What do you want to become?
Alternate Career Titles: Doctor of Dental Medicine
Career Overview: Dentists assess, diagnose and treat problems patients are having with their oral health.
Career Salary Range: $67,660 to $208,000
Estimated Years of Schooling Required: 8
Required Minimum Degree/License: Doctor of Dental Medicine
Become a Dentist
A Dentist is a healthcare professional whose primary responsibility is to help patients maintain overall oral health. In doing so, Dentists are responsible for providing care to patients’ teeth, gums and other parts of the mouth. In terms of teeth, Dentists will often remove decay, fill cavities, place sealants, repair cracks for fractures and take x-rays.
Depending upon the results and findings of an examination, Dentists may prescribe antibiotics or other medications, as well as administer anesthetics prior to performing a variety of in-office treatments. Furthermore, these professionals often create models of their patients’ teeth, boost aesthetics through processes like teeth whitening and educate patients and their families on best practices.
“A career as a Dentist has pros and cons,” Patricia London, DDS, a Dentist practicing in North Carolina said. “A pro is that I own my own practice and therefore am my own boss, but that’s not the case for all Dentists. However, the work is very demanding, and the cost of doing business can be high.”
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Education & Training
To become a Dentist, these professionals must first obtain a Bachelor’s Degree. While there is no one major required for later admittance into a dental school program, most undergraduate learners tend to major in a science like biology or chemistry prior to applying to dental schools. After graduating from an undergraduate program, students must next take the Dental Admission Test (DAT), and submit a variety of other requirements, like recommendations, to the dental school of their choosing.
“Dental school is very competitive to get into, and once accepted the work itself is quite difficult,” explained London. “You need to know a little bit about everything in healthcare, in addition to a lot about oral health.”
After being accepted into a dental school program, learners can expect to take courses in anatomy, periodontics, radiology, anesthesia and more. These programs also include a clinical aspect, allowing them to work under the supervision of a licensed Dentist.
“School typical runs from 8 am to 5 pm for 4 days a week, and from 8 am to noon on Fridays,” London said. “The study hours and lab work will consume the rest of your life for the first two years of dental school. The course load is very difficult.”
London added that in her case, this schooling period was especially challenging because she had given birth to her first child during her first year of dental school, and her second child during her fourth year. However, she remembers many educators being supportive of her endeavors.
Upon completing this program, Dentists must obtain licensure in the state which they wish to practice and pass the written and practical National Board Dental Examinations.
“Without this accreditation you cannot practice dentistry,” London stressed.
When deciding how best to advance their career, a Dentist may often choose to pursue a specialty within the field. Examples of these specialty careers are that of Endodontists, Oral and Maxillofacial Radiologists, Orthodontists, Periodontists, Prosthodontists and Pediatric Dentists. Although each of these roles exists within the realm of oral healthcare, the specifics vary and focusing in on a specialty is often more lucrative than general practice. Furthermore, to advance some Dentists simply choose to establish and open their own facility.
“As I currently own and operate my own private practice, if I wanted to further advance my career I could go back to school for 2 years to specialist in orthodontics or endodontics, or for 4 years to specialize in oral surgery,” London noted. “There are also Dentists that supervise other dentists in large corporate practices, so I could choose to pursue that path if I wanted to.”
Experience & Skills
“Dentists should be perfectionists, which requires strong attention to detail,” London explained. “The role requires strong people skills as well.”
Also, to be an effective Dentist these professionals should possess strong communication skills, enabling them to understand a patient’s needs, symptoms and concerns, and to relay information amongst a team of oral healthcare professionals. They must also have great dexterity, as being a Dentist involves using small tools within the confinements of a patient’s mouth.
“Being good with your hands is another important skill that Dentists should have,” London confirmed. “We work inside patients mouths each day, so the spaces are confined and the tools can be very small and precise.”
Also, Dentists should be highly organized, with the ability to problem solve and determine a proper plan of action for each individual patient. Lastly, because Dentists often have to remain bent over, looking inside a patient’s mouth for long periods of time, they should possess some level of physical stamina.
Characteristics of effective Dentists including being kind, patient and courteous. As in any healthcare scenario, patients must often seek healthcare services out of need, for example to rid them of pain, and not always for comprehensive purposes. Thus, when they are in discomfort, patients are more likely to be upset, frustrated or irritable. Dentists must be prepared to work with patients in a variety of circumstances.
