What Degree Do You Need to be a Dentist?
If you're considering a rewarding career in healthcare and are curious about what education is needed to become a dentist, then you've come to the right place. Dentists provide preventative care and treat diseases and injuries to the teeth and mouth - and similar to doctors, they require quite a bit of education - in fact, it takes about eight years to become a general dentist. Here are the basic education and training information on how to become a dentist:
- Earn an undergraduate degree, usually in the sciences, with a pre-dental program if available
- Take the Dental Admission Test (DAT) and apply to dental school
- Earn a DMD or DDS degree from an accredited dental school
- Attain a general dentistry license in your state
- Optional Complete specialty postgraduate training and attain a specialty license
Dental school is similar in intensity to medical school and results in a doctoral degree, either a Doctor of Dental Medicine or a Doctor of Dental Surgery. What's the difference? It's really just the name. Some schools award a DMD and others award a DDS. According to the American Dental Association (ADA), these degrees are considered to be equivalent.
Either the DDS or DMD can qualify you to become a dentist, but there are also dual degree programs where you can earn a dental degree in combination with a Master of Science (MS), a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD), a Master of Business Administration (MBA), or a Master of Public Health (MPH). These types of degrees can prepare you to work in other capacities, such as dental research, dental clinic business management, and dental public health.
Doctor of Dental Medicine Degree
Both the Doctor of Dental Medicine and the Doctor of Dental Surgery are four-year degree programs. Typically, the first two years are biomedical science and laboratory courses that prepare you for the following two years that are heavily based in clinical rotations. Your clinical work may be divided between community centers, where you may provide free services, and specialty centers, where you can learn more about facets of dentistry like orthodontics and pediatric dentistry. In these programs, you may take courses in:
Year 1: Gross Anatomy and Oral Diagnosis
- Dental anatomy
- Head and neck anatomy
- Dental materials
- Oral examination
- Dental disease prevention
- Pediatric dentistry clinicals
Year 2: Dental Techniques and Skills
- Fixed and removable dentures
- Periodontology clinicals
- Operative dentistry clinicals
Years 3 and 4: Clinical Rotations and Seminars
- Oral disease diagnosis
- Treatment planning
- Clinical treatments in various community clinics and specialty dental clinics
Some dental schools may organize coursework thematically and offer courses grouped within topics like dental professionalism, oral and systemic disease, and restoration. These topics can include didactic, laboratory, and clinical components and may allow you to focus your studies on the type of dentistry you would like to work in. Other types of specialized thematic tracks include cariology, periodontics, dentistry across age groups, and interdisciplinary dentistry.
However, your dental school organizes the curriculum, you'll typically cover the same topics and gain the same clinical competencies, whether it's in a different course name or a different year.
Specialty Dental Education Requirements
If you want to specialize beyond general dentistry, you can complete postdoctoral training in the form of postgraduate certificates, fellowships, residencies, and/or internships. The American Dental Association acknowledges nine approved specialty areas. The training requirements often last two to four years but may be up to six additional years; it all depends on the specialty and the specific program. Then, you'll need to earn the specialty certification, for which the test and requirements are orchestrated by the national board for that specialty.
Those nine specialty areas include:
- Dental public health
- Oral and maxillofacial pathology
- Oral and maxillofacial radiology
- Oral and maxillofacial surgery
- Pediatric dentistry
Although the specialties listed above are the ones that are approved by the ADA, there are other specialties you can study, such as esthetic dentistry or digital prosthetics.
What to Major in to be a Dentist?
You don't need to have your bachelor's degree before you apply to dental school, but if you don't, you would have to take extra coursework and earn the bachelor's degree while you begin your dental program. In any case, most applicants complete their undergraduate education first.
DDS and DDM prerequisite requirements are based on coursework, not on a specific degree, and include science-based courses and laboratories. For this reason, common undergraduate majors for aspiring dentists included those in the natural or physical sciences, such as biology, chemistry, physics or another science field; although other bachelor's degrees are accepted. In addition to science classes, math and liberal arts classes, like English, philosophy, and psychology, are also typically required. These liberal arts and math courses are usually part of any degree program's general education university requirements.
Whatever major you choose, some of the specific science classes you commonly need to take during your undergraduate program include:
- Biology with a lab
- General chemistry with a lab
- Organic chemistry with a lab
- Physics with a lab
Taking as many additional life science classes as possible is a smart idea as prerequisites can vary.
As dental school is very competitive, your application can be strengthened by completing a pre-dental program. This is usually a program that is offered through the science department or in conjunction with a science major. It's not a degree program on its own, but it helps you plan your coursework accordingly. Completing this program will assure that you meet all the prerequisite coursework requirements for dental school and will prepare you for the Dental Admission Test (DAT).
