How to Become a Dentist

Dentists are physicians focusing on diseases of the mouth and teeth and their treatments. Discover the path to this unique medical career.

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by Blake Weil

Published August 26, 2022

Edited by Kristina Beek
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How to Become a Dentist
Image Credit: Thomas Barwick | DigitalVision | Getty Images


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 treatment of the mouth, teeth, and gums. They help maintain healthy oral hygiene and treat oral conditions. Dentistry is a strong career choice for someone with interests in healthcare and science, and a passion for helping others.

A dentist must complete a bachelor's degree, dental school, and for some specialties, a dental residency. Keep reading to learn more about how to become a dentist.

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Ready to start your journey?

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.

Dentist Responsibilities

  • Examine patients' mouths for disease and damage, using both 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.

Dentistry Not for You? Check Out These Related Careers.

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 students are selecting dental schools to apply to, they should consider the cost, location, curriculum, and their career placement results. Dental schools use a central application system, the ADEA AADSAS, where they consider various factors, including 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, for students interested in complex specialties or specific populations, such as pediatric dentistry, residencies can be a good fit and ultimately boost their future salaries.

What to Know Before Becoming a Dentist

Accreditation

You cannot practice dentistry without graduating from a dental school accredited by CODA (The Commission on Dental Education). It is important to check that you are applying only to accredited programs.Bachelor's programs are also accredited by institutional accrediting boards recognized by the U.S. Department of Education. Make sure you are pursuing an accredited degree so that you are eligible to pursue dental school.

Cost

College costs are fairly expensive for those pursuing a career as a dentist. A bachelor's degree costs, on average, $35,551 annually for a four-year program. Registering for the DAT costs $495, plus students must pay for the cost of study materials. Dental school application fees are $251 for the first school you apply to and $108 for each additional school. A dental degree is also expensive, potentially costing over $300,000 in tuition at a private school. Learners may find more affordable tuition prices at public, in-state schools.

Salary

Dentist salaries are fairly high, with the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reporting a median salary of $163,220 as of 2021. General dentistry tends to pay the lowest, with specialists making significantly more money. For example, orthodontists are one of the highest-paid dental specialty jobs, making a median annual salary of more than $208,000 in May 2021.

Frequently Asked Questions About Becoming a Dentist

What degree do I need to be a dentist?

To become a dentist, you either need a DDS or DDM. Both degrees reflect the same curriculum, and the exact styling of the degree is determined by the dental school awarding it. A dental degree is a four-year program.To attend dental school, you need a bachelor's degree. Typically, as dental school requires coursework in basic sciences, pre-dental students pursue a science major, often biology.

How long does it take to become a dentist?

It takes between 8-11 years to become a dentist. First, student's complete four years of undergraduate education. After that, they spend four years in dental school. While they can practice dentistry after graduating dental school, many students pursue a two- to three-year long residency to specialize. Residencies let students obtain skills in a specific sub-field of dentistry, such as pediatrics or periodontal surgery.

Education lengths can vary based on many factors. Some students take time off between college and dental school to gain work experience and save money. Other students may have taken AP courses or a higher course load and attempt to graduate early.

How much does it cost to become a dentist?

A dental education is an expensive degree to pursue. First, students have to pursue an undergraduate education, spending an average of $35,551 annually for a four-year program. Then, the DAT and application fees also add to overall costs.Dental school itself is highly expensive, with top programs at private schools costing over $300,000. In-state dental programs are often more reasonably priced. Dentists hoping to specialize must pay even more for residency training programs.

How many different types of dentists are there?

Unlike doctors, most dentists do not specialize and work as general dentists. However, the American Dental Association lists 12 dental specialties, which require a residency to practice. These residencies take 2-3 years to complete and will add to the cost of what it takes to become a dentist. They include:

What does dentist training look like?

Dentist training is intense. Classes include both basic sciences, such as anatomy, and dental specific sciences, such as oral pathology. Students typically pursue classroom-based learning for the first two years of a dental school program.The second half of dental school is primarily focused on clinical training. Students get experience caring for patients directly in a supervised environment, rotating through clinics, hospitals, and community health centers. They may also receive education in how to run an independent dental practice.

How much does a dentist make?

Dentists are relatively well paid much like other highly educated healthcare professionals, like doctors or surgeons. According to BLS, as of 2021, the median salary for a dentist was $163,220. Dental salaries tend to increase with experience and knowledge gained in the industry over time.

Specialties tend to pay higher than general dentistry to account for the additional time and training dental specialists require. For example, Payscale December 2021 data reports an average salary of $201,710 for endodontists.

BestColleges.com is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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