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Dentist Career Guide

What is a dentist?

A dentist is a healthcare professional with the education, training, and licensure to diagnose, prevent, and treat diseases, disorders, and conditions affecting oral health. They are vital in maintaining oral hygiene and dental health, integral to a person’s overall well-being. The profession demands a thorough understanding of teeth, gums, and the nerves, muscles, and tissues of the mouth and neck.

Their professional practice involves comprehensive oversight of the dental health of their patients. They are usually the first point of contact for oral health, facilitating primary care. Dentists contribute remarkably to healthcare teams by providing important advice and insight about oral health symptoms that may indicate other systemic diseases. From strengthening a person’s smile to detecting serious conditions such as cancer, they hold a critical place in the health ecosystem.

Duties and responsibilities

A fundamental part of a dentist’s job involves conducting oral examinations to detect diseases and providing care advice to prevent future problems. They will conduct complex procedures to treat issues like tooth decay, fractured teeth, or gum diseases.

These professionals are responsible for identifying the need for and often carrying out surgical procedures such as root canals or tooth extractions. They read and interpret dental X-rays, use them for diagnosis, and educate patients about the necessity and the process involved in these procedures. They also design, make, or fit dental prostheses, like bridges and dentures, in collaboration with dental technicians.

Work environment

Dentists usually perform their duties in a dental office setting. These spaces are typically equipped with various dental tools and instruments, which make it easier for them to provide treatments and conduct procedures efficiently. This environment can sometimes cause anxiety in patients, so part of their role is ensuring patient comfort and easing nervousness.

They may also work in hospitals, clinics, and other healthcare facilities, depending on the specific nature of their work. They work closely with dental assistants, hygienists, and dental technicians, relying on a team-based approach for efficient patient care. Because of the precision required, these professionals often work in well-lit environments to carry out intricate procedures.

Typical work hours

Most dentists work full-time, 36 to 40 hours a week. However, the specific hours can vary widely depending on their practice setting and professional needs. Many operate private practices, giving them greater flexibility in scheduling their work hours.

Some may also choose to work during evenings and weekends to meet their patients’ needs or expand their practices. It’s common for a dentist to also be on call, able to respond to emergencies, such as accidental tooth loss or severe toothache, outside office hours.

How to become a dentist

This career guide section outlines the steps to becoming a dentist. This journey includes vital steps such as obtaining the necessary academic qualifications, passing required exams, accruing practical experience, and obtaining licensure to practice professionally.

Step 1: Earn a bachelor’s degree

The first step is to earn a bachelor’s degree. While there’s no specific major required, it’s beneficial to focus on a science-oriented major that includes courses like biology, physics, and chemistry. Education at this level is crucial as it provides an essential foundation for the advanced concepts you will encounter in dental school.

Step 2: Take the DAT

After acquiring your bachelor’s degree, you must pass the Dental Admissions Test (DAT). The DAT is a standardized test administered by the American Dental Association and used by dental schools to assess an applicant’s intellectual capacity and scientific knowledge. A competitive score increases your chances of acceptance into dental school.

Step 3: Attend dental school

The next step is to attend a dental school accredited by the American Dental Association’s Commission on Dental Accreditation. This usually takes about four years, where the initial two years focus on classroom and lab work, and the last two emphasize supervised clinical practice.

Step 4: Obtain a degree

Upon successful completion of dental school, you will receive either a Doctor of Dental Surgery (DDS) or a Doctor of Medicine in Dentistry/Doctor of Dental Medicine (DMD) degree. The curriculum typically involves a combination of coursework, laboratory exercises, and supervised clinical experience.

Step 5: Apply for licensure

Following graduation, aspiring dentists must become licensed in the state they wish to work in, which usually involves passing a written and practical examination. The most common written examination is the National Board Dental Examination, consisting of two parts that test knowledge in the dental sciences.

Step 6: Consider a specialty

If you wish to specialize in a particular area of dentistry, such as orthodontics, pediatric dentistry, or oral and maxillofacial surgery, additional training and education are required after dental school. This may involve attending a two to six-year residency program, after which you may need to pass a specialty examination to become a board-certified specialist.

Step 7: Acquire professional experience

After earning licensure and possible specialization, it’s important to gain practical experience. Many start their careers by working in an established practice before moving on to solo practice or partnership. Experience helps you build skills, grow your patient base, and establish yourself in the profession.

How much do dentists make?

Compensation for dentists varies by experience, industry, education, location, and organization size. Unique factors impacting a dentist’s income include their specialization, such as orthodontics or pediatric dentistry, and the number of hours they operate, with some running after-hours or weekend clinics for increased revenue.

Highest paying states

  • Delaware – $264,440
  • Alaska – $259,350
  • Rhode Island – $254,190
  • Minnesota – $227,280
  • New Hampshire – $226,300

Browse dentist salary data by market

Types of dentists

Below, we explore common career types and areas of specialization for dentists. The field of dentistry is more diverse than many people realize, offering a variety of roles that allow professionals to harness their unique skills and interests. Understanding the types can help you choose the path that’s right for you.

