Dentist How to become, career path, income potential

What is a dentist?

A dentist is a healthcare professional specializing in preventing, diagnosing, and treating oral health issues. They provide comprehensive care for patients of all ages, from infants to seniors, performing a wide range of procedures, including fillings, root canals, crowns, bridges, extractions, gum disease treatments, tooth whitening, and more.

Cavities are the most prevalent chronic disease in childhood. As such, dentists provide oral care for children and for many adults who didn’t see a dentist when they were young. They treat gum disease and promote regular dental examinations and good oral hygiene to their patients to help prevent dental disease.

The goal is to create treatment plans to maintain or restore their patients’ oral health. They look at x-rays and diagnostic tests to determine the type of treatment needed for each patient. They safely administer anesthetics when needed, and monitor the growth and development of the teeth and jaws in children. They typically perform surgical procedures on the oral cavity’s teeth, bone, and soft tissues.

These professionals work with a team that consists of dental assistants, lab technicians, and dental hygienists to provide comprehensive, convenient, and cost-effective oral care.

Qualifications and eligibility

To become a dentist, you will need to complete a Bachelor of Science Degree or equivalent. Some common majors include biochemistry, physics, molecular biology, and biomedical science. 

After earning your degree, you will have to pass the Dental Admissions Test (DAT), have a good grade point average (GPA), experience shadowing, and have excellent letters of recommendation to get into dental school.

The dental school curriculum is essentially the same as a medical school for the first two years, where students take anatomy, biochemistry, physiology, microbiology, immunology, and pathology. Students focus on clinical practice in the second two years, like diagnosing and treating oral diseases. Schools either award a Doctor of Dental Surgery (DDS) or a Doctor of Medicine in Dentistry (DMD), which are essentially the same. 

Many of these professionals continue their education and training beyond dental school and achieve certification in a dental specialty, such as oral surgery or orthodontics. For some specialties, it may take as much as 6 additional years to complete the education and clinical experience needed. 

After dental school, you must complete the National Board of Medical Examiners Examination and a state or regional clinical licensing exam to practice. Other requirements may differ by state. To maintain your license, you are required to complete continuing education requirements for the remainder of your career to stay up-to-date on the latest scientific and clinical developments.

As a professional in this position, you must have excellent communication skills. They have to clearly explain procedures to patients of various ages and backgrounds in a way they can understand and address any questions or concerns they may have.

They must also be able to work well within the team and effectively explain treatment options and procedures, so that everyone on the team is on the same page. Good eyesight and color-normal vision are essential, as is excellent hand-eye coordination to carry out delicate procedures with a variety of specialized instruments. It is also important to be able to stay focused for long periods.

They also need good leadership skills to manage a team. Strong people skills are also important to put people at ease and make them feel comfortable, as many people are nervous when they go to see a dentist. Compassion and empathy are crucial skills needed as well. These professionals must be problem solvers who can diagnose issues with teeth, gums, and jaws, and come up with the right solutions.

Work environment

Dentists work in well-lit, clean, and sterile environments. The vast majority work in private practices, but some individuals will teach, conduct research, or work for the government. They typically wear lab coats and use protective gloves, masks, and safety glasses when examining or performing surgery on a patient to reduce the spread of infectious diseases.

Dental professionals can also be exposed to radiation from patient X-rays. They may perform the same activities repeatedly over the course of a day. The work can be hazardous and stressful, both physically and mentally. 

Typical work hours

Most dentists work 4 to 5 day weeks. Some may work evenings and weekends to accommodate their patients. The number of hours these professionals work can vary greatly. Most work about 35-40 hours a week during normal business hours. Some work long hours, especially when starting a new practice. Many continue to work part-time after they retire.  

Types of dentists

Many dentists are general dentists who patients go to for cleanings, fillings, and other routine oral care. But there are also 9 recognized specialties in dentistry that require additional education and clinical practice to achieve. Here are the specialties that you can pursue: 

Pedodontics

Pediatric dentists are specially trained to treat children and teens’ specific needs and oral health. They provide fluoride treatments and dental sealants and help children and teens maintain good dental care through their development years.

They make sure adult teeth are coming in properly and often refer patients to orthodontists who need to have their teeth straightened. They advise parents on brushing habits, nutrition, teeth grinding, thumb sucking, and more. Pediatric dentists have an additional 25 months of education beyond dental school. 

