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Dentistry Education, Schools, and Career Overview

Dentistry deals with the function and aesthetics of the teeth and mouth. A dentist’s job is to diagnose and treat disease, injury, and malformation of the teeth and mouth as well as perform surgical procedures like implants, tissue grafts, and tooth extractions.

Those who study dentistry are exposed to various fields of medicine crucial to the care of people’s mouths and teeth. For instance, common tasks in dentistry require the use of equipment and techniques associated with radiology, as teeth are routinely x-rayed to determine their internal structural condition. Anesthesiology is another field dentists know well, given the frequent need to administer anesthetic or sedative.

Dentists are also responsible for educating patients on home care and preventative maintenance to help avoid the progression of tooth decay or other dental ailments. The importance of dentistry cannot be overstated as it plays an integral role in a person’s overall health and the health of a community. Learn more about dentistry as a field and careers within dentistry below.

Dentistry Specializations

The vast majority of dentists practice general or family dentistry. However, there are many options available to those who want to pursue a more specialized field of dentistry that might better suite their personality and skill set. In some cases, as with endodontistry for example, the specialist focuses very narrowly on a specific task. By performing one task many times, a specialist hones and develops his skill to become extremely proficient. 

A specialist is often more qualified than a general dentist to perform more complicated versions of a common procedure like root canal therapy. For this reason a general dentist often sends this type of work out to a specialist in his network. There are nine fields of specialized dentistry recognized by the ADA:

  • Dental Public Health: This is the form of dentistry that is responsible for promoting dental health within a community to prevent and control the spread of dental diseases. A Public Health dentist is responsible for educating the public on dental health and administering group dental care programs through community clinics and organized community events. To earn accreditation for this type of dentistry typically requires an additional two to three years of school.
  • Endodontics: This specialty focuses on the morphology (form and structure), physiology, and pathology of dental pulp. Dental pulp is the soft tissue made up of nerves and blood vessels that comprise the inner part of a tooth. Endodontists are best know for performing root canal treatment which involves drilling vertically through the tooth to remove infected or diseased inner-tooth pulp below the enamel. Root canals are among the more common dental procedures performed. This field requires at least two additional years of study beyond dental school.
  • Oral and Maxillofacial Pathology: This specialist diagnoses and treats diseases, cancers, tumors, cysts or other abnormalities of the maxillofacial region otherwise known as the face and jaws. Diagnosis is done by means of biopsy and inspection of affected tissue through a microscope. The Oral and maxillofacial pathologist takes either a non-surgical or less invasive surgical approach to the treatment of these conditions by use of medicine, antibiotics, and careful observation to track the improvement of a condition. Three to four years of post graduate study are necessary for a career in this specialized field of dentistry.
  • Oral and Maxillofacial Radiology: Think of this specialist as a radiologist or X-ray Tech for the teeth, face, and mouth. An oral and maxillofacial radiologist is responsible for producing images of the teeth and jaws using X-ray or other similar means and interpreting these images to determine the disease or disorder of the face and jaws so as to know which treatment would be best to correct the condition. This field requires two to three years of additional schooling.
  • Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery: According to the ADA the most commonly performed operation by an Oral and maxillofacial surgeon is the removal of wisdom teeth. Wisdom teeth are four molars, often superfluous, that emerges in the late teenage years and can remain impacted in the jaw causing inflammation and crowding of the teeth. An oral and maxillofacial surgeon can also perform major operations to remove cysts or cancers, or to correct injury and malformation of the teeth, face and jaws. Students should expect three to four years of additional education to pursue this specialty.
  • Orthodontics and Dentofacial Orthopedics: This is the specialized field of dentistry that focuses on aligning teeth and jaws for both functional and esthetic reasons. The best known procedural practice of orthodontists and dentofacial orthopedists is the use of braces and retainers to correct overbites, underbites, or misaligned teeth. With an additional two to four years of college a student can earn the masters degree necessary to practice in this specialty field.
  • Pediatric Dentistry: As the title implies this specialty involves working specifically with infants and children to diagnose and treat their special dental needs. What might be surprising is that according to a Surgeon General’s 2002 report, cavities and tooth decay are the single most common childhood medical ailments. A pediatric dentist’s most frequently performed task then is the diagnosis and treatment of this ailment through cleaning, fluoridation, and cavity fillings. An additional year or two of post graduate studies are needed to earn a Masters in Pediatric Dentistry.
  • Periodontics: This is the dental specialty that deals with diseases and disorders of the areas immediately surrounding the teeth such as the gums, the alveolar bone which contains tooth sockets, the unique calcified substance that surrounds the root of the tooth, and the fibers that connect the tooth to the alveolar bone called periodontal ligaments. Periodontists often perform surgery to correct receded gum lines affected by gum disease. Most post graduate periodontal programs last two to three years.
  • Prosthodontics: Prosthodontists are responsible for restoring and maintaining a patient’s smile that has been affected by tooth loss resulting from disease, injury or neglect. This specialist uses prosthetics, which are artificial structures, to replace missing teeth. Commonly used prosthetics are partial or full, fixed or removable dentures, implants, and bridges. Two to three years of additional schooling are needed to become a prosthodontist.

