Choosing a School, College, and Degree Program for Dentists
A dentist trains to become a general practitioner or specialist of dental health, whose primary responsibilities include diagnosing and treating issues related to the teeth, mouth, and gums. The American Medical Association identifies more than 80 percent of dentists are general practitioners who provide a wide range of dental services. From learning how to repair a chipped tooth to treat swollen gums, it takes an average of 8 years of education for a dentist to receive the knowledge, experience and training necessary to practice in the United States.
Preparing for a career in dentistry can start as early as late high school with students building a foundation of science and math coursework before entering an undergraduate program. All dentists must complete four years of dental school.
Upon graduation, dentists become licensed in order to work in the U.S. with the majority of professionals becoming self-employed as sole proprietors of a private practice, where they may work alone; or hire, train and oversee a small staff. Others become associates of more established dentists, or join another practice to become a partner. The typical work environment of a dentist is an office setting, but may also include community health clinics, hospitals, and other government-run medical facilities.
In 2012, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) cites the median salary earned by a dentist was $149,310. Dental professionals who earned $187,200 or more within the field provided specialized services, including orthodontists who have advanced training in how to straighten teeth; and oral and maxillofacial surgeons, who operate on the mouth and jaw. From 2012 to 2022, the BLS cites the hiring of dentists is projected to increase by 16 percent, which is a faster rate than the average for all other occupations in the U.S.
Browse the following information below to learn the typical pathway that an individual seeking a career in dentistry may take, which includes completing undergraduate coursework, attending dental school, as well as opting to pursue a specialization in the field, such as becoming an orthodontist or oral pathologist:
Entry-level jobs associated with dentistry require the completion of two or fewer years of education, and depending on a chosen program, qualifies a graduate to assume a position as a dental laboratory technician, dental assistant or dental hygienist.
For instance, most dental laboratory technicians gain an education and training through a two-year program at a community college, technical college, vocational school, or dental school to earn an associate degree or certificate.
However, to earn the most money within the field of dentistry, completing undergraduate prerequisite coursework before applying to and graduating from a dental school is a must.
Although aspiring dentists are not expected to major in science while attending a college or university, they must satisfy pre-dental requirements that involve coursework in the sciences, such as biology and chemistry. Applicants can apply to some dental school programs after completing at least two years of undergraduate coursework. However, most programs require or give preference that incoming students possess a bachelor’s degree.
While taking college courses such as biology, physics and organic chemistry to fulfil dental school requirements, students can better prepare for a career in dentistry by joining a student organization; gaining volunteer experience; and job shadowing a dentist.
Upon reviewing dental school catalogs, websites and other materials, the admissions process is in full swing by junior year. Prerequisites for dental school are generally completed by the end of a student’s second semester, and by junior year, and applicants should have also collected letters of recommendation from faculty and other references.
The American Student Dental Association offers the ASDA Guide for Predental Students, which overviews the dental school application process; Dental Admission Test (DAT) preparation; dental schools in the United States; career path options; as well as information regarding scholarships, loans, and financial aid.
Although an individual cannot become a dentist with a master’s degree alone, those with aspirations to educate entry-level dental professionals (dental hygienists, dental assistants and/or dental laboratory technicians) can pursue a graduate-level education to pursue advanced career options which are currently in high demand.
All allied dental educators are allied dental professionals themselves, and may choose to practice and teach at the same time. They are typically hired to work as full-time or part-time faculty where certificates and dental health-related degrees are offered, such as vocational schools, community colleges, and dental schools. In addition to providing classroom instruction, allied dental educators may also oversee students fulfilling their lab and clinical obligations.
While some individuals can teach a class with a four-year degree, obtaining a master’s degree qualifies an entry-level dental professional to teach full-time at a dental hygienist program.
The majority of college students apply to dental schools at least one year in advance; typically during their junior year of undergraduate school. Another point to consider when choosing a dental school is the increasing number of institutions now offering dual degree programs, which allows a student to obtain a D.D.S.-D.M.D./Ph.D.; D.D.S.-D.M.D./M.B.A.; D.D.S.-D.M.D./M.P.H.; or another option which can help a graduate reach career goals that may include research, teaching, and/or business.
