brushing and flossing.
- Perform surgeries to treat oral disease, such as extractions of rotted teeth, root canals, fillings, and crowns.
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What Are the Steps to Become a Dentist?
Becoming a dentist is a long process that is regulated to ensure that dental patients receive quality care. Dentistry is also a lifelong vocation, with education continuing after graduation. You can start your journey to become a dentist as early as high school.
Step 1: Take Related AP Courses in High School
AP courses let students get exposure to college-level curriculum during high school. Students interested in dentistry should consider AP courses in biology, chemistry, and physics. AP courses are generally more difficult and intensive than honors courses.
While these courses may let students opt out of entry-level courses in college, many dental school programs require students to take an advanced college course in their place.
Step 2: Earn a Bachelor's Degree
A bachelor's degree is a prerequisite to attending dental school. Dental schools require coursework in biology, chemistry, and physics. Those subjects are all popular majors for pre-dental students, often taken in conjunction with a specialized pre-dental program. Majoring in biology is a particularly strong choice for students interested in healthcare. Students learn fundamental sciences in these programs and often have opportunities to gain real-world experience.
Many schools do not offer a dedicated pre-dental track. In this case, students should speak with their academic advisor. In many cases, a pre-medical track will guide them to the same prerequisite coursework and help connect them with supplemental learning experiences.
Step 3: Gain Practical Experience in the Healthcare Field
Practical experience in dentistry can help a student determine if a career as a dentist is right for them. Many dental schools consider this experience vital and judge applicants on their experience.
Common types of practical experience include internships, shadowing, and volunteering. Generally, schools favor experiences where students interact with patients directly. School career offices can help you find shadowing and internship opportunities. Many schools have pre-medical and pre-dental clubs that can connect students with experiences.
Some students take a gap year to work or volunteer and gain more experience. One possible job is a dental hygienist, working directly with a dentist to treat patients. Taking this time to gain experience can make a dental school applicant more competitive.
Step 4: Take the Dental Admissions Test (DAT)
The DAT is a standardized admissions test for dental schools. The test takes 4.5 hours to complete and consists of 280 questions. The test is divided into the following sections:
- Survey of the Natural Sciences (100 questions)
- Perceptual Ability (90 questions)
- Reading Comprehension (50 Items)
- Quantitative Reasoning (40 Items)
Students can prepare for the DAT using practice tests, specialized prep courses, and review books. Students can take the DAT up to three times.
Step 5: Earn a Doctor of Dental Medicine (DDM) or Dental Surgery (DDS) Degree
When selecting dental schools to apply to, consider the cost, location, curriculum, and career placement results. Dental schools use a central application system, the ADEA AADSAS, to consider various factors, including applicants' grades, DAT scores, and extracurricular activities.
A dental degree takes four years to complete. A DDS and DDM degree follow the same curriculum and have the same intensity.
Step 6: Complete a Residency Program
Dentists can immediately begin independent practice once they receive their dental degree. However, for some specialties, dentists must receive additional training through a residency program. These programs typically last 2-3 years and train dentists in specialized techniques.
These programs often charge high tuition rates. However, residencies can be a good fit for students interested in complex specialties or specific populations, such as pediatric dentistry, and ultimately boost their future salaries.
What to Know Before Becoming a Dentist
Choosing an Accredited Program
While dental school accreditation is voluntary, you must attend an accredited dental program to become a dentist in most states. The Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA) accredits dental programs, a process similar to institutional accreditation. Dental schools receive accreditation after completing a comprehensive self-evaluation of their curriculum, policies, and resources. Roughly 1,400 dental schools and dental-related programs have accreditation from CODA.
Cost to Become a Dentist
In your first year of dental school, you can pay between $17,000-$119,360 for in-resident tuition, according to the American Dental Association. Nationally, the average dental school tuition in the first year is $53,242. Becoming a dentist comes with other hidden costs. For instance, you must pay $525 to take the 4.5-hour Dental Admission Test. Other college costs in the first year could cost nothing or up to $15,345, depending on the school.
Unlike doctors, most dentists do not specialize and work as general dentists. However, the American Dental Association lists 12 dental specialties requiring residency. These residencies take 2-3 years to complete and will add to the cost of becoming a dentist. They include:
- Dental anesthesiology
- Dental public health
- Oral and maxillofacial pathology
- Oral and maxillofacial radiology
- Oral and maxillofacial surgery
- Oral medicine
- Orofacial pain
- Orthodontics and dentofacial orthopedics
- Pediatric dentistry
Dentist Salary Expectations
Dentists have a wide range of salaries because they can specialize in different areas. The median annual salary for dentists is $159,530, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Oral and maxillofacial surgeons are the highest-paid specialty, earning more than $239,200 a year. Compare that to general dentists, who make a median annual wage of $155,040.
The bottom 10% of dentists make less than $71,460, and the top 10% earn more than $239,200.
Work settings also determine a dentist's pay. The top-paying industries include government agencies, outpatient care centers, physician offices, and dental offices. Dentists earn median annual salaries between $190,400 and $159,530 in these settings.
Frequently Asked Questions About Becoming a Dentist
What degree do I need to be a dentist?
Becoming a dentist requires earning a doctor of dental surgery, a doctor of medicine in dentistry, or a doctor of dental medicine from an accredited program. The entire process includes earning a bachelor's degree in a subject such as biology with a pre-dental program. To get into dental school, you must complete undergraduate biology and chemistry courses.
What does dentist training look like?
Dental school is rigorous. Expect to spend about 1-2 years studying biochemistry, physiology, anatomy, and pharmacology. The next 3-4 years will include clinical experiences where you directly provide dental care to patients. You'll work with various patients, from children to seniors, rotating from hospitals to clinics.
Is becoming a dentist worth it financially?
Debt from dental school can weigh heavy on new dentists. Dental school debt graduates from the class of 2022 hit $293,900 — a decline from the last two years, according to the American Dental Education Association. That said, dentists can earn a high income faster than other health occupations.
Is becoming a dentist difficult?
Yes. Dental school is demanding and expensive. However, the rewards that dentists experience by helping patients in pain or restoring someone’s smile make the expense and intensity of dental school worthwhile.