A pre-dental major can be advantageous in giving you a head-start in dental school, as it will help you build a strong science background. You'll also have access to advice and assistance from your school regarding volunteer opportunities, job shadowing, pre-dental internships, dental mission trips, health and dentistry clubs, research, conferences, mock interviews, and applications to dental school.
Apart from the necessary biology, general and organic chemistry, and physics lectures and labs, here are some of the courses that are often taken in a pre-dental program:
- Human anatomy and physiology
- Comparative vertebrate anatomy
- Pre-calculus or calculus
Dental School Requirements
In order for your education to be considered valid for earning your license and practicing in the profession, you'll need to attend a professional dental school accredited by the Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA), which is part of the American Dental Association (ADA). There are 66 accredited dental schools in the United States.
To be accepted into dental school, you must meet prerequisite coursework requirements and pass the Dental Admission Test (DAT). The DAT is a four-part, multiple-choice examination that includes the following sections:
- Survey of the Natural Sciences
- Perceptual Ability
- Reading Comprehension
- Quantitative Reasoning
In addition to the prerequisite coursework and DAT scores, other factors that may be taken into consideration are internships, volunteering, observations and other experience in the dental field; your overall and science-specific GPA; and your responses on your admission essay and interview.
How Long is Dental School?
So now you know you'll need to complete an undergraduate program with a science background, take the DAT, and then apply to dental school. But how much longer will it take to become a dentist? Dental school is traditionally a four-year program that prepares you to become a general dentist, which is what most dentists work as.
If you are ambitious and plan well ahead, you might be able to enroll in a fast-track program. For an accelerated program, you'd apply before completing four years of undergraduate schooling and then earn both your bachelor's degree and your professional dental degree at your dental school. This can allow you to finish both degrees in 6-7 years total, so you'd finish 1-2 years sooner.
If you decide to specialize in a certain area of dentistry, like orthodontics, you can complete a postgraduate certificate, residency, or internship at a dental school. This is usually an additional 2-6 years of schooling and training (depending on your specialization).
Average GPA for Dental School
When you're applying to dental school, you'll notice that many schools post minimum requirements for both your total GPA and your science GPA. Depending on the school, these minimum GPA requirements could range from 2.7 to 3.3.
However, based on reviewing the latest dental school statistics, for a competitive application, you should have a GPA of at least 3.6 - both overall and in your science courses. Check out the table below for more some specific examples:
|Dental School||Average GPA of Applicants||Science Average GPA of Applicants||Minimum GPA Required|
|University of Florida College of Dentistry||3.74||3.68||No Minimum|
|University of Minnesota School of Dentistry||3.66||3.56||N/A|
|Indiana University School of Dentistry||3.65||3.48||3.3 (suggested minimum)|
|Virginia Commonwealth University School of Dentistry||3.6||3.6||N/A|
|The Ohio State University College of Dentistry||3.6||3.49||3.0 for total and science|
|New York University College of Dentistry||3.5||3.4||N/A|
How Much is Dental School?
The exact tuition fees will depend on your specific school - and that cost can vary quite a bit depending on whether you attend public or private school and whether you attend as an in-state resident or out-of-state resident. Furthermore, you might apply for scholarships that fund part of your studies.
Let's take a look at the costs of tuition for some dental schools in the following chart. All figures were reported for the 2018-2019 school year for first-year dental students.
|Dental School||In-State Tuition||Out-Of-State Tuition|
|Indiana University School of Dentistry||$34,686||$77,250|
|University at Buffalo School of Dental Medicine, SUNY||$35,130||$63,640|
|University of Nevada, Las Vegas School of Dental Medicine||$37,389||$37,389|
|Temple University Maurice H. Kornberg School of Dentistry||$57,924||$65,414|
|University of Pennsylvania School of Dental Medicine||$74,598||$74,598|
|Boston University Henry M. Goldman School of Dental Medicine||$77,250||$77,250|
|New York University College of Dentistry||$78,854||$78,854|
The above figures are just the base cost of tuition. Education fees, instrument fees, and indirect expenses, including housing, transportation, food, and other personal expenses, can bump up this price by about $40,000-$50,000 yearly. Educational-related costs such as clinic fees, instrument fees, and registration might be around $5,000-$20,000 while indirect costs may be around $25,000-$35,000. Of course, cost of living is greatly affected by location, so those are rough estimated costs, based on the above programs.
Are you wondering about student loans and debt after dental school? The American Student Dental Association listed the average debt for students who graduated dental school in 2016 as $287,331.
All figures come from school websites (2018) and the American Student Dental Association (2016).