General dentist

Numerous dental professionals choose to work as general dentists. These individuals provide essential oral healthcare for patients of all ages. From routine cleanings and exams to common procedures, general dentists handle a wide range of duties and are often the first line of defense in identifying oral health issues.

Pediatric dentist

Pediatric dentists focus on serving the specific needs of children, from infants to teenagers. They’re trained to deal with children’s growing teeth and to help educate young patients and their parents on proper oral health and maintenance strategies.


If you’ve ever had braces, you’re likely familiar with the work of orthodontists. These specialists are trained to diagnose, prevent, and correct malpositioned teeth and jaws. They are also the professionals who handle cosmetic issues related to misaligned teeth.


Periodontists specialize in preventing, diagnosing, and treating gum diseases. They’re trained to recognize and manage more complex periodontal cases, including those with complications due to illnesses like diabetes.


Endodontists specialize in the causes, diagnosis, prevention, and treatment of diseases and injuries of the dental pulp or the nerve of the tooth. They are experts in pain management and skilled in procedures like root canals.

Oral and maxillofacial surgeon

Oral and maxillofacial surgeons diagnose and manage diseases, injuries, and deficiencies in the hard and soft tissues of the oral and maxillofacial region. They might perform surgeries to remove wisdom teeth, treat facial pain, or correct jaw deformities.


When teeth need to be replaced with bridges, dentures, or other prosthetics, a prosthodontist is the specialist for the job. These professionals typically work with patients who have lost teeth due to injury, disease, or age. They help to restore functionality and cosmetic appearance to patients’ mouths.

Top skills for dentists

Dentistry is a complex profession requiring tangible and intangible expertise. Here are the top skills and traits that successful dentists typically embody.

Manual dexterity and robust coordination

Good physical stamina and excellent hand-eye coordination are critical. The oral cavity is a relatively small space for a dentist to work, making precision and control extraordinarily important.

Interpersonal skills and ability to communicate

In dentistry, developing strong relationships with patients is imperative, which involves excellent communication to explain complex medical conditions in simple, understandable language. Also, empathy and understanding the discomfort or fear that a patient may experience goes a long way toward building trust.

Problem-solving abilities

Each case can present its own challenges, requiring a sharp problem-solving mindset. These professionals often need to think on their feet and make quick decisions regarding the best course of action for a situation.

Attention to detail

A successful dentist must have heightened attention to detail, ranging from the precise movements required during dental procedures to spotting minor signs of oral illnesses that could have larger implications.

Education and lifelong learning

Knowledge of recent advancements in dental technology and treatments is essential. This ongoing learning process helps them to provide the best and most up-to-date care to patients.

Dentist career path

A career in dentistry can lead down numerous professional avenues depending upon individual interest and specialization. Specializations can open doors to more focused and higher-paying roles.

Dentists can specialize in oral and maxillofacial surgery, orthodontics, endodontics, periodontics, prosthodontics, pediatric dentistry, public health dentistry, or oral pathology. Each of these specializations requires additional education and training but can significantly enhance their career path by offering opportunities in specialized clinics, hospitals, research institutes, or even faculty positions in academic institutions.

Following the path of oral and maxillofacial surgery can lead a dentist to become a dental surgeon. Dental surgeons perform surgeries on the mouth, jaw, and face and may also work closely with ear, nose, and throat specialists (ENTs).

Ultimately, a career in dentistry can transition into management or education roles. Advanced degrees in healthcare management can help a dentist progress into management or administrative roles within larger healthcare systems. Similarly, gaining an education degree can pave the path to becoming a professor or dean in a dental college.

Traditionally a stable profession, dentistry is undergoing a transformative period due to the integration of emerging technologies. Computer-aided design and manufacturing, often abbreviated as CAD/CAM, are already being used to produce dental restorations such as crowns in just one office visit. Lasers are also gaining traction for various procedures, offering patients less invasive treatment options and quicker recovery times.

Preventative oral care continues to be a key focus in dentistry, with a rise in consumer awareness driving the market. Dentists are now incorporating nutrition counseling into their patient care plans to promote ongoing oral wellness. They are also increasingly partnering with other healthcare providers to deliver holistic solutions. From collaborating with psychologists to deal with dental anxiety to teaming up with sleep specialists to tackle sleep apnea, integrated care is a trend to watch in this sphere.

The emergence of the corporate dental practice model and the resulting reduction in solo practices is reshaping the landscape for dentists. This shift might warrant a rethinking of their career paths. In tandem with this phenomenon, dental practitioners are also seeing an increasing trend of job mobility, moving between different types of practices during their careers. This flexibility can lead to greater satisfaction and even longevity in the profession.

Employment projections

Based on the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projections, the profession is expected to grow 6 percent through 2031, about as fast as the average for all occupations. The demand for dental services will continue to increase due to an aging population, an increase in aesthetic dental requirements, and as research continues to link oral health to overall health.