Endodontics

An endodontist specializes in root canals to treat dental diseases concerning the human dental pulp or the center of the tooth. They focus on preventing and treating injuries or diseases affecting the dental pulp. Endodontists must take an additional 26 months of school after dental school

Periodontics

Periodontists specialize in the care and treatment of gums, including treating gum-related diseases and oral inflammation. Periodontists also place, maintain, and repair dental implants and treat patients with diseases of the gum tissue and bone supporting the teeth. They are required to complete an extra 35 months of education after dental school.

Orthodontics and Dentofacial Orthopedics Certification

Orthodontics entails the diagnosis and treatment of misaligned or malpositioned teeth or jaws. Orthodontic dentists use non-surgical procedures to correct misalignment of teeth, gaps, overbite, underbite, or other jaw abnormalities, bite, or teeth.

Treatment includes braces, wires, retainers, Invisalign, or other corrective appliances. Orthodontists improve the patient’s look and smile and improve the function and longevity of the teeth. To become an orthodontist, you need 30 months of additional education after dental school.

Common places for certification include:

Prosthodontics Certification

A prosthodontist is trained to restore and replace broken or missing teeth. They employ crowns, bridges, or dentures. A prosthodontist must understand the dynamics of a smile and create replacements that improve oral function, comfort, appearance, and health of patients with missing or defective teeth.

Prosthodontists also perform post-oral cancer reconstruction, correct jaw joint problems, fix traumatic mouth injuries, and address snoring and sleep disorders. An additional 32 months of education is required beyond dental school.

Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery Certification

Oral & maxillofacial surgeons treat a wide range of dental issues, including removing impacted teeth, installing dental implants, and performing reconstructive facial surgery. They diagnose and treat diseases, injuries, and hard and soft tissue defects in the mouth, jaw, and face. You’ll need 54 to 72 extra months of school after dental school to become an oral surgeon. 

Oral and Maxillofacial Pathology Certification

Oral and maxillofacial pathologists identify and manage diseases affecting the oral and maxillofacial regions. They investigate the causes, processes, and effects of these diseases. Oral and maxillofacial pathologists conduct research and diagnose diseases using clinical, radiographic, microscopic, biochemical, or other examinations. Schooling lasts 37 months after dental school. Common schools to get certified at include:

Oral and Maxillofacial Radiology Certification

Oral and maxillofacial radiologists specialize in taking and interpreting radiographic images, including CT and MRI scans, to diagnose and manage diseases, disorders, and conditions of the mouth, face, and jaws. An additional 30 months of education is required. 

Dental Public Health Certification

Dental Public Health professionals operate to achieve optimal oral health among Americans through education, disease prevention, and dental health promotion.

Dental public health professionals provide assistance and programs for individuals who don’t have access to dental care, including students, seniors, and expectant mothers. An additional 15 months of schooling after dental school is required. Some popular schools for this certification include:

Income potential

The earning potential for a dentist can vary greatly depending on geographic location, education, experience, and acquired skills.  

  • According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual wage for dentists was $163,220 in May 2021. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $63,880, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $208,000. The average pay for different types of dentists in May 2021 was:
    • Oral and maxillofacial surgeons – $208,000 or more
    • Orthodontists – $208,000 or more
    • Dentists, all other specialists – $175,160
    • Dentists, general – $ 160,370
    • Prosthodontists – $100,950
  • In May 2021, the top paying industries for dentists were:
    • Government – $182,330
    • Offices of dentists – $163,650
    • Outpatient care centers – $162,120
    • Offices of physicians – $159,730
  • The average dentist’s salary in the United States is $176,657 as of August 2022. The range typically falls between $153,939 and $203,964.  
  • Salaries range from as high as $297,500 to as low as $39,000, with the majority of salaries falling between $134,500 and $200,000. The 5 states with the highest annual pay for dentists are listed as:
    • Hawaii – $191,854
    • Massachusetts – $190,254
    • Nevada – $188,565
    • Rhode Island – $185,970
    • Oregon – $183,206
  • The bottom 3 states are:
    • Florida – $132,187
    • Georgia – $123,246
    • Louisiana – $122,207
  • USNews lists the best-paying cities for dentists as:
    • Dover, NH – $286,540
    • North Port, FL – $278,790
    • Portland, ME – $278,390
    • Gainesville, GA – $271,580
    • Burlington, VT – $266,760

Position trends

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that the overall employment of dentists will grow 6% from 2021 to 2031, which is about as fast as the average for all occupations. This amounts to about 5,100 openings per year. The demand is expected to increase due to the many older people requiring dental services.

