How to Become a Dentist

What is a Dentist?

become a dentistA dentist is an expert who specializes in dentistry, which involves the diagnosis, prevention, and treatment of conditions and illnesses of the oral cavity. Your oral cavity is your mouth, and all that is in it including your teeth gums and other related parts of your mouth. Along with the dentist, there is also his supporting team who helps in providing these oral health services. This supporting team includes dental hygienists, dental technicians, and dental assistants. A dentist will provide instruction and advice to taking care of your gums and teeth and the different diet choices that can affect your oral health. They are the professional that you see when you need to have a tooth pulled, cavities filled, having your teeth straightened, dentures, doing root canals, and general cleaning. They will also help show their younger patients how to brush their teeth properly and what type of toothbrush is best for them.

Dentist Career Information

As a dentist, you will be responsible for making sure that your patients are getting the best oral care possible. You will see several patients each day. Most will work Monday thru Friday with a normal day schedule and work an average of 40 hours a week, but could be up to 50 hours a week. There are some that will have evening hours 1 or 2 nights a week and sometimes a half day on Saturday to accommodate their patients. You will clean teeth, fill cavities, send your patients to specialty dentists to have braces put on if you do not do this in your practice. An example of a job that you might do is when a patient visits your dental practice with a toothache you will access it to see if it infected. If it can be saved or needs to be removed the first thing you will do if it is infected is to put the patient on a round of antibiotics. This way if it is removed the infection will not spread and if it can be saved the infection needs to be gone before it can be filled. There are many opportunities when you are a dentist such as:

  • Owning your own private practice or being a part of a group practice
  • Working in clinics
  • Working in dental schools as an instructor or one that supervises dentists as they do their clinical rounds

They may also be a traveling dentist that goes to schools and does general dental work such as cleaning teeth and showing them how to brush their teeth and giving them a new toothbrush on a part-time basis. They may even volunteer their time going to schools during career day to show students what a career in dentistry would be like.

The exact duties that a dentist will do each day depend on whether they are a general dentist or a specialist.

Reasons to be a Dentist

Being a dentist is a challenging career but there are many reasons why you should become one. Some of those reasons can include:

  • Wanting to help others maintain their oral health by showing their patients how to take care of their teeth and gums and when they have a problem their dentist is the one to take care of it such as filling a cavity, making them dentures, and more.
  • Being an educator to their patients by educating them in oral care and disease prevention.
  • There are multiple career paths that are offered to a dentist after getting their license. There are 9 different specialties that a general dentist can choose from along with having their own practice or being in a group practice.
  • Prestige because dentists are held in high esteem by the community, friends, and family members and when working in private practice they can assume leadership roles such as leading charitable efforts that benefit the community
  • Financial rewards because being a dentist is a lucrative career and can be even more so if they are a specialized dentist such as a pediatric dentist or dental surgeon. Being a dentist means that you can earn over a 6-figure income on average each year as there is a faster than average growth rate expected for dentistry.

Required Skills to Become a Dentist

In addition to the education, licensing, and certification to become a dentist there are also certain skills that a great dentist needs to acquire. One skill that a dentist needs is to know how to be the starter of conversations. They interact with people of all ages, gender, and race every day so they will need to have strong people skills and when they walk into the exam room, they should have a friendly smile and greet the patient by name. Other skills that a great dentist needs include:

  • Friendliness because nobody wants a dentist who works in total silence so they should try to keep a casual conversation going throughout the entire appointment, even if the patient cannot answer them because of the work that is being performed inside their mouth. A dentist needs to know when to talk and when to be quiet. Of course, you need to be natural when doing all these things. People don’t really admire your skills if you ask the same questions on each visit, or speak about the same things. Instead, be creative and open, friendly and professional.
  • Patience, especially if you are working with young children because many times they are incapable of staying put in a particular place for a long time, and they may feel a bit frightened and anxious. They should have an overhead television that is turned to cartoons or some other children’s show to entertain them while the dentist is working. They may also be provided with small headphones to listen to the show. Of course, not every kid would stay still or be calm. You need to have not only patience, but also a way to calm them down naturally.
  • Detail oriented because the tools that a dentist works with are small, and they work in tight spaces. They need to know how to use light sources so they can see better in the patient’s mouth and also make sure that they do not drop any of the tools into the patient’s mouth.
  • Good manual dexterity.
  • Stamina to stand over patients for a long period of time. You might need to take vitamins, and do multiple exercises in your free time.
  • Good problem-solving skills to be able to diagnose what is wrong with the patient.
  • Meticulous attention to detail.

How Long Does it Take to Become a Dentist?

To become a dentist, it takes 2 to 3 years to get your bachelor’s degree and then you will have 4 years of dental school. If you decide after obtaining your license that you want to specialize in a certain field of dentistry such as being a dental surgeon, there is additional post-doctoral training that can be from 2- 4 years. There are also some states that require a dentist to have a residency of up to 2 years in addition to the extra year of specialty education and then pass another exam to get their license in the specialty that they have chosen. When you add it all up, it can take as 9- 13 years to become a dentist if you are choosing a specialty field. It all depends on how long it takes you to get your bachelor’s degree, how many years of specialty education you need and if you need to complete a residency.

