Dentistry is the branch of the healing arts and sciences devoted to maintaining oral health. It is a dynamic health profession, offering opportunities to become a successful, highly respected member of the community.
Dentists enjoy excellent compensation and the high demand for dental care is likely to continue in the future. The realization that oral health can have a serious impact on systemic health drives the expansion of new professional opportunities each year.
A degree in dentistry offers a number of career options, including:
- Academic dentistry
- Private practice either as a general dentist or specialist (self-employed, employee, associate/ partner)
- Dental research
- Dental public policy
- International health care
- Federal government (military dentist)
Approximately 80% of all dentists practice general dentistry. General dentists treat all patients, adults and children, in many different treatment facilities and settings. General dentists are graduates of dental school and hold a D.D.S. or D.M.D. degree. The D.M.D. and the D.D.S. are equivalent degrees that are awarded to dental students upon completion of the same types of programs.
Some dental school graduates opt for one or two years of additional education in a general practice residency or advanced education in general dentistry program, rather than immediately going into practice.
- Use the latest techniques and equipment to examine the head, neck and oral cavity to determine the oral health of the patient and identify and diagnose oral conditions that may manifest into systemic disease.
- Use the latest radiographic and computer-generated imaging as well as other specialized diagnostic techniques to identify diseases of the teeth, supporting bone, gingival tissues and other tissues in the oral cavity and head and neck.
- Restore and replace teeth damaged by decay, lost from trauma or disease, with newly developed dental materials, implants and crown and bridge techniques.
- Perform corrective surgery on gums and supporting bones to treat gum disease.
- Extract teeth when necessary using the most up-to-date anesthetic techniques.
- Eliminate pain arising from oral diseases, conditions and trauma, making use of prescriptive medicines to reduce pain and discomfort.
- Correct badly positioned teeth to improve chewing, speech, digestion of food and appearance.
- Oversee the administration and business of private practice and frequently employ and supervise a large number of staff and allied dental personnel to help treat their family of patients.
- Evaluate the overall health of their patients including taking and evaluating comprehensive medical histories.
- Provide instruction and advice on oral health care and preventive measures to maintain healthy oral tissues and prevent oral disease.
- Provide instruction and advice on oral health care, including individualized diet analysis, brushing and flossing techniques, the use of fluoridated products and other specialized preventive measures to maintain healthy oral tissues and prevent oral disease.
There are a number of dental specialties:
- Endodontists diagnose and treat injuries that are specific to the dental nerves and pulp (matter inside the tooth).
- Oral and maxillofacial pathologists study and research the causes, processes and effects of diseases with oral manifestations.
- Oral and maxillofacial radiologists take and interpret conventional, digital, CT, MRI and allied imaging modalities of oral-facial structures and disease.
- Oral and maxillofacial surgeons provide diagnostic services and treatment for injuries, diseases and defects of the neck, head, jaw and associated structures.
- Orthodontics and dentofacial orthopedists diagnose and treat problems related to irregular dental development, missing teeth and other abnormalities.
- Pediatric dentists treat children from birth to adolescence.
- Periodontists provide corrective surgery on gums and supporting bones to treat gum disease.
- Prosthodontists restore and replace teeth damaged by decay or lost from trauma or disease, with fixed or removable appliances constructed with newly developed dental material.
- Dental public health specialists develop policies and programs, such as health care reform, that affect the community at large.
Approximately 90% of all dentists are engaged in delivery of care through private practices. Full-time dentists spend approximately 36 hours per week in their practices, of which approximately 33 hours per week is spent treating patients. They have great flexibility in determining the number of hours per week they choose to work.
The remaining 10% of dentists teach in dental education programs, conduct research and/or deliver care in the Armed Forces, the Indian Health Service, the U.S. Public Health Service or other clinical settings. Dentists engaged in teaching, research or related positions generally work regular 40-hour workweeks.
To practice dentistry in the United States, you must graduate from an accredited dental school. Dental school programs generally last four years. In order to be accepted into dental school, you have to take the American Dental Association’s Dental Admission Test (DAT).
In making admissions decisions, dental schools consider many factors, which may vary from one school to another. For example, many state-supported dental schools are required to accept a majority of students who reside in their home state. Some dental schools consider individuals without a bachelor’s degree, if they have completed a minimum of two years of full-time college study. However, preference is given to candidates who have a college degree by the time they enter dental school.
