What Does IT Take to Be a Dentist?

Learn about the education and preparation needed to become a dentist. Get a quick view of the requirements as well as details about degree programs, job duties and licensure to find out if this is the career for you.

Aspiring dentists need to earn a bachelor's degree and complete professional dental school, a process that can take roughly eight years. After completing appropriate education, dentists pursue licensure and establish or join a practice.

Essential Information

Dentists care not only for teeth and gums, but also for the muscles and bones within or supporting the mouth. They do routine procedures such as filling cavities, cleaning teeth and repairing broken ones. They may also perform surgeries within or around the mouth to promote dental health, improve appearance and prevent disease. The majority of dentists are private practitioners, but they may work in other fields such as public health.

Required Education Bachelor's degree; Doctor of Dental Surgery (DDS), Doctor of Medical Dentistry or Doctor of Dental Medicine (DMD) degree from dental school
Other Requirements State license
Projected Job Growth 18% from 2014-2024*
Median Annual Wage (2015) $152,700*

Source: *U. S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

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Becoming a Dentist: Five Steps

Step One: Earning a High School Diploma

For high school students looking forward to dental careers, it's important to lay a solid foundation for college work. Critical courses include math, physics, chemistry and biology.

Step Two: Completing Undergraduate Requirements

It's not always necessary to finish college in order to get into dental school, but it's generally required. Dental schools look for applicants with well-rounded educational qualifications and solid scientific training. Important pre-dental school courses may include math, general and organic chemistry, biology, physics and lab work. Useful electives also include human anatomy and physiology, histology and microbiology.

Dental schools are accredited by the Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA), which is overseen by the American Dental Association (ADA). To apply to dental school, one must furnish scores on the Dental Admissions Test (DAT). Aspiring dentists can learn about accreditation, the scope of the test and the way it's scored by checking out the ADA website.

In addition to DAT scores, schools consider the student's GPA, recommendations, personal interview and commitment to serving others. Some pre-dental programs mention doing volunteer work as a way to round out one's application.

Step Three: Completing Training

Dental schools are 4-year programs that start with a foundation in advanced science classes and lab work. Course topics may include an overview of dental practice, dental anatomy, molecular biology and infectious diseases. Students generally spend the last two years in a clinical setting augmented by classroom teaching. They work under the supervision of the dental faculty or other licensed dentists.

In the process, they are expected to become competent in professional ethics, critical thinking, diagnostics, assessing patient needs and developing treatment plans. Upon graduation, students are awarded the Doctor of Dental Surgery (DDS) or Doctor of Dental Medicine (DMD), depending on the school. The two degrees are equivalent.

Step Four: Becoming Licensed

Once students graduate from dental school, they must be licensed. In most states, they are required to take written and practical exams that test their knowledge of dentistry and their ability to apply it to solving problems. Information about the exams is provided on the ADA website.

To become licensed in orthodontics, periodontics or one of the seven other dental specialties, dental-school graduates may study for up to four additional years and may have to take an additional state examination. Residency training is common for aspiring dental specialists.

Step Five: Becoming Established

There's more to being a dentist than drilling teeth. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), 25% of all dentists were independent practitioners in 2014. Dentists who are not in private practice may work in hospitals, teach in dental schools or work in public health.

Independent practitioners must set up an office, which requires investing in new equipment or buying an existing office from a retiring dentist. To defray these costs and get experience, some dentists work for a few years as associate dentists before they go solo or establish partnerships.

Running an office requires a variety of skills, such as purchasing supplies, billing patients and communicating with insurance companies. Many dentists hire several office staff members to do these tasks and must devote at least some of their time to supervising employees.

The BLS reported that in May 2015, the medin annual wage for general dentists was $152,700, and the projected job growth for that profession was 18% from 2014-2024.

Though not always required, it's generally necessary to hold a bachelor's degree in order to be admitted to an ADA-accredited dental school, the competition for which can be intense and requires passing the Dental Admissions Test. Only upon completion of a 4-year professional program and then qualifying for state licensure are you allowed to practice general dentistry. If you wish to further specialize in one of nine accredited areas, you must complete a 2- to 4-year residency.

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