How to Become a Dentist?

During high school, you should get as many science classes that you can such as general science, biology, chemistry. Once you have graduated high school, you will need to get your bachelor’s degree. This is a requirement before you gain admission to dental school. There are some dental schools that will allow you to earn your bachelor’s degree as part of your dental program after you have completed 2 to 3 years of your undergraduate program. There is no specific pre-dental major required you should center your bachelor’s degree in science. Many of the bachelor’s degree programs that will meet the dental school requirements for admission are a degree in physics, biology, and chemistry

If you choose a bachelor’s degree in biology, you should make sure that you are acquiring knowledge of various diseases and life by taking courses in ecology, immunology, and biology. If your degree is in chemistry, you should learn about chemical elements and compounds, taking classes in analytical and organic chemistry. A degree in physics covers classes such as astronomy and quantum mechanics. Whichever bachelor’s degree you decide to pursue make sure that the program offers both classroom and laboratory experiences.

To help you with your dental school admission you should join a dentist-mentoring program. You can even join the American Student Dental Association (ASDA), which supports those who are aspiring dentists and will also guide you through the admission process. You can also participate in a dental school preparatory program such as The Summer Medical and Dental Education Program (SMDEP). It is supported by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and offers students that are enrolled in their first 2 years of college a 6-week dental school preparation program. They are offered at select university and college campuses across the country. During this program, aspiring dental students will gain financial advice, career development, a first-hand view of dental work in the clinical setting, and academic enrichment.

Before you can apply to dental school, you have to take the Dental Admission Test (DAT). This test assesses your scientific knowledge and academic capacity. Most will take this test in their senior year in their bachelor’s degree program. In order to reach admittance to dental school, you may have to have a minimum score on the exam. When applying to dental school they take into consideration your DAT scores, interviews that are conducted, letter of recommendations that you have, and your grade point averages. At this point in your education, you have spent 3 years, and now you have 4 more years of dental school. Getting into dental school is very competing so you need to make sure that you score high on your entrance exam, have a high GPA (grade point average) both in high school and during your bachelor’s degree program along with a great interview and several letters of recommendation.

When you do graduate from dental school, you will have a Doctor of Dental Medicine (DMD) or Doctor of Dental Surgery (DDS). There are some states that will need you to have a degree from an approved program in order to be licensed by that state. The programs may be accredited by the America Dental Association (ADA) Commission on Dental Accreditation. While in dental school, the first 2 years you will focus on laboratory and classroom studies in dental and health science. Some of the subjects that you might take can include periodontics, orthodontics, oral pathology, dental anesthesia, pharmacology, and radiology. Normally during the first year you will take science classes such as pathology, microbiology, and pathology and then during the second year you will advance to more dentistry-focused classes. These can include endodontic, dental biomaterials, and cariology. Although they do spend time in the laboratory most of the time is spent in the classroom taking these various courses.

During the last 2 years will concentrate on clinical practice in which you will diagnosis and treat patients will under the supervision of dental instructors. You may perform dental treatments like tooth extractions and cleanings. You may work in hospitals, health centers, or clinics. You may also do clinical rotations in oral surgery, orofacial medicine, and emergency. What your clinical will involve will depend on the dental school you are attending.

After graduation, you will need to be licensed in order to practice but the exact requirements vary by state. The one thing that all states do require is that you pass the National Board Dental Examination. It is a 2-part written examination that covers ethics, clinical procedures, and dental sciences and is multiple choice. You will also have to pass a practical examination that is approved or administered by the state where you will be practicing licensing board. You may also have to do a background check, an interview, and be certified in CPR, and first aid.

If you choose not to be a general dentist you can choose to specialize. There are post –DDS or post-DMD education options that are available to a licensed dentist to practice in different specialties. There are 9 specialties that you can choose from that are recognized by the America Dental Association’s Council on Dental Education and Licensure. To become a specialist dentist will take 2 to 4 more years of education. There are some cases in which you will also need to do a residency up to 2 years before you can earn that specialty state license.

In order to maintain certification, the state dental boards require you to complete a specified number of continuing education hours or credits. There are some licensing boards that will require a minimum of these credits or hours to focus on a specific subject like pain management or life support. You may be allowed to earn a limited number of these credits through online courses, but it depends on the state. There are some states that will allow you to earn these credits by attending state-approved conferences and seminars. If you choose that you want to move into a full-time teaching position or a research position, you will usually have to complete another 2-5 years of additional training.

Dentist Schools

You should look at tuition costs because with so many years of education you can amass a large student loan if you do not have help with scholarships and such. If you can attend a public dental college in your state the tuition will be lower but if you go to a private dental school or one out-of-state, the tuition costs will be higher. Currently, there are approximately 55 accredited dental schools nationwide in the United States.

