Education Needed to Become a Dentist: Education Roadmap

Learn the steps in becoming a dentist. Research the various education requirements, licensure information and experience required for starting a career in dentistry.

Should I Become a Dentist?

Dentists are licensed professionals who provide oral health care and preventative treatment to patients. Those who have a private practice also supervise the administrative parts of the business, including the accounting, personnel and facilities.

Some dentists work evenings or weekends to meet patients' scheduling needs. Dentists wear protective clothing or devices, such as gloves, masks and glasses, to prevent the spread of infectious disease.

Career Requirements

Degree Level Doctorate
Degree Field Dental surgery or dental medicine
Licensure All states require dentists to be licensed
Experience 1-2 year residency
Key Skills Communication, detail-oriented, leadership, patience, problem-solving, dexterity and physical stamina
Salary (2014) $149,540 (median)

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Step 1: Earn a Bachelor's Degree

No specific undergraduate major is required for students pursuing dental school; however, many dental schools require that applicants complete science courses, such as chemistry, physics, mathematics and biology. For this reason, a bachelor's degree in either biology or chemistry provides sufficient preparation for continued study in a dental program.

Some colleges and universities offer pre-dental preparation programs through their biology departments. Pre-dental programs are designed to fulfill the course requirements set by dental school admissions departments. Coursework covers topics like organic chemistry, microbiology and genetics. Students may also begin preparing to take the Dental Admissions Test (DAT), the passage of which is required for admission.

Success Tip:

  • Join a club or volunteer. Aspiring dentists may find many opportunities to learn and network as undergraduates. Pre-dental program encourage students to volunteer or work in dental health programs or join exploration programs to explore their career options.

Step 2: Complete a Dental Degree Program

Dental school programs generally begin with instruction in the biomedical and dental sciences, covering a range of concepts from cell walls to wisdom teeth. Many of the first- and second-year dental science courses have corresponding laboratories. In these labs, students demonstrate their knowledge of dental topics while building skills in areas such as imaging and fixed partial dentures.

In the third and fourth years, students often participate in group clinical exercises, during which they learn to diagnose patients under the supervision of licensed dentists. Additionally, they may begin performing dental treatments, like cleanings and tooth extractions. After completing the program, students become either a Doctor of Dental Surgery (DDS) or Doctor of Dental Medicine (DMD).

Step 3: Become Licensed

In all states, dentists are required to hold licensure to practice. Individual state boards regulate dental licensing. After completing accredited dental programs, dentists generally obtain licensure by passing a written and clinical exam. The National Board Dental Examinations are typically used to fulfill the written exam requirement, while the licensing board administers the clinical exam.

To maintain certification, state dental boards require dentists to complete a specified number of continuing education credits or hours. Some licensing boards require a minimum number of these credits to focus on a specific subject, such as life support or pain management. Depending on the state, dentists may be allowed to earn a limited number of credits through online courses. States may also allow dentists to earn credits by attending state-approved seminars and conferences.

Step 4: Find a Job or Start a Practice

The BLS reports that a majority of dentists work in private practices or form partnerships with other dentists, while a minority are employed by physicians or hospitals. Most dentists start up their own practices directly after dental school or buy a practice from another dentist. Dentists may also start out as employees of other, more experienced dentists for 1-2 years before starting their own practices. Dentists wishing to move into research or full-time teaching roles typically must complete 2-5 years additional training.

Success Tip:

  • Train as a specialist. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), while most dentists work as general practitioners, dentists can also specialize in various areas, such as oral and maxillofacial surgery or orthodontics. These all require dentists to earn additional training through a residency program and allow dentists to work in more specialized practices.

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