How to Become a Dentist

This article provides in-depth information into What is a Dentist? What Dentist do? Degrees for Dentist, Steps to become Dentist and much more.

A dentist is a specialized professional who diagnoses and provides treatment for various oral health issues. Check-ups are a major part of their job. General dentistry involves basic oral treatments that can be done at dental offices. A dentist encourages patients to practice good dental care by brushing, flossing and getting regular cleanings. In addition to general check ups general dentistry involves basic treatments including filling a tooth, tooth extraction, cleaning and polishing. 

Dentists may practice general dentistry or choose to specialize in a certain field like orthodontics, oral and maxillofacial surgery, periodontics, endodontics, pediatric dentistry or public health. A career in dentistry provides a lot of autonomy and flexibility and with the wide range of specialties to choose from, a dentist can shape their careers as they see fit.

Most dentists decide to practice in private and are known as general dentist practitioners. There are other options for dental practice like working in  public hospitals and working for elderly people with special needs

Steps to Become a Dentist

Step1. Enroll in a Bachelor’s Degree Program

Dental schools require applicants to complete at least 90 hours of an undergraduate program though most schools now require a full degree.  Although no specific pre-dental major is required, students who choose pre-dentistry or biology, physics and chemistry have an edge above the other applicants. Students are required to maintain a minimum average GPA throughout as GPAs play a profound role in dental schools admissions. Aspiring dentists can also benefit from joining dentists mentoring programs which will guide them through the dental school admission process. 

Step2. Take the Dental Admission Test (DAT)

 Before applying to dental schools, aspiring students have to take the Dental Admission Test (DAT) which assesses their academic capacity and scientific knowledge. DAT is administered by the American Dental Association and is a major component of a dental school application. The other components are GPAs, interviews and LORs during the admission process. The DAT paper comprises 280 questions and is a five hour test with questions related to natural sciences , reading comprehensions and quantitative reasoning.

Step3. Earn a Degree in Dentistry

Dental Schools typically lasts for four years and offers two different degrees - Doctor of Dental Surgery (DDS) and Doctor of Dental Medicine (DMD). Dental Degree programs must be accredited by the American Dental Association Commission on Dental Accreditation. During the first two years of dental school, students learn about dental anesthesia, orthodontics, pathology, periodontics, pharmacology and radiology and focus on classroom and laboratory studies. In the last two years of dental schools, under the supervision of dental instructors, students will diagnose and treat patients in clinical settings. Besides the regular coursework and clinical practice, students can choose any of the following specialties recognized by the ADA: 

  • Dental Public Health

  • Dentofacial and Orthodontics Orthopedics

  • Endodontics

  • Oral and Maxillofacial Pathology

  • Oral and Maxillofacial Radiology 

  • Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery

  • Pediatric Dentistry

  • Prosthodontics

Step4. Get Licensed

In order to practice, a dentist must obtain a license issued by the state. The requirements to get licensed varies from state to state. However, all states require passage of National Board Dental Examinations. This exam is held in two parts - written and clinical. The written exam covers dental sciences, ethics and clinical procedures. In addition, candidates must pass a practical exam approved by the state’s licensing board. States may also have prerequisites like background check, an interview or first aid and CPR certification.

Step5. Get a Specialization

Specializations are available for post DMD or DDS licensed dentists. Becoming a specialist typically takes from 2 to 4 years. And in some cases, students may require additional residency of 2 years before earning a specialty state license. There are nine specialties recognized by the American Dental Association (ADa) that a recognized dentist can choose from- Dental Public Health, Dentofacial and Orthodontics Orthopedics, Endodontics, Oral and Maxillofacial Pathology, Oral and Maxillofacial Radiology, Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery, Pediatric Dentistry, Prosthodontics

Types of degrees for a Dentist

Dentistry degree programs are available at associate’s, bachelor’s and doctoral levels. Each degree program leads to different career choices. Although some concentrations are same across all degree levels but the intricacies tend to increase as the degree level goes up.