General criteria used in making admissions decisions include:
- Overall grade point average
- Number of biology, chemistry and physics courses completed and grades earned
- Total credit hours earned prior to enrollment in dental school (preference given to individuals with bachelor’s degrees or more)
- Quality of academic preparation, e.g., degree of difficulty of courses, course load
- DAT scores
Schools also look at a candidate’s personal qualities, which can be reflected in the application and through letters of recommendation. For example, they may consider:
- Awards, honors, scholarships
- Extracurricular, volunteer, community service, leadership experiences
- Work experience
- Research experience
- Evidence of overcoming hardships, commitment to education, perseverance
- Knowledge of the profession of dentistry, including job experience or job shadowing
While you do not have to major in science as an undergraduate to be admitted to dental school, you do need to take certain biology, chemistry and physics courses. Work with a health professions advisor while in college to develop a well-rounded course of study that best meets your needs. Pre-dental students also are encouraged to join pre-dental clubs, talk with practicing dentists and, if possible, shadow dentists.
An increasing number of dental schools offer dual degree programs.
In many states, after graduating from dental school and passing your licensing examination, you can begin practicing dentistry immediately. No internship or residency is required. In several states, a one year post-doctoral residency is required in lieu of a licensing examination. Dental school graduates can opt for additional training, either in general practice dentistry or in one of the nine recognized advanced dental education specialties:
- Oral and maxillofacial surgery
- Oral and maxillofacial radiology
- Oral pathology
- Pediatric dentistry
- Public health dentistry
The cost of a dental education is high, but the income you can earn as a dentist is also significant. Most dental graduates successfully manage loan repayment through a variety of options offered by the federal government, and in some cases, qualify for loan repayment programs that reduce the amount of student loan debt in return for service to designated populations, engaging in research or pursuing academic dentistry. ExploreHealthCareer.org’s Funding Opportunities tool and GoDental.org‘s Money Matters section can help you find additional ways to pay for your education.
In order to perform dental procedures, a dentist must be able to work with precision on an extremely small scale. Additionally, superior eye-hand coordination is critical to ensuring the safety of patients and the integrity of the profession. That’s why it’s important to develop your manual dexterity if you are interested in a career as a dentist.
In fact, the DAT specifically tests this skill, and most dental school admissions staff will ask you to discuss how you’ve developed your manual dexterity skills in interviews.
These are some things you can do to fine-tune your motor skills:
- Crocheting or knitting
- Learning to tie fishing knots
- Learning a musical instrument that requires extensive hand-eye coordination, like a piano or violin
The sooner you start becoming more skillful with your hands, the more advanced you will be when this part of your dental school education begins.
Learn More About Preparing and Applying to Dental School
- Read about how to prepare for dental school.
- Buy a copy of the ADEA Official Guide to Dental Schools.
- Take advantage of the resources and information offered on GoDental.org.
- Watch for announcements about ADEA-sponsored recruitment events.
You also can connect with other dental students via:
- American Student Dental Association
- Student Doctor Network
- Student National Dental Association
The American Dental Education Association created this timeline to guide pre-dental students through their four years of undergraduate education. You can see the timeline and find other resources on ADEA’s GoDental website.
- Meet with a pre-health advisor.
- Enroll in either biology or chemistry courses, as recommended by your advisor.
- Join a pre-dental or pre-health professions club at your school. This is a great opportunity to meet other like-minded students, network, become involved in community service and form study groups for your science courses. Meeting upper-class pre-dental students gives you the opportunity to learn about the dental school application process.
- Learn more about careers in the dental profession. Speak with your own dentist and learn more about the advantages and challenges of the profession. Based on what you learn, why does a career in dentistry appeal to you?
- Learn about personal finance. Does your university offer a course? Consider how your student budget, spending habits and use of credit cards impact your student loan debt. You may also want to look into scholarship and fellowship options. How can you balance a demanding academic schedule, work and a comfortable, yet frugal, student lifestyle?
- Participate in a summer academic enrichment program like the Summer Medical and Dental Education Program (SMDEP). This program is a free (full tuition, housing and meals) six-week summer medical and dental school preparatory program that offers eligible students intensive and personalized medical and dental school preparation.
- Work or volunteer in a health care environment, ideally in a dental office or clinic. Your goal is to gain exposure to the health care environment in general and to learn more about the work of dental professionals. Talk to practicing dentists, learn about the delivery of dental care and find out about the issues impacting the profession.
- Start thinking about selecting a major. Remember, you do not have to be a science major to attend dental school, but you do need to complete specific science courses.