Most of the top medical schools with dentistry programs are private, so this means much higher tuition. Five of those private schools include:

When choosing a dental school, there are certain things, in addition to the tuition cost, that you should look at. These can include:

  • The reputation, values, and history of the school – one important thing to remember is that the dental school that you choose to attend must be accredited by The American Dental Association or the National Association
  • Admission requirements – you need to know what the school requires for you to be admitted to their dental program to ensure that you have met all their prerequisites.
  • Clinical requirements – you should know the clinical requirements that the school has on its campus. You should also visit the schools you are interested in applying to look at their campus environments. You should check to see if their program has a clinic for the development of practices if they have their own clinic or if they have an agreement with a private or public clinic.
  • When visiting the school ask for a tour of the laboratories, classrooms, and the library if there is one, and the clinic if they have one on campus.
  • Curriculum – make sure that you are looking at what the curriculum is along with making sure that it is a 4-year study program.

Dentist Salary

The average annual dental salary in 2015 was $149,540 and by 2016 it has increased to $151,447. Yes, it has not increased by much more than $2,000 but that is quite an increase in 1 year. The lower 10% has an average annual salary of $122,165 while the upper 90% had an average annual salary of $209,345. In addition to the great salary, there is also the benefits package. If you are in private practice or with a group practice, you will have benefits but you will also be required to make sure that the employees such as dental technicians, dental hygienists, or dental assistance, have their benefits. The benefits package can include:

  • Paid vacation and sick days
  • Paid holidays
  • Long and short term disability
  • Medical, dental, and life insurance, and may include their families. They may also get vision insurance
  • Pension
  • 401k
  • Profit sharing
  • Bonuses that are paid quarterly or annually
  • Pay raises
  • Continuing education reimbursement if the employees are doing this to keep their certification or further their education to advance their career in the practice.

For the dentists there is malpractice or liability insurance along with continuing education reimbursements along with travel expenses if they go to seminars or conferences.

Your salary also depends on your geographical location, if you have a private practice or part of a group practice, are a general dentist, or have a specialty and the number of years of experience. When working in a private practice or part of a group practice you will also have expenses such as rent for the office practice, employee pay, paying for the benefits of the employees, supplies, and much more that affect the salary.

There are several states that offer a high average annual salary. The top 5 states start with New York at $181,000 followed by Washington, D.C. at $ 175,000. Rounding out the top 5 are Massachusetts at $174,000, Mississippi at $171,000 and Georgia at $168,000. The lowest paying state is Hawaii with an average annual salary of $106,000, which sounds like a good salary, but the cost of living is so high there that it takes the salary down quite a bit.

The highest paying dental specialty field is the oral and maxillofacial surgeon who has an average annual salary of $161,020. The average annual wage for a general dentist is $141,040. It is shown that a dentist that works in private practice earns more than a dentist who works in a public sector or university.

Dentist Job Outlook

Being a dentist is a great field to get into as there is a growth rate of 16% between 2012 and 2022 expected according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics due to an aging community that will need advanced dental procedures. As you can see with the huge growth rate, there is always going to be a need for dentists, and if you decide later, you want to specialize you can always go back to get that specialty license. According to the American Dental Association, 80% of all dentists own their practice, so there is a big opportunity for you to be self-employed.

Similar/Related Jobs

When choosing to become a dentist you can become a family or general practicing dentist or chose to specialize in one of these fields.

  • Dental public health – in this specialty the focus is on achieving optimal dental health for their communities. The concept is that they are treating their communities as whole instead of individual patients. They persuade the community to adopt better oral health policies as water fluoridation.
  • Endodontics – these dentists are the ones that do root canals but are also concerned about the overall health of the dental pulp and the tissues that surround the tooth.
  • Oral and Maxillofacial Radiology – this specialty was adopted in 2003 and deals with the techniques that are associated with taking and diagnosing radiographs.
  • Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery – these are the dentists that remove wisdom teeth, place dental implants, perform cosmetic and reconstructive surgery of the face after a traumatic accident, TMJ surgery, and surgically removing tumors in your facial area
  • Orthodontics and Dentofacial Orthopedics – they help a patient obtain optimal occlusion, which is the relationship of the teeth to one another. They correct misaligned, and crooked teeth to give you a better smile
  • Pediatric – they provide dental care for children through adolescence and was formerly called pedodontics.
  • Oral and Maxillofacial Pathology – they deal with all types of disease found around and in your oral cavity.
  • Periodontics – they deal with the health of the structure around your tooth, including the bone and gums. If you are developing gum disease, they can help you have healthy gums again.
  • Posthodontics – they are the ones that make fake or prosthetic teeth, specializing in making partial and full dentures, bridges, and crowns.

Conclusion about the Dentist Career

Yes, it takes at least 9 years to become a dentist, more if you decide to pursue a specialty field but the job opportunities are endless. You even have the opportunity to start your own practice or join a group practice and then go back later to further your career and major in a specialty. With more babies being born each year along with an aging population, there is always going to be a need for pediatric dentists and general dentists to take care of these individuals. It is also a profession in which you can start out making a 6 – figure income. If you enjoy helping people maintain good oral health, this is the career field that you should pursue after high school. There are more pros than cons being a dentist. Two big pros are the 6 – figure income and the opportunity to own your own practice. The two big cons are the number of years you have to go to school and the mountain of student loans if you do not have a scholarship to help with them.