Since most dental schools participate in the American Association of Dental Schools Application Service (AADSAS), individuals typically fill out only one application for admission. It is important to note that not all schools are a part of the AADSAS, and a separate application must be submitted to certain institutions.
One of the most important aspects that a dental school admissions committee reviews on an application is the scores for the Dental Admission Test (DAT). This computerized examination measures a student’s general academic ability, as well as their comprehension of science-related information. The test is generally taken one year before entering a dental program.
Every dental school requires applicants to have completed specific prerequisite coursework, which generally involves Physics, Biology, Chemistry (general and organics), and English. Special attention is often paid to the quality of academic preparation, including course load; the grades earned in biology/chemistry/physics courses; and the level of course difficulty.
The committee will also review an applicant’s overall grade point average (GPA), letters of recommendation, extracurricular activities, and any other related experience, such as shadowing a dental professional, research experience, leadership roles, past work history, volunteering, and awards. Most dental schools also conduct personal interviews with applicants as a requirement.
Dentists must complete a four-year dental program to obtain either a Doctor of Dental Surgery (DDS) or Doctor of Dental Medicine (DMD) degree. Before entering a dental school program, applicants must have completed at least two years of college with preferences typically given to those who possess a bachelor’s degree. It is not necessary to major in a science; however, it does increase an applicant’s chances of gaining admission.
Applicants must also satisfy specific requirements which vary by school, such as completing a certain number of science courses, such as biology and chemistry. For example, Harvard Dental School is one of few schools that require applicants to have completed math classes.
The typical dental school curriculum is comprised of three distinct areas of learning:
During the first and second years of a dental school program, students take classes (with labs) in fundamental health sciences related to the profession. With the help of models and manikins, coursework touches upon diagnosing and treating oral-related issues. Clinical coursework introduces students to endodontics, dental radiology, periodontics, and restorative dentistry. By the end of the second year of school, dental students may start treating patients.
The third and fourth years of dental school involves students caring for patients while supervised by licensed dental professionals. They cover general dental practices, and experience various work environments, including community clinics and hospitals. Business management courses prepare students to build a private practice and uphold professional ethics standards.
To work as a dentist in the United States, all graduates must be licensed. In most states, the licensure process involves candidates graduating from a U.S. dental school which has received accreditation from the ADA Commission of Dental Accreditation; and passing the written and practical portions of the National Board Dental Examination. Some dentists are also expected to complete a special state-specific examination.
Those who graduate from dental school and pass the licensing exam can immediately start practicing dentistry in many states. Graduates are not required to pursue an internship or residency, like medical doctors. However, there are several states that require the completion of a post-doctoral residency lasting one year.
Some graduates opt to gain additional training to enhance their general practice dental skills, or pursue one of the nine recognized advanced dental specialties.
According to the American Dental Association, the majority of the 164,000 practicing dentists in the United States are general practitioners. Around 20 percent of dentists are specialists who have completed two or more additional years of education to become an expert within one of nine specialized dental fields that include Dental Public Health, Oral and Maxillofacial Pathology, Endodontics, Oral and Maxillofacial Radiology, Pediatric Dentistry, Periodontics and Prosthodontics.
The American Medical Association identifies orthodontists (who specialize in straightening teeth) and oral and maxillofacial surgeons (who operate on the mouth and jaw) as the top-two largest groups of specialists in the dental field.
Competition is stiff for gaining entry into a dental specialty program, and admissions committees typically seek applicants who were top of their class in dental school; have research experience; have volunteered within the community; and have participated in extracurricular activities.
The number of years devoted to specialized training differs according to career goals. For example, dentists who wish to teach or conduct full-time research generally spend an additional two to five years in advanced dental training.
In conclusion, going to school to study dentistry leads to one of the most lucrative career pathways in the United States. With plenty of options to put a dental education to good use, dentists are employed in a wide range of health care environments that include hospitals, community health clinics, and the dental industry. Employment opportunities to teach and conduct research are also found at colleges and universities, for those who pursue advanced studies. Additional years of education also qualify a dentist to specialize in a particular area of dentistry, such as orthodontics. Overall, the demand for new professionals to enter the field is high, as the need for dental services across the nation is projected to rise through 2022.