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What is a Dentist?

Dentists diagnose and treat issues with the mouth, teeth, and gums. They also provide training and advice on dental care in order to prevent future problems such as cavities and gum disease. Dentist may repair or remove broken teeth, take molds for dentures and other oral prosthetics, and deep clean scale and plaque from beneath the gum line.

Dentists typically work in a practice setting with other dentists. They employ a support team of hygienists and other office employees in order to provide complete care to their patients. Some dentists prefer to specialize in one or more areas of practice while others provide general services and refer patients to specialists when needed.

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Steps to Becoming a Dentist

The path to becoming a dentist is pretty straightforward. Because the occupation requires licensure, you must follow specific educational requirements in order to qualify for state certification. Because of this you should become familiar with your state's requirements as well as the general requirements for dental school admission. Most dental schools have minimum grade point average (GPA) standards as well as course prerequisites so you should keep this in mind throughout your college years.

College and dental school will each take four years of full-time attendance, so you should make a long-term plan before enrolling in your Bachelor degree program. That way you can customize your curriculum to dental school standards and utilize your time for maximum effectiveness. Here are the basic steps to become a dentist:

  • Step 1: - Earn Your Bachelor's Degree

  • Step 2: - Pass the Dental Admission Test

  • Step 3: - Complete Dental School Training

  • Step 4: - Pass Licensure Requirements

  • Step 5: - Consider an Area of Specialization


Step 1: Earn Your Bachelor's Degrees

Although you aren't required to take a pre-dentistry Bachelor’s degree it will give you all the prerequisite courses and give you an edge upon entering dental school. If you're not enrolling in a pre-dentistry major you should include biochemistry, anatomy, physical chemistry, and physiology in your coursework in order to meet the dental school prerequisites. You should also maintain a GPA of at least 3.5 to assure you meet the standards for dental school admission.

Step 2: Pass the Dental Admission Test

You must take and pass the Dental Admission Test (DAT) in order to be accepted into a dental school. The DAT will assess your scientific and academic knowledge and is the biggest factor in dental school admittance. Your college GPA, letters of recommendation, and interviews will complete your admission requirements. The DAT is a scale-scored test from one to 30 and you must score a minimum of 17 in order to meet most school requirements.

Step 3: Complete Dental School Training

Dental school will take four years of full-time attendance. You may choose to earn either a Dental Medicine (DMD) or Doctor of Dental Surgery (DDS) degree, and the program must be accredited by the Commission on Dental Accreditation of the American Dental Association (ADA). Your first two years will be academic and the last two years clinical, giving you supervised experience treating dental patients.

Step 4: Pass Licensure Requirements

Although state laws may vary, they all require you to pass the National Board Dental Examinations. You should become familiar with your state requirements before entering dental school in order to complete the required courses and exams as defined by your state licensing board. Most states have reciprocal requirements, so if you have your license in one state, you may need to meet other criteria if relocating to another state.

Step 5: Consider an Area of Specialization

Although many dentists find their career niche in a general practice, others choose to continue their education to focus on a specific area of practice. There are nine areas of specialization recognized by the ADA, including pediatric dentistry, orthodontics, and dental public health; you will become familiar with the specialties while in dental school and should make it part of your long-term goal if you decide a specialty is the best choice for your career. A specialty requires another two to four years of education and may also require a residency of up to two years before you can become licensed in that field.

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What Does a Dentist Do?

Dentists are doctors who diagnose and treat the teeth and gums. They promote preventive oral health practices and monitor the mouth, teeth, and jaws for future problems. Dentists are practiced in reading and interpreting x-rays, administering anesthetics, and creating treatment plans such as tooth fillings, extractions, and creating prosthetics such as bridges for the mouth. They may perform surgical procedures on the bone, soft tissues, and teeth in order to promote long lasting dental health.

Dentists work in an office setting, either individually or as part of a team of dentist partners. A dentist in a solo practice might work up to 80 hours per week, which is the key reason many join a partnership.

