Everything you need to know about becoming a dentist

A dentist is a medical professional who specializes in oral health care. Their work focuses on keeping a person’s teeth, jaw, and gums healthy. When a person experiences dental problems it can impact their ability to speak and eat, their confidence level, and can sometimes be quite painful.

A dentist’s job is to address oral health concerns for their patients and work to prevent future problems from occurring.

What does a dentist do?

During a routine dental office visit, a dental hygienist or dental assistant will collect a patient’s medical history, take X-rays, and clean the patient’s teeth. Then, dentists themselves are responsible for performing a full examination to assess specific concerns. 

When a patient comes to a dentist with a particular oral health concern, dentists will examine the interior of their mouth, assess imaging, determine a course of treatment, and perform any necessary procedures. The day-to-day work of a general dentist will vary depending on their patients’ needs.

General dentists typically provide the following oral health care services for their patients:

  • Examine the teeth, jaw, and gums via X-ray imaging and hands-on examination to evaluate oral health and diagnose problems.
  • Fill cavities and perform root canals to remove decay from teeth.
  • Take measurements and fit patients for crowns, dentures, and other necessary oral appliances.
  • Extract damaged teeth that cannot be repaired and install prosthetic replacements.
  • Apply whitening agents or sealants to teeth.
  • Instruct patients on dental care including brushing, flossing, diet, and use of dental devices like dentures.

How do you become a dentist?

It usually takes eight years of school and training to become a general dentist — four years of undergraduate study and four years of dental school. Dental specialties, however, may require several years of additional education and training after dental school.

Future dentists must first obtain a Bachelor’s degree and pass the Dental Admission Test (DAT) prior to applying to dental school. While no specific degree is required, many accredited dental schools require prerequisites in science courses such as biology, anatomy, and chemistry for applicants. Like medical school, admission to dental school is highly competitive, so a high GPA, strong letters of recommendation, adequate scores on the DAT, and a well-written personal statement offer the best chance at acceptance.

In dental school, future dentists will study and complete course requirements to earn either a Doctor of Dental Medicine (DMD) or a Doctor of Dental Surgery (DDS) degree. Before a degreed dentist can start practicing general dentistry, they must obtain a license in the state where they intend to practice. Each state in the U.S. requires dentists to pass the National Board Dental Examination prior to licensure, but some states may have additional requirements.

After dental school, there are 12 dental specialties, recognized by the ADA, which require advanced training through a residency program and additional board certification.

The specialties are: dental anesthesiology, dental public health, endodontics, oral and maxillofacial pathology, oral and maxillofacial radiology, oral and maxillofacial surgery, oral medicine, orofacial pain, orthodontics and dentofacial orthopedics, periodontics, pediatric dentistry, prosthodontics.

What skills do you need to become a dentist?

Much like doctors, dentists learn the majority of the technical skills needed for dentistry in dental school. Dentists must learn how to operate a variety of dental tools necessary to examine and repair teeth including drills, scalpels, brushes, forceps, and mouth mirrors. 

Additionally, dentists will need to know how to operate X-ray machines, laser tools, digital scanners, and other technology used to help their patients. All of these technical dentistry skills require focus, proper hand dexterity, and patience to execute dental assessment and treatments.

The solution to some dental problems such a hard-to-reach root canal or difficult extraction can require some creative solutions, so dentists also utilize general skills like problem-solving, critical thinking, and observation when performing procedures and administering treatments. 

In private practice, dentists will also need to exercise management and delegation skills when supervising their dental assistants, hygienists, lab technicians, and other office staff. They may also oversee general administrative tasks like bookkeeping, supply maintenance, and purchasing equipment. 

What is the average salary for a dentist?

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the average salary for a dentist was $194,930 in 2020. Dentists working in private dentistry practices earned above this, however, making on average $204,670 annually. 

Dentists who practice in Nebraska, Louisiana, Missouri, Indiana, and Connecticut earned the highest average salaries according to the 2020 BLS data, with dentists in Connecticut earning the most at $275,350 annually. 

What is the typical career path for a dentist?

The typical career path for a dentist following dental school depends on whether they want to specialize in a particular area of dentistry or practice general dentistry.

Some dentists choose specializations like pediatrics, orthodontics, endodontics, oral surgery, periodontics, and other dental specialties, which require additional education and have their own specific career path

As a general dentist, most dentists will choose to practice in either a solo private practice, partner with other dentists in private practice, or work for a national dental service organization (DSO) where they are employed as a dentist by a larger corporation. Dentists can also choose to practice in public health dentistry, working in federally-funded facilities like prisons or within the armed services. 

Some general dentists work in hospitals to treat patients with specific medical needs in conjunction with their other hospital physicians, although they typically should be trained in emergency dentistry or surgical dentistry before following this career path. Dentists can also choose to work in research and academic settings where they are responsible for training new dentists, dental students, and providing community education and services. 

Where to find dentist jobs?

The BLS expects the demand for dental work to grow as the population — primarily of the baby boom generation — ages. However, the job market for dentists is expected to remain competitive as new dentists enter the industry faster than current dentists retire or leave the workforce.

See current job openings for dentists on Ladders now.