Associate’s Degree in Dental Assisting

 Associate’s degree in dentistry is offered as Associate of Applied Science or Associate of Science in community colleges, vocational schools, technological institutes and private schools. Students learn the necessary skills like assisting during various dental procedures and managing office tasks. Students will have to take up business courses, laboratory and clinical training and classroom instructions regarding dentistry. At the end of the program students have to take the Dental Assisting National Board Exam to become certified. Internships are required which provide students with hands on training in the field. Some of the best areas to internships are:

  • Business skills

  • Chair-side assisting

  • Clinical Procedures

  • Dental Materials

  • Dental Radiography

  • Dental specialties and Science

  • Pharmacology

Bachelor’s Degree in Dental Hygiene

Bachelor’s degree in Dental Hygiene is offered as Bachelor of Science by both public and private colleges and universities. Dental hygiene students take up classes in dental science along with other sciences and receive laboratory and clinical training. Some programs require students to take up foundation courses like anatomy and physiology before beginning their major’s curriculum. Some of the classes include :

  • Dental morphology and Dental Sciences

  • Local anesthesia

  • Oral radiology

  • Pharmacology 

  • Periodontology

Degree in dental hygiene prepares students for dental hygiene careers in which they examine patients teeth and gums, identify diseases or other conditions, work with various dental equipments and tools and perform other procedures under the supervision of a licensed dentists

Doctoral Degree In Dentistry

Doctor of Dental Surgery (DDS) and Doctor of Dental Medicine (DDM) is offered in dental schools and typically takes upto 4 years to complete. For the first two years students learn about various clinical and biological science classes through classroom activities and lab experiments. In the last two years students go through clinical rotations where they work with real patients under the supervision of licensed dentists. Off campus experience is received through internships. Some of the classes include:

  • Dental Radiography occlusion 

  • Dentistry Biostatistics

  • Head and neck anatomy

  • Molecular Biology and Oral microbiology

  • Periodontics

Concentrations to consider

Following are the concentrations while pursuing a dental program degree:

  • Anesthesia & Pain Management: Students learn how anesthesia blocks nerve impulses, learn the usage dosages of anesthesia for different patients and procedures and learn how to safely administer anesthesia. It includes both classroom instructions and clinical rotations to understand the entire process of pain management under the supervision of a licensed dentist.

  • Dental Development & Anatomy: Students learn the common frameworks used within the dental profession including numbering and classification systems. This course is typically taken in the first year of dental program and provides both classroom and laboratory time and makes use of theoretical knowledge with real-world application. Students learn the traits of different teeth within the classification systems, learns to differentiate between primary and permanent dentition and learns to recognize the difference between maxillary and mandibular arches.

  • Microbiology & Oral Health Promotion: Students learn about demographic topics like special needs and medically compromised patients in addition to lectures covering dental public health and health communication. Students are taught ways to effectively communicate with patients and provide culturally competent care to them. 

  • Oral Health & Nutrition: Students are taught how nutrition affects teeth and gum health and how to employ behavioral management techniques with their patients. Students go through a lot of case studies that help them develop their skills in working with varied populations and demographics. Students learn how to teach patients about oral hygiene and care.

  • Oral Surgery: Typically taken in the third year of dental program these classes expose students towards the foundational skills behind more complicated procedures through both classroom lectures and clinical rotations. Students learn about oral and maxillofacial surgeries and get the chance to perform their first exodontia and pre-prosthetic procedures under the supervision of profs. Students also learn about post surgical care.

Job concentrations for a dentist

Following are the job concentrations for a dentist

  • General Dentist: General dentists are the first point of contact for any oral health issues. They serve as the backbone of the dentistry profession. This career concentration allows dentists to perform various different task on a day to day basis including repairing cavities, fitting caps and treating diseases related to nerve or pulp issues besides the regular job of examining, diagnosing and treating problems of patients.

  • Endodontist: Endodontists are concerned with the soft tissues and nerves living within the tooth. In order to be licensed as an endodontist, students must complete two to three years of training post graduation from dental school and must pass the American Board of Endodontology. The main goal of an endodontist is to find ways to save a tooth from being extracted. One of the most common procedures performed by any endodontist is the root canal. Besides oral surgeries, endodontists also perform teeth whitening and bleaching services.

  • Oral & Maxillofacial Surgeon: apart from extraction of wisdom teeth, oral and maxillofacial surgeons are responsible for performing other advanced dental procedures like regenerating deficient bones, treating infections in salivary glands, jawbones and neck, removing tumors and abnormal growths in the oral cavity, correcting cleft palates, using tissue from other parts of the patient’s body to perform reconstructive surgery on the face and jaw and diagnosing and treating ulcers in the oral area. 