More people keep their teeth into old age than before, adding to dentists’ expected to need. Cosmetic dentistry is becoming more popular and is expected to grow, meaning more of these professionals will be needed.  

Career path

Most dentists move into private practice after they have completed their studies and obtained their state license. However, other opportunities for dentists do exist. Some areas a dentist might pursue include:

  • Dental Education 
  • Research
  • Organized Dentistry 
  • Dental Consulting
  • Dental Product Development
  • Dental Insurance
  • Military Service

Steps to becoming a dentist

1. Prepare while in high school

Students should start preparing for a career in dentistry as early as high school by taking science and math courses to build the foundation they’ll need as an undergraduate and when in dentistry school.  

2. Get a bachelor’s degree

You are recommended to earn your bachelor’s degree in biochemistry, molecular biology, biological sciences, biomedical engineering, biomedical sciences, chemistry, or a related field. 

Course study should include biochemistry, anatomy, physical chemistry, and physiology as these are prerequisites for dental school. You should maintain a GPA of at least 3.5 to ensure you meet the standards for admission into dental school.

3. Pass the DAT

You are required to take and pass the Dental Admission Test (DAT) before being accepted into a dental school. The DAT assesses your scientific and academic knowledge and is essential for dental school admittance. The DAT is a scale-scored test from 1 to 30, and you must score a minimum of 17 to meet most school requirements.

4. Complete dental school

When choosing a dental school, make sure the program is accredited by the Commission on Dental Accreditation of the American Dental Association (ADA). Dental schools take four years to complete for full-time students. Depending on the school, you will earn a Dental Medicine (DMD) or Doctor of Dental Surgery (DDS) degree. Both are essentially the same. The first two years of dental school are academic, and the last two are clinical, where you gain experience treating dental patients. 

Some of the top dental schools in the US include:

5. Meet licensure requirements

Although state laws may vary, all states require that you pass the National Board Dental Examinations. The multiple-choice licensing exam covers dentistry-related sciences, anatomy, ethics, and clinical knowledge. Most states also require a hands-on practical exam.

Find out what the requirements are in your state before attending dental school so that you can complete the needed courses and exams required by your state’s licensing board. If you have your license in one state, you may need to meet other criteria if relocating to another state. Make sure you know the requirements before making a move to another state.

6. Consider a dental specialty

Although about 80% of dentists work as general practitioners, others elect to continue their education and focus on a specific area of practice. The ADA recognizes 9 areas of specialization, including periodontics, orthodontics, and oral surgery. Students become familiar with the specialties while in dental school and typically decide to pursue a specialty then. It can take from 2 to 6 years to complete the requirements and become licensed in a specialty.  

7. Maintain your license

Most states require you to renew your license every 2 years, but requirements may vary by state. State requirements also differ, so check in your state for the renewal requirements. Typically, you will need to pass an exam before you can be relicensed.  

8. Join associations

Joining an organization can open up a wealth of resources and networking opportunities for you. Here are some of the top organizations for dentists:

Dental specialty organizations:

Tips for becoming a dentist

If you are planning to become a dentist, there are a few things that can help you on your journey.

  • Study hard. It takes hard work, time, and dedication. Make sure you have a knack for math and the sciences and are a good student, even in high school.
  • Be prepared for the commitment. It takes 8 years of full-time school, and if you want to pursue a specialization, it will take 2 to 6 years longer.
  • Have a passion for helping others improve their look and function and a desire and interest in working with the teeth and facial bones.
  • Have compassion and empathy toward people. Patients who visit a dentist can be nervous and often stressed. Your compassion can ease their anxieties and help calm them.  
  • Develop good communication skills. These professionals work with a team of assistants and interact with patients. You’ll need to be able to communicate with your team effectively and explain procedures to patients of all ages and backgrounds in a way they will understand.  
  • Find opportunities to volunteer at a dentist’s office where you can see what they do and gain insight into the job.

Dentist interview questions to expect

  • A child comes into the dental office scared about their checkup. How would you help the child feel at ease?
  • A prior root canal was not effective. The patient already has four extractions. How would you proceed?
  • What is your dental philosophy and how does that help you with patients?
  • What would you do if you messed up a procedure, but no one else but you could tell?
  • What would you do if your patient may need jaw surgery, but they refuse an X-ray?

Dentist FAQs