“A part of being a Dentist is working with fearful patients,” London explained. “The best way to do so is to be patient and honest with them by using good communication methods, and expressing that you care about them individually. Expressing to patients that you have their best interest in mind is extremely beneficial.”
Additionally, Dentists should possess leadership qualities, enabling them to oversee the many different elements involved in ensuring that a practice for facility runs smoothly. Lastly, they should be detail-oriented to make sure each patient receives the appropriate treatment and care, and they should genuinely want to help their patients improve their oral health outcomes.
“There is little privacy in a career as a Dentist,” London said. “Patients will recognize you out and about and won’t mind asking you about their tooth, or about their child’s tooth while you are at the movies or out to dinner.”
The majority of Dentists work full-time, including some nights and weekends. However, their hours may vary depending on the schedules of their patients, and if they own their own practice, the hours of their choosing.
While these professionals may be exposed to infectious diseases, working directly inside the mouths of others, they wear masks, gloves and safety glasses to protect themselves. These practices greatly lower the risk of becoming ill during a career in this field.
“Another element of this career which is important to note is that many people dislike going to the Dentist, and many people will not hesitate to verbalize this,” London said.
Now is a great time to begin pursuing the educational requirements to become a Dentists! Why? From 2016 to 2026, overall employment of Dentists is projected to grow 17 percent, a rate much faster than the average for all occupations. This rate is steadily increasing as a link has been shown between oral health and overall health, and as the baby boom generation ages (and so do their teeth).
Furthermore, the majority of these professionals work in the offices of Dentists, are self-employed, work alongside partners, are employed by the government, or work for the offices of Physicians or outpatient care centers. Also, the states with the highest employment level in this occupation are California, Texas, New York, Florida and Illinois.
“When trying to find initial employment in this career, I would recommend working with a dental supply company who specializes in putting new graduates with Dentists looking to hire associates,” London advised.
As of 2016, the median annual wage for Dentists was $159,770, with the highest 10 percent earning more than $208,00, and the lowest 10 percent earning less than $67,660. Although Dentist earnings vary based on location, specialty, years in practice and hours worked, the highest paying facilities tend to be the offices of Dentists, the government, the offices of Physicians and outpatient care centers. The highest paying state in this occupation is Delaware, followed by North Carolina, Alaska, New Hampshire and Nevada.
“Many people will also assume that you are rich because you are a Dentist, when this is not always the case,” London said. “How much a Dentist makes truly depends on how much they want to work. Some Dentists barely make $100,000 a year, while others can make upwards to $500,000.”
Unions, Groups and Associations
The American Dental Association is a patient-centered, science-based and ethically-driven association. The association has grown to become the leading source of oral health related information for dentists and their patients, and remains committed to all members and to improving the oral health of the public.
The Commission on Dental Accreditation serves the public and profession by developing and implementing accreditation standards that promote and monitor the continuous quality and improvement of dental education programs.
The American Dental Education Association (ADEA) is the voice of dental education. ADEA members are more than 21,000 diverse students, faculty, staff, and administrators who foster interconnected community experiences that enable others to meet their individual goals while leveraging their collective strength.
- Before even applying to dental school, career shadow a Dentist to determine if this career path is ideal.
- Gain work experience or dental-related volunteer experience
- Apply to dental schools
- Continuously network with others in the oral health industry
All statistics are provided by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Meet the professional: Patricia London, DDS
Practice: Patricia London, DDS (solo practice)
Location: Concord, NC
What is the single biggest suggestion you would give to someone wanting to get into this career?
“Those wanting to become Dentists should truly know what they are getting into. They shouldn’t chase this dream just because the career sounds cool. Instead, they should observe the reality of being a Dentist first.”
What’s the number one mistake people make when trying to get into this career?
“The number one mistake those wishing to become Dentists make is assuming the career is all wonderful and that they will automatically be successful. Career success is no longer a given, and requires hard work.”
What is the question people should ask about this career but rarely do?
“What is on the horizon? How is dentistry changing?”
Why did you choose to become a Dentist?
“I was always good with my hands, and had worked in a dental office before. However, I wanted to be my own boss and wanted a family. I saw dentistry as an ideal career for having a family, as the role requires fewer after-hours and emergency calls compared to other healthcare professions.”
If you could describe in one word what makes you successful, what would it be?
*Credentialing organization: Commission on Dental Accreditation