Dentist career tips

Understand the depth of your role

As a dentist, you’re not just a health professional – you are a compassionate caregiver, a teacher explaining oral care to patients, a business administrator if you own your practice, and you play a crucial role in patients’ overall health. Understanding these various facets of your profession can help you excel in your role and provide well-rounded patient care.

Build a professional network

Building a professional network is a valuable strategy for career progression. It can help you access job opportunities, gain new clients, and stay informed about industry trends and advancements. This is also the avenue through which you can find mentors who can provide guidance and share valuable experiences.

  • American Dental Association (ADA)
  • Academy of General Dentistry (AGD)
  • American Academy of Implant Dentistry (AAID)
  • DentalXP – online dental education site

Continuously stay updated

Dentistry is a constantly evolving field, with new technologies, treatments, and practices developing over time. Staying updated on these changes is crucial for maintaining relevance and competence in your profession. It’s also essential to maintain your license and board certification.

  • Periodic refreshers and skill enhancement programs
  • Regularly attend seminars and dental conferences
  • Frequent reading of dental journals and publications
  • Certification courses in emerging areas such as cosmetic dentistry and dental implants

Integrate advanced technologies

Adopting advanced technologies can significantly add to your expertise as a dentist. Technologies such as 3D printing for dental implants, laser dentistry, and digital X-rays offer better outcomes and improve patient care. Being open to using and incorporating these technologies into your practice can set you apart from your peers.

Place importance on soft skills

Technical knowledge is vital in your career, but so are soft skills. Compassionate communication, active listening, and patience can enhance the patient experience, leading to satisfied and returning patients. People usually have anxiety about dental visits and soft skills can make a significant difference in managing their fears and anxieties.

Where the dentist jobs are

Top employers

  • American Dental Partners
  • InterDent
  • Western Dental
  • Aspen Dental Management
  • Pacific Dental

Top states

  • California
  • Texas
  • New York
  • Florida
  • Illinois

Top job sites

  • zengig
  • DentalPost
  • Indeed
  • LinkedIn
  • Simply Hired


What is a typical day in the life of a dentist?

A dentist’s typical day involves diagnosing and treating conditions affecting the teeth, gums, and mouth. They perform procedures such as tooth extractions, fillings, root canals, routine cleanings, and check-ups. They also consult patients about oral care, recommend treatment options, and interpret X-rays. Their day could also consist of overseeing office administrative tasks, staying up-to-date with new dental technologies, and consulting other health professionals about patient care.

What does continuous education look like for a dentist?

Continuous education involves attending conferences, workshops, or seminars, becoming part of professional associations, enrolling in specialist training programs, and keeping up with the latest research in dentistry. Some states require dentists to obtain a certain number of continuing education credits regularly to maintain their licenses.

What are some essential qualities to succeed in the dental profession?

Manual dexterity, strong communication skills, patience, and the ability to make patients feel comfortable. Dentists also need problem-solving skills, a robust understanding of medical ethics, and the capacity to manage a team if they own a practice.

What challenges do dentists typically face in their career?

Managing patient anxieties, staying updated with the latest advancements in dental technology, and dealing with the job’s physical demands, like standing for long periods. If they operate their practice, they also have to handle staff management and business administration tasks.

What is the most rewarding part of being a dentist?

Many dentists find it rewarding to improve patients’ oral health, alleviate their pain, and increase their confidence through cosmetic procedures. Building a long-term relationship with patients and being a valued community member can also be fulfilling.

What types of equipment are commonly used by dentists?

Dentists use a variety of equipment, including dental drills, X-ray machines, and other diagnostic equipment. They also use surgical instruments, intraoral cameras, dental lasers, and ultrasonic cleaners. Additionally, they use various types of software for practice management, imaging, and creating patient records.

What role does technology play in modern dentistry?

Technology plays a critical role in modern dentistry. For instance, digital imaging technology has greatly improved the precision of X-rays. CAD/CAM technology enables dentists to create custom dental restorations within a single visit, making the process more convenient for patients. Teledentistry is another technological development enabling remote consultations and improved access to dental care.

How essential are communication skills in dentistry?

Communication skills are vitally important in dentistry. Dentists must be able to explain complex medical information to patients in a simple, understandable manner. They must also be good listeners, as understanding patient concerns and symptoms is key to proper diagnosis and treatment. Additionally, if they run a practice, they need to be able to communicate effectively with their team members.

What are the different specializations in dentistry?

Dentistry has several specialties, including orthodontics (alignment of teeth and jaws), periodontics (gum diseases), endodontics (root canal therapy), and prosthodontics (replacing missing teeth). There’s also pediatric dentistry (children’s oral health) and oral and maxillofacial surgery (surgical treatment of diseases or injuries in the face, jaws, neck, and mouth).

Where do dentists typically work?

Most dentists work in private practices, which can be solo or group practices. Some work in dental hospitals or clinics. They can also work in public health institutions or teaching institutions where they combine teaching with practice. A small number of dentists may work for research organizations and pharmaceutical companies where they research new treatment methods or develop new dental products.