Dentistry Degrees: Overview of Types of Dental Degree Programs

Learn about degree program options in dentistry. Get information about program courses, career options, licensing requirements, job prospects and salaries.

Essential Information

Dentistry degree programs are available at the associate's, bachelor's and doctoral level, and each degree level leads to a different career. An associate's degree program in dental assisting includes classroom, clinical and laboratory training and prepares students to work as dental assistants. Students gain a background in dental science, do an internship or externship and acquire the skills needed to take the Certified Dental Assistant (CDA) certification exam. A bachelor's degree program in dental hygiene also includes clinical training and prepares students to work as dental hygienists. Students learn to clean teeth, do examinations and use dental tools. After they graduate, they need to meet state requirements to get licensed as a dental hygienist.

A doctoral program in dentistry leads to a career as a dentist or dental specialist, such as an oral surgeon or orthodontist. In addition to taking courses in biological sciences, students learn how to diagnose oral problems, do comprehensive examinations and perform dental procedures. They get hands-on practice performing these tasks and participate in clinical rotations and internships. Upon graduation, students must take licensing exams.

Associate's Degree in Dental Assisting

While studying to earn an associate's degree in dental assisting, students learn the necessary skills to provide patient care such as collecting patient medical history, assisting during various procedures and managing office tasks. Students take business courses, participate in laboratory and clinical training and receive classroom instruction regarding dentistry. At the end of the program, students are ready to take the Dental Assisting National Board (DANB) examination to become certified. Community colleges, private schools, vocational schools and technology institutes offer dental assistant associate's degrees, usually as an Associate of Applied Science or Associate of Science. A high school diploma or its equivalent is typically required to gain entry into a dental assisting program.

Course Topics

Students take courses that teach them basic administrative functions, computer skills and dental science while receiving hands-on training. Internships or externships are often required, which provide students with professional experience in dentist offices. Some common classes include:

  • Dental materials
  • Pharmacology
  • Clinical procedures
  • Dental specialties
  • Dental science
  • Chair-side assisting
  • Dental radiography
  • Business skills

Employment Outlook and Salary

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported that it expected dental assisting jobs to increase 31% between 2010-2020 ( Some of the factors leading to this above average increase are a growing population, the younger population receiving better preventative dental care and more dentists hiring assistants to help decrease their work load. As of May 2011, dental assistants earned an annual mean income of $34,740, according to the BLS.

Licensure and Certification

The BLS stated that most states put limitations on which duties dental assistants can perform while other states give the dentist full jurisdiction. Obtaining licensure varies from state to state and may include passing an exam after completing state-approved dental assisting training.

The DANB awards qualified candidates with the Certified Dental Assistant (CDA) certification. Candidates must pass education and/or experience requirements to become eligible for the CDA certification. The DANB also offers other voluntary certifications to validate competent dental assistant abilities in areas like infection control, sealants, coronal polish and topical fluoride.

Bachelor's Degree in Dental Hygiene

Earning a bachelor's degree in dental hygiene prepares students for dental hygiene careers where they teach people proper oral care, examine patients' teeth and gums, identify diseases or other conditions, work with various dental tools, materials and equipment and perform other dental procedures under the supervision of a licensed dentist. Many private and public colleges and universities offer bachelor's degree programs in dental hygiene as a Bachelor of Science.

Prerequisite Education

A high school diploma or its equivalent is required for entrance into a bachelor's degree program. Students who already have earned an associate's degree are also eligible for admission. Some programs may require or prefer applicants who have experience or observation hours at a dental office. Certain coursework or having completed training at an American Dental Association-accredited dental hygiene program is required before gaining entrance into some dental hygiene baccalaureate programs.

Course Topics

Dental hygiene students take classes in dental science along with other sciences and receive laboratory and clinical training. Some programs require students to take foundational courses before beginning the major's core curriculum. Some common classes include:

  • Periodontology
  • Pharmacology
  • Oral radiology
  • Local anesthesia
  • Anatomy
  • Dental morphology
  • Physiology
  • Dental specialties

Employment Outlook and Salary

Dental hygienist jobs are expected to grow 38% during 2010-2020, according to the BLS. As the aging population receives better dental care, they are able to retain more teeth. This factor, along with a booming population and more people placing priority on dental care, leads to the high demand of dental hygienists. Dental hygienists salaries range according to region, setting and experience. The BLS reported an annual mean income of $69,760 for dental hygienists as of May 2011.


All states mandate that dental hygienists receive licensure from the state where they practice. Each state sets its own licensing requirements, but they usually involve graduating from an approved school and passing a written and practical exam.

Doctoral Degree in Dentistry

Students earning a Doctor of Dental Surgery (D.D.S) or Doctor of Dental Medicine (D.D.M.) degree learn about providing dental care to diverse populations, diagnosing and treating oral conditions and mastering dental treatment procedures by practicing on models and patients. They also learn restorative dentistry, periodontics, oral surgery, pediatric dentistry and other dental specialties. Dental school typically takes four years of full-time study beyond the baccalaureate level to complete.

Education Prerequisites

The BLS stated that dental schools require students to have at least two years of college education before applying; however, most students have bachelor's degrees. Completion of specific classes is required to gain entry into a dental school. Some schools offer combination programs that allow students to earn a bachelor's degree while working towards their doctorate. Students are also required to take the Dental Admissions Test.

Course Topics

Students take various clinical and biological science classes. During the final years, students participate in clinical rotations where they work with patients under the supervision of clinical instructors. Off-campus experience is often received through internships. Some common courses include:

  • Dentistry biostatistics
  • Molecular biology
  • Oral microbiology
  • Periodontics
  • Head and neck anatomy
  • Dental radiography
  • Occlusion
  • Operative dentistry

Employment Outlook and Salary

During the 2010-2020 decade, dentist jobs should increase 21% according to the BLS. An increasing population and aging community contribute to this increase. Better insurance coverage of dental services also leads to more people receiving oral care. Dentists earned an annual mean salary of $161,750 as of May 2011.

Licensure and Continuing Education

Before they can begin practicing, all dentists must obtain licensure from the state where they intend to work. Licensing standards vary for each state, but normally include candidates passing a written and clinical exam and earning a degree from an approved dental school. Dentists with a D.D.S. or D.D.M. also might consider gaining a dentistry specialty. Residency programs are available in areas such as endodontics, oral pathology, orthodontics and pediatric dentistry.

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