Dentists work closely with and oversee dental hygienists, who are tasked with scheduled cleanings and giving patient instructions. Other key employees are dental assistants, office managers, receptionists, and lab technicians. A larger practice might also employ one or more persons to do the billing, insurance coding, bookkeeping, and similar tasks that keep a small business running smoothly.

Needed Skills to Acquire

While dental school will give you the practical knowledge on subjects such as anesthesia, radiology, anatomy, and periodontics, there is an extensive skill set you'll also need to acquire in order to find success in the field. Here are some examples of other skills you'll need to develop before you graduate from dental school:

  • Dexterity
    Dentists must be able to do fine, meticulous work with tools without injuring their patients.
  • Physical stamina
    Dentists typically spend their workday standing and spend long time periods bending over patients as they work.
  • Patience
    Some clients, such as children and those fearful of dental work, may require extra time and reassurance.
  • Detail-oriented
    the shading, spacing, and shape of teeth are different in every client and a dentist must be able to discern the differences and needs in order to provide long-term solutions.
  • Problem-solving
    a dentist must be able to find a solution to every issue, even if it is unique to the field of dentistry.
  • Leadership
    dentists must be able to oversee and manage their office staff in order to keep the business running smoothly.
  • Organizational
    dentists must maintain an organized schedule, routine, and office in order to function smoothly in their community.
  • Communication skills
    dentists must be able to speak clearly and communicate effectively with their patients and office staff. In addition, they must be able to keep a running one-sided commentary in order to stay engaged with their patients while work is being performed.

Alternative Education and Career Paths

There aren't any shortcuts in dental school but there are a couple of alternative paths that might shorten your time in school. The first is to take college courses while still in high school, which can save you up to a year off your four-year Bachelor's degree.

The other time-saving path is to complete a combined Bachelor to Doctoral degree program, which are typically offered by a school that has an affiliation with a dental school. This will allow you to earn your Bachelor's degree and Doctorate in approximately six to seven years. If you plan to enter a dental specialty area, it's an excellent plan to incorporate this into your dental school curriculum in order to complete the coursework in the least amount of time.

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Dentist Career & Salary

Where Might You Work?


The majority of dentists, by necessity, work in dedicated dental offices so they have access to the tools, equipment, and accessories needed to do their job. Most dentists work in one of three options: under contract from another dentist, as a partner with one or more other dentists, or in their own private practice. Each situation has pros and cons:

  • Under hire dentists have no overhead but have no decision-making input and a lower income level.
  • A partnership allows a dentist to only be responsible for a percentage of the overhead and they have a say in the way the business is run. Their income is much higher, but they must have a good working relationship with their partners.
  • An independent dentist will have income in direct proportion to their clientele and has full authority to make all decisions for the practice, but they will most likely work long hours and will have a high investment for equipment. A smaller percentage of dentists work for the government, in outpatient care clinics, and as teachers in dental schools.

Potential Career Paths

The majority of dental students who choose a specialty area do so while in school and extend their education to encompass the extra time involved in learning their area of interest. Although a private or partnership dental practice is the most common career path, dentists also find employment in other environments such as:

State and county public health programs
Typically located in high population areas, these programs offer dental treatment to primarily low-income families.

Consultation dentistry
Most dental insurance companies employ dentists to monitor claims for eligibility, malpractice, and fraud.

Academic dentistry
This involves teaching at an accredited dental school (usually requires an advanced degree).

There are many positions in national, state, and local dental associations throughout the country.

For enlisted dentists, there are positions throughout the U.S. and at military bases around the world. Civilian dentists are a minority.

U.S. Public Health Service
Within the Department of Health and Human Services many dentists are employed in all areas of the country.

Private industry
Laboratory and clinical research positions for private corporations are not available as often as other positions. Most private industry positions involve laboratory research, but a few involve clinical research.

Government agencies and research institutes
These institutions compile dental research; they typically require a PhD in dentistry.

