What Are the Educational Requirements to Become a Dentist?

Research what it takes to become a dentist. Learn about education options, licensure requirements, specialty options, job outlook and salary to find out if this is the career for you. Schools offering Dental Assisting degrees can also be found in these popular choices.

What Is a Dentist?

Dentists are doctors who diagnose and treat conditions and diseases of the mouth. They also educate their patients on proper oral care and other preventative measures. Dentists may treat things like cavities, chipped teeth, gum disease and more. Preventative care may include flossing, using fluoride and placing sealants on teeth. Dentists also prescribe medication for mouth conditions and take measurements for dental appliances. If a dentist works in a private practice, they often have administrative responsibilities as well, such as bookkeeping and ordering supplies. Some dentists choose to specialize in a particular area of the field. The following chart provides an overview of a career in dentistry.

Degree Required Doctoral
Education Field of Study Dental medicine, dental surgery
Key Responsibilities Finding issues via x-rays, filling cavities, sealing and repairing teeth, creating molds for mouth guards, teaching patients how to care for their teeth and mouths
Licensure/Certification Licensure required in all states; specialty certification available
Job Growth (2014-24) 18% (faster than average)*
Median Salary (May 2015) $152,700*

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

What Educational Requirements Must I Fulfill to Become a Dentist?

Before applying to dental school, you'll first need to complete an accredited, 4-year bachelor's degree program. The curriculum generally includes both general education and major coursework. Once you make the decision to become a dentist, you can major in a science-related field to meet the coursework requirements for admittance to an approved dental school. Alternatively, some schools may offer a pre-dental curriculum for you to enroll in. Your program of study may focus on such classes as biology, organic chemistry, physics, calculus, physiology and human genetics.

You'll take the Dental Admissions Test (DAT) after you've earned your bachelor's degree to ensure you're prepared for dental school training. Your dental school should be fully accredited by the American Dental Association's (ADA) Commission on Dental Accreditation. Dental school usually lasts four years, and it leads to a Doctor of Dental Surgery (DDS) or Doctor of Dental Medicine (DMD) degree. A DDS and a DMD are equivalent and meet the same curriculum requirements, according to the ADA (www.ada.org).

The first two years of your dental school program will be dedicated to classroom study and laboratory projects. In the final two years of the program, you'll gain clinical experience under the supervision of practicing dentists. You might participate in classes such as operative dentistry, gross anatomy, oral medicine and histology. When you graduate from dental school, you'll need to pass the required state examinations to become licensed before practicing dentistry.

How Do I Become Licensed?

Once you earn a dental degree from an accredited school, you must pass both written and clinical portions of the National Board Dental Examination. This test may be administered by your state. The results of the examination help state boards assess your dental qualifications and knowledge of biomedical and dental sciences. You may become licensed to practice both general and specialized dentistry.

What Areas Might I Specialize In?

Many dentists become general practitioners, but additional training will be necessary if you'd like to specialize in a particular area of dentistry. Some areas you could specialize in include prosthodontics, orthodontics, endodontics or pediatric dentistry. Prosthodontists improve the oral health and appearance of patients by restoring missing teeth. Orthodontists straighten teeth with braces and other apparatuses, while an endodontist specializes in the treatment of diseased or injured tooth pulp. Pediatric dentists provide dental services for children.

You must complete between 2-4 years of postgraduate study in your specialty, along with a 2-year postgraduate residency. In addition, you may be required to take a special state-administered examination. Once your training has been completed, you may pursue voluntary board certification in your specialty.

What Are Some Related Alternative Careers?

There are several similar careers in the medical field that require a doctoral or professional degree, including podiatrists, surgeons and chiropractors. Podiatrists diagnose, treat and perform surgery on the feet, ankles and lower legs of patients. They may prescribe things like insoles to help correct pain or discomfort. Surgeons are physicians who specialize in performing various kinds of surgeries. Surgeons may specialize in a particular area of the body or in a particular procedure. Chiropractors diagnose and treat pain in the muscles, bones, nerves and tendons of the neck or back. They use spinal adjustments and other techniques to manage the pain.

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