- Work with your advisor to identify special opportunities for the upcoming summer. If you qualify and were unable to attend the previous summer, consider applying to a SMDEP program. Many universities and dental schools offer summer workshops that help you to enhance your study skills, learn more about the dental profession and the various fields of dental research and prepare for the Dental Admissions Test (DAT). Check application deadlines.
- Become actively involved in your pre-dental club. Sign up for committee work, help organize events and participate in activities.
- Participate in a summer program, enroll in summer school or work/volunteer in the dental profession.
- Get a job! Keep that student loan debt as low as possible during your undergraduate years.
- Start putting together a financial plan for applying to dental school. Take into consideration fees for the DAT, the ADEA Associated American Dental Schools Application Service (AADSAS) application and supplemental application fees to the dental schools to which you apply. Don’t forget to include the cost of participating in on-site interviews.
- Complete biology and chemistry courses in preparation for taking the DAT in late spring of your junior year.
- Review the dental school application process and create a timeline for the submission of your application materials. Most dental schools participate in ADEA AADSAS, the centralized dental school application service. Look over the application and begin formulating your application information.
- Meet with your advisor to find out how your school handles letters of evaluation. Identify individuals who are willing to write letters of evaluation on your behalf and communicate submission deadlines to them. Be able to document your dental office observation experiences.
- Start making decisions about the type of dental school you want to attend: location, size of school, composition of the student body, curriculum and the program’s emphasis. View websites and talk with classmates and upper-class students who are now enrolled in dental school.
- Participate in visitations from dental school admissions officers, visit dental schools and talk to dental students and admissions/minority affairs officers.
- Continue to actively participate in pre-dental organization activities.
- Identify a strategy to prepare for the DAT. The American Dental Association offers a free PDF with sample test items. Consider purchasing a DAT review book and/or a CD that offers sample tests. Some students opt to enroll in DAT review courses, offered at dental schools, colleges and universities and private companies. Some of these courses are offered free of charge. If you decide to purchase a book, CD or participate in a commercial DAT preparation workshop, make sure the content matches the actual content of the DAT.
- Register for the DAT with the American Dental Association. After submitting your application, you will receive instructions for contacting a Prometric Testing Center to schedule your test date. The DAT is a computerized examination and can be taken at a date and time of your choosing. Your registration is valid for six months.
- The ideal time to take the DAT is at the end of the spring semester or immediately after you have completed your organic chemistry courses. If your test scores are not what you would like, you must wait 90 days to re-take the test. The DAT can only be taken up to three times, so plan to score well the first time you take the test.
- Submit your ADEA AADSAS application, indicating the dental schools to which you want your application materials sent. The ADEA AADSAS application cycle generally opens on or around June 1. An early application significantly enhances your chances of having your application reviewed early. Don’t procrastinate and let application deadlines sneak up on you.
- If possible, work, volunteer, or participate in a summer pre-dental program at a dental school.
- Submit your ADEA AADSAS application.
- If you’re retaking the DAT, have a study strategy in place. Remember, you must allow 90 days between test dates.
- Complete advanced science courses. Although most schools only require a year of biology, most dental students will tell you that additional courses, particularly in the biological sciences, prepare you better for the fast-paced dental school curriculum.
- Finish up all course requirements for your degree.
- Prepare to go on interviews. Participate in mock interviews offered by your pre-dental organization or career center.
- Obtain a good interviewing outfit. Professional business attire is the norm.
- Sometime after December 1, you will (hopefully) receive offers of admission. Depending on the date of an offer of admission, you will have specific response time. Most (but not all) schools require a deposit to reserve a space in the class at the time you accept the offer of admission.
- Initiate the financial aid application process to the dental school you choose to attend. Don’t procrastinate. Many financial aid awards are based on the date of application. Work with your dental school’s financial aid office to stay on top of the application process.
- Prepare for graduation.
- Prepare for your enrollment in dental school. This could mean participating in a pre-freshman experience, working and earning a few more dollars before starting school or traveling and relaxing.
- Brush up on your reading. Dental school requires a lot of reading and the ability to comprehend what you are reading. Reading books, magazines, newspapers and anything else that interests you over the summer will help you be better prepared.
- Work on your manual dexterity skills by continuing to play a musical instrument, participating in a sporting activity, knitting, etc. Continue them in dental school. They will help you in your dental career.
- Develop and maintain good healthy eating habits, work out on a regular basis, learn how to relax and find things that are fun to do.
- American Association for Dental Research
- American Dental Association
- American Dental Education Association
- American Student Dental Association
- Hispanic Dental Association
- National Dental Association
- Society of American Indian Dentistry
- Student National Dental Association