Dentist Salaries

Occupation Entry-Level Mid-Career Late-Career
Dental Hygienist, AAS $35,000 $55,000 $76,000
Dental Hygienist, Cert. $29,000 $48,966 $73,000
Registered Dental Hygienist $58,100 $57,900 $58,700
Dental Office Manager $43,200 $48,600 $51,100
Dental Insurance Coordinator $30,400 $35,900 $44,000
Practice Administrator $56,000 $73,000 $81,000

**Salary info provided by PayScale

Career Outlook

The field of dentistry has an excellent career outlook. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects a robust growth of 19% per year through 2026, which is far above the national average for all occupations. Much of this growth is due to the aging baby boomer generation as well as continuing research that correlates good oral health to overall good health of the individual. Likewise, growth in the specialties will be the same or higher as new technology is introduced and recent advances such as the use of implants become more affordable to the general public.

The median annual wages for general dentists in 2017 was $158,120. This generally reflects those in the middle stage of their business growth; the lowest 10% of dentists (typically those in the early stage of growing their practice) earned less than $70,000 and the highest 10% (reflecting specialty areas) earned over 208,000. Payscale reports the average dentist salary to be $126,876 and points out dentists who work as part of a partnership practice may also be eligible for bonuses and profit shares which can raise their income significantly.

Specialty areas may earn significantly more; pediatric dentists earn an average of $174,069 and a high range of $255,806 per year and the average income for an Orthodontist is $172,490 per year with a high range of $300,829. Again, the higher annual pay typically reflects those with 10 to 20 years experience in the field.

Because a dentist relies on repeat business from their patients it may take several years to build a clientele. This, and the high equipment overhead, are the key factors determining whether a dentist is employed by another, enters a partnership, or opens their own practice. As a dentist gains experience and patients their annual salary will grow to reflect their base.

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Advancing from Here

While dental school offers either a Dental Medicine (DMD) or Doctor of Dental Surgery (DDS) degree, there are nine areas of specialty recognized by the American Dental Association. Depending on their specialty, a dentist can expect to spend anywhere from one to eight years in school and residency in order to qualify to practice in their chosen area. Here are the nine potential career paths a dentist might choose to pursue:

  • Dental Public Health
    the prevention and control of dental diseases in an organized community environment.
  • Endodontics
    the diagnosis, prevention, and treatment of injuries and diseases of the dental pulp and surrounding tissues, such as performing root canals.
  • Oral and Maxillofacial Pathology
    the researching, identifying, and diagnosing of diseases in the teeth and mouth.
  • Oral and Maxillofacial Radiology
    the diagnosis and management of disorders and diseases through the use of x-rays and similar types of imaging.
  • Orthodontics and Dentofacial Orthopedics
    the diagnosis and treatment of facial and dental abnormalities.
  • Pediatric Dentistry
    the diagnosis and treatment of children through the ages of adolescence.
  • Periodontics
    the diagnosis and treatment of diseases in the bones and gum tissue that support the teeth.
  • Prosthodontic
    the restoration and replacement of teeth with artificial structures such as dentures or implants.

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Frequently Asked Questions

What dental specialties are available?

Dental professionals practice all over the world. Dental professionals educate patients and treat injuries. Dental professionals may specialize in different areas such as dental prosthetics or preventative dental care. Some dental professionals aim to restore oral health by focusing on treating oral diseases. Some dental careers include dental technicians, oral and maxillofacial surgeons, dental anesthesiology, dental assisting, licensed dentist.

What is the average dentist salary?

The average annual salary for dentists was $158,000 according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. This salary encompasses all types of dentistry including general dentists, orthodontists, prosthodontists, periodontists, pediatric dentists, oral surgeons, endodontics specialists, oral medicine specialists, etc.

What is the average number of people visiting a dental office each year?

The average dentist sees about 1,000 patients per year. This includes both new patients and returning patients. In addition, some dentists may see more than this amount if they are full-time practitioners working for themselves.

How to advance your dental career?

The key to advancing in dentistry is to establish a network of contacts and to pursue continuing education and certificates.

Healthcare Career Paths

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