How to Become a Dentist

No matter the type of dentist you want to become, you’ll need a solid educational background in dentistry and hands-on experience. Here’s what you should do to become a dentist:

  1. Job shadow with an established dentist or dental specialist for first-hand exposure to clinical practice.
  2. Research dental schools and residency programs for an understanding of prerequisites and admissions requirements.
  3. Satisfy undergraduate requirements in physiology, biology, chemistry, and organic chemistry. This usually means earning a B.S.
  4. Study for and successfully complete the Dental Admissions Test (DAT) (sample at www.ada.org).
  5. Complete four years of dental school to earn a DDS degree.
  6. Successfully complete NBDE exam and state-specific testing for a dental license.
  7. Start your career as an associate in an established practice or join a partnership.

A recent dental school graduate will usually begin his career by becoming an associate in the office of a dentist or dental partnership with an established practice. This is because of the high start-up costs of an independent practice and the lack of independent clinical experience. These arrangements are usually contractual and require the dentist to commit to a certain number of years working for the practice as an associate. These contracts usually involve a non-compete clause that prevent the associate dentist from practicing independently for several years. After a few years associates usually move on to become a partner in the clinic they had been working in. This involves investing financially in the business and taking a share of the total profit rather than receiving a salary. The more intrepid and self-reliant dentist will go on to establish or acquire an independent practice of his own. 

The courses of study undertaken by a would-be dental school applicant would include biology, anatomy, chemistry, and physics. Undergraduate studies can be completed at any community, technical, or four-year institution. Entering dental school means a continuation of advanced math and science through classroom and lab work. This would include physiology, biology, calculus, chemistry, and organic chemistry. Also expect some soft skill training on how to best interact with patients, as well as basic anesthesiology training.

Dentistry degree programs

General dentists, also called family dentists, practice with one of two qualifying degrees recognized by the American Dental Association (ADA): A Doctor of Dental Surgery (DDS), or Doctor of Dental Medicine (DMD). These are two names for the same advanced degree earned using the same curriculum requirements set by the ADA’s Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA). They differ only in the institutions through which they were awarded. Of the two degrees, the DDS is more common.

Before entering dental school two to four years of undergraduate study are required. These first years are most often spent working towards a Bachelor’s of Science (BS) degree; however, a BS is not necessarily a prerequisite for entering dental school. Many dentists have gone on to earn master’s degrees and doctorates without having first earned a bachelor’s. This depends entirely on the admissions requirements of a particular dental school. 

Successful completion of the (DAT) is one of the major qualifiers for entering dental school. It is typically taken in the second year of college and tests the student’s knowledge of biology, general chemistry, and organic chemistry. A student must submit an application showing these basic requirements have been satisfied. The application must be approved by the ADA in order to take the test. 

Choosing to pursue a career in one of the fields of specialized dentistry would mean first earning the standard dental degree (DDS or DMD) then going on to earn a master’s degree or Certificate of Specialty Training specific to the particular field. For example a practicing Prosthodondist has earned a Master’s of Science in Prosthodontics or a Certificate in Specialty Training in Prosthodondics. The length of time and the cost associated with earning this accreditation varies widely based on the specialty being pursued, whether the student pursued a master’s degree or a certificate program, and whether residency programs were involved. Expect to spend an additional two to four years in school and an additional $40,000 to $150,000 earning an MS depending on the length of the program and weather it is a state school or private institution. Factoring the cost of undergraduate studies and dental school, the total expense would be anywhere between $135,000 and $350,000 to complete the entire academic process.