  • Orthodontist: Orthodontists are responsible for correcting misaligned teeth and jaws, fitting braces and anteroposterior deviations also known as underbites and overbites of their patients.

Preparing Yourself For a Career in Dentistry

Dental Program degree starts only after one completes a graduate degree program. While there are no mandatory subjects that needs to be pursued yet these following academic paths can help students prepare better for a career in dentistry:

  • Pre - Dental: Pre-dental is an interdisciplinary undergraduate program that equips students for advanced dental coursework with the help of combination of a variety of educational requirements that will be needed for admission to advanced programs. Some of the subjects include biochemistry, biology, cell biology, chemistry, communications, English, general and organic chemistry, physics, physiology and speech.

  • Biological Sciences: Students undertaking biological degrees receive extensive exposure to laboratory training preparing them well for future work in a dental program. Throughout the four year degree, students cover a variety of topics ranging from cell biology and genetics to social behaviour and philosophy of human nature.

  • Physiological Sciences: Physiological Sciences incorporates concepts from anatomy, pathology, physiology and neurobiology to understand how organisms behave. It provides an elemental framework for advanced topics that dental students will encounter later and hence is well suited for students aspiring to study dental program in future. Common courses are biostatistics, psychology, experimental physiology and microanatomy. 

Admission to an academic program for dentistry is competitive. In order to be ahead of their competitors, students can prepare themselves for better chances at the admission process. Components of this process include:

  • Prerequisite courses: Most of the dental programs require at least 90 credit hours to be completed at the time of submitting the application and in some cases a full bachelor’s degree. These credits must include studies in biology, general chemistry, organic chemistry, physics, anatomy, biochemistry, immunology, physiology, math and English composition.

  • Minimum GPA: Besides completing the above courses, most programs require aspiring dental students to maintain a minimum GPA of 3.2. But, getting into a dental program is highly competitive and hence students should aim for higher grades to have better chances in getting into their dream dental school

  • Test Scores: Students wanting to study dentistry have to take the American Dental Association’s Dental Admission Test (DAT). The test comprises eight different scores: two of these scores are based on total science and academic average. The other six covers biology, general chemistry, organic chemistry, perceptual ability, quantitative reasoning and reading comprehension. The examination is scored between 0 and 30. 

Stand out skills to become a Dentist

Following are the skill sets required to become a successful dentist:

  • Manual Dexterity: Manual dexterity is a must have skill especially in the field of dentistry. It is an important skill in terms of operating a safe, productive and profitable practice. Dentists need to use a lot of dental tools and have to be able to manually perform the various reconstructive and surgical procedures required in order to be successful. 

  • Good Communication Skill: Another important skill set for any dentist is to have a good communication skill. In order to have an open and effective communication with patients, colleagues and family members of patients, a dentist should be good with his communication both verbal and written. Written communication skills come into play while writing medical assessments and recording dental notes. 

  • Excellent Cognitive Skills: individuals with skilled cognitive abilities will make for a successful dentist. Dentists should be able to analyze situations and provide solutions for each individual patient as each patient will have unique needs. Dentists must know how to use careful consideration, how to quantify and combine these factors into a specific plan for each individual patient. Good cognitive skills will enable the dentist to think fast, make quicker decisions and act upon the decisions faster.

  • Integrity and Professionalism: In order to be a highly successful dentist, it is important to be professional and ethical towards your job. Exhibiting professional behavior  with patients and showing integrity towards the job on a daily basis will help a dentist climb the ladders of success and build confidence among his patients at a comparatively faster rate. 

  • Compassionate: Most patients that come for a dental procedure or a simple dental check up are scared out of their wits. A good dentist will be sensitive towards their patient’s feelings and show concern for the same. Compassion plays an important role in the process of becoming a successful dentist. 

  • Time Management: All dentists are equipped with the skills of performing minor procedures in their clinics. Some patients come for regular dental procedures and some for procedures. While regular dental check up may not take time, procedures may consume more time than expected. A dentist must be proficient and able to manage their time well so that no patient has to return home unattended or unsatisfied with the treatment.

  • Leadership Skills: A dentist not only has to attend to patients and their problems but also manage his entire office which includes front office staff, dental hygienists and dental assistants. Hence, it is important for a dentist to possess excellent leadership skills that will always keep his staff motivated.

Dentist Salaries