How to Become a Dentist in 5 Steps

Explore the career requirements for dentists. Get the facts about job duties, education and licensure requirements to determine if this is the right career for you. Schools offering Dental Assisting degrees can also be found in these popular choices.

What Does a Dentist Do?

Dentists provide preventative and corrective care for the teeth and gums. Preventative care includes educating patients on proper diet, flossing and brushing teeth, placing sealants and using fluoride. Corrective care includes removing decay, filling cavities, repairing broken teeth or pulling teeth. Dentists often diagnose these issues through the use of x-rays and hand tools used to examine teeth, like mouth mirrors and probes. They may also prescribe medication for problems of the mouth if needed. Some dentists choose to specialize in a particular area, such as pediatrics or orthodontics. The following chart provides an overview of the requirements for becoming a dentist.

Degree Required Doctor of Dental Surgery (D.D.S.) or Doctor of Dental Medicine (D.M.D.)
Training Dental specialties require 1- to 2-year residency
Key Responsibilities Examine patients and diagnose dental health issues; develop a treatment plan; perform dental treatments including extracting teeth, filling cavities, performing root canals and installing crowns and bridgework
Licensure or Certification All states require dentists to be licensed
Job Growth (2014-2024) 18%*
Median Salary (2015) $158,310*

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS)

What Is a Dentist?

While some dentists specialize in one area, such as periodontics, orthodontics or oral surgery, most are general practitioners. As a dentist, you'll be responsible for educating patients on habits important to good hygiene, such as brushing, flossing and adhering to a healthy diet. You'll fill cavities, inspect for tooth decay, apply sealants, improve alignment of teeth and repair broken teeth. It's also possible that you'll perform surgery to treat gum disease or extract teeth.

Step 1: Prepare for Dental School and Take the Dental Admissions Test (DAT)

Many colleges and universities offer pre-dental programs that provide you with a solid foundation for further dental studies. These programs can be advantageous because they prepare you to be more competitive when applying to dental school. They include required pre-dental courses, such as chemistry, physics and biology, as well as opportunities to gain volunteer dental experience, shadow dentists and participate in student organizations. Many dental schools prefer to admit students who have earned a bachelor's degree, but most require a minimum of two years of college coursework. To apply to dental school, you'll need to take the Dental Admissions Test (DAT), which is administered by the American Dental Association (ADA).

Step 2: Complete a Dental Program

Dental programs generally last four years. You can expect to spend the first two years in a classroom and working in a laboratory, taking science courses like anatomy, physiology, microbiology and biochemistry. During the final two years, you'll treat patients while under the supervision of a licensed dentist. After you successfully complete a dental program, you'll earn a Doctor of Dental Surgery (D.D.S.) or a Doctor of Dental Medicine (D.M.D.) degree.

Step 3: Acquire a License to Practice

Once you've obtained a degree from an accredited dental school, you'll need to pass both a practical and written examination to become licensed. In most states, you and other candidates will take the National Board Dental Examination administered by the ADA for the written exam portion. The state in which you plan to work or a regional agency will typically administer the practical exam.

Step 4: Set Up Shop as a Dentist

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), most dental school graduates open their own private practice or take over an existing practice (www.bls.gov). However, you may also join an existing practice as an associate. You may be required to work long hours when you are first establishing your career, but the number of hours you work will typically decrease with experience. The BLS projected that from 2014-2024, the number of positions available for dentists would grow by 18%, which was above the average national job growth. However, while the demand for dental services is increasing, efficiencies in dental practices are allowing a fewer number of dentists to treat an increasing number of patients.

Step 5: Consider Advanced Training

If you would like to teach or conduct research rather than work in a clinical setting, you may want to consider completing 2-5 years of advanced training after earning your dental degree. Such programs can be found at dental schools or in hospitals. Some programs may allow you to earn an additional degree, such as an Master of Public Health (MPH) or Ph.D.

What Are Some Related Alternative Careers?

There are some related positions in the medical field that require a doctoral or professional degree. One of these jobs is a chiropractor. Chiropractors work with the neuromusculoskeletal system to treat neck and back pain. They treat patients through spinal adjustments and other techniques used on the muscles, bones and nerves. A podiatrist is another type of doctor that specializes in a particular area of the body. Podiatrists treat conditions of the foot, ankle and lower leg, which could include surgery in these areas. An optometrist is a third option. These professionals examine patients' eyes and visual systems to prevent disease, treat any issues and even prescribe eyeglasses to improve vision if needed.

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