A Master of Science Degree (MS) generally carries more prestige than a certificate in that it involves a fuller, more rounded academic experience that includes electives and humanities. A master’s degree is generally more desirable as it tends to open more doors to career opportunities than does a certificate. If a student is uncertain of which specialized field he would want a career in, the certificate is often pursued to allow greater exposure to that field before making a commitment. The certificate; however, can be earned in considerably less time and for less money than a Master’s and still qualifies the earner to practice his specialized field of dentistry.

Dental schools

The first two years of dental school are typically lab and classroom based, while the last two are spent in teaching clinics with licensed dentists. This means direct exposure to the procedures that a career in dentistry would involve. Students will also be trained in performing the procedures associated with endodontics, periodontics, oral and maxillofacial surgery, etc. Dental school involves training in everything from filling cavities to performing surgery.

Dental residency programs

Those who want more exposure to clinical practice before beginning their career may apply for a Dental Residency Program. Residency programs provide continued education through performing dentistry in a clinical setting with accomplished dentists. There are two recognized programs offered by a number of different institutions nationwide: General Practice Residency (GPR) and Advanced Education in General Dentistry (AEGD). The former is a one year program while the later lasts two years. During residency participants may see as many as 15 patients a day. This intensive exposure is designed to help participants hone their skills and the speed in which they perform procedures. During residency participants are given a stipend of about $45,000 yearly to cover housing and living expenses.

Dental school in teaching clinics typically mean that under the close supervision of an accredited dentist, students will perform dental procedures on voluntary patients. A student would begin by first observing before going on to perform the simpler procedures like cleanings, X-rays, and filling cavities. As students demonstrate aptitude they would be allowed to perform more challenging procedures like wisdom tooth extractions and implants. Competent students could perform these procedures as early as their first year in the teaching clinic. 

By the second year in the clinic students are handling all the procedures they’d perform as a career dentist. This would include root canals, crowns, various types of cosmetic dentistry, and gum surgery. Since there is no charge for the services provided to patients having procedures performed by students in dental teaching clinics, these clinics provide both the training students need as well as a valuable service to the community.

Dentistry certification

In order to be certified to practice dentistry after earning a DDS, students must successfully complete an exam administered by the National Board of Dental Examinations. This grants graduates the ability to apply for a dental license in the state in which they intend to practice. A dental license is ultimately granted by the state Board of Dentistry who sets the qualifications for practicing dentistry within their particular state. The qualifications from state to state vary only slightly, with some states placing a stronger emphasis on ethical standards and requiring additional state-specific testing. Successful completion of dental school and passing the NBDE exam satisfies the requirements for most states.

The National Board Dental Examination (NBDE) Part I and II are administered as an oral and practical examination. Part I, taken after the second year of dental school, tests the student’s understanding of the previous two years education in anatomic science (structure and parts), physiology (function), microbiology (knowledge and effects of micro-organisms), and pathology (origin and nature of disease) as it pertains to dentistry. Part II of the test is taken in the last year of dental school and consists of operative dentistry (dental surgery), pain control, pharmacology (knowledge of drugs and medicine), pathology, and occlusion (alignment of the teeth and jaws). It also tests procedural understanding of endodontics, periodontics, orthodontics, radiology, and pediodontics.

Dentist Skills and Qualities

Enjoying the work you do can certainly help you to become good at it. Those who feel personally rewarded by helping others may find a career in dentistry appealing. A confident and reassuring demeanor can be very helpful when working with a reluctant patient. Good interpersonal skills are a must as there are few professionals that work as closely with their clients as dentists. 

Although many dentists and dental specialists would refer to their profession as an art, they would be quick to point out that it is first a science that has advanced over many years. Because there is a scientific method to dentistry, the willingness and ability to follow a text-book approach, without compromise for time or convenience, is crucial to being a good dentist. A good dentist is exacting in his work and very detail oriented. Some dentists who are recognized for excellence in their field refer to themselves as perfectionists.

The daily procedures of a dentist require a tremendous amount of coordination and manual dexterity. In fact, as part of the standardized dental school admissions application process, a would-be student is asked to explain how they have proved themselves to be manually dexterous enough for a career in dentistry. Everything from playing guitar to tying fishing flies can help develop the dexterity needed to more safely perform dental procedures.

Dentistry in all its variations can be physically demanding and carry with it long hours. A dentist must be available to his patients in the event of dental emergency and is usually on-call, at least in a consolatory capacity, all hours of the day. With walk-in emergencies dentists can find themselves working well beyond their normal hours of practice. Because dentistry is commonly associated with pain, a dentist may also meet the challenge of overcoming a patient’s apprehension to treatment and surgery.

Dentist Career Outlook and Salary Information

As with any position, salary and job outlook for dentists can vary by region and experience. In general, look for job growth, as more and more people are interested in maintaining healthy teeth and an attractive smile.

Here’s data to show the latest dentistry job growth trends:

CareerTotal EmploymentProjected Job Growth Rate
Dentists, General110,40017.5%
Source: 2016 Occupational Employment Statistics and 2016-26 Employment Projections, Bureau of Labor Statistics, BLS.gov.

Additionally, here’s the latest on what a typical dentist’s salary might look like:

CareerAnnual Mean WageBottom 10% Annual WageTop 10% Annual Wage
Dentists, General$174,110$69,210>$208,000
Source: 2016 Occupational Employment Statistics and 2016-26 Employment Projections, Bureau of Labor Statistics, BLS.gov.

Establishing a Dental Practice

An independent practice is usually established one of two ways: Either by starting from the ground up, or by acquiring a practice from a dentist entering retirement. Acquiring an established practice is much like purchasing any other business in that equipment, client base, and location are all acquired through the purchase. There are Professional Transition Service companies that handle the logistics and legalities making the process more manageable, much like using a real estate agent to purchase a home. 

Establishing an independent practice either through acquisition or independent start-up is usually a costly endeavor that will require a loan. There are lending institutions that specialize in financing new dental practice start-ups and acquisitions. Start-up costs, of course, will vary widely depending on the size of the clinic, the location, and how it's equipped. Once established, practice expenses can be high. As of 2013, they reached $404,030 for all dentists, including general practitioners and specialists, according to the American Dental Association Health Policy Institute.

Operating an independent dental practice requires all the responsibility and commitment of an independent business. It involves managing staff, budgeting, and all the other logistics involved in running a dentist office. It also has the same unique benefits. An independent dental practitioner is essentially able to choose his work and set his own schedule. 

Academic Resources for Dentists

The American Student Dental Association (ASDA) is an organization established and run by dental school students. Its aim is to make information available to dental school students and prospective dental students to help them navigate the requirements for entering dental school and a career in dentistry. A membership in the ASDA qualifies the student for unique loan programs and discounts on DAT preparation materials. Membership to the ASDA is available through their website: www.asda.org.

Another student resource is the Associated American Dental Schools Application Service (AADSAS), part of the American Dental Education Association (ADEA). This organization works to simplify the dental school application process for students by providing one standardized form that is recognized by most dental schools nationwide. Membership to ADEA is available at their website: www.adea.org. 

The American Dental Association (ADA) is the oldest and largest professional dental association in the United States. It is the foremost authority on dentistry and sets the standard for dental testing and accreditation. Its monthly publication, the Journal of the American Dental Association is the most widely circulated dental publication. Visit www.ada.org.

 

Sources:

1.     Check Out How Much The Average American Works Each Year Compared To The French, The Germans, And The Koreans, Business Insider. Aug. 7, 2013. http://www.businessinsider.com/average-annual-hours-worked-for-americans-vs-the-rest-of-the-world-2013-8

2.     Dental Practice, American Dental Association Health Policy Institute. http://www.ada.org/en/science-research/health-policy-institute/data-center/dental-practice

3.     Dental News, American Dental Association. http://www.ada.org/en/publications/ada-news/2015-archive/january/dentist-1-occupation

4.     Dentists, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook. http://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/dentists.htm#tab-6

Dentist Schools