How to Become a Dentist - Dentist Career Overview

Dentist and boy patient looking in mirror
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What Does a Dentist Do? Brief Overview of a Dentist's Profession:

In general, a dentist is a doctorate level medical professional who treats the teeth and gums of his or her patients, including preventative care and maintenance for oral health, and treating acute problems such as filling cavities, performing root canals, and treating tooth decay. In additional to general dentists, there are more specialized types of dentists who focus on a certain type of care such as gum care (periodontists) or child dentistry (pediatric dentistry).

A dentist typically employs a staff that includes dental hygienists and dental assistants who help provide the basic care such as teeth cleanings, x-rays, and flouride treatments.

Educational Requirements to Become a Practicing Dentist in the U.S.:

To practice as a dentist in the U.S., you must have a degree from an accredited dental school. General dentists typically obtain either a DDS or DMD degree, depending on which dental school they attend. The degrees are basically the same, with just a different name.

A D.D.S. degree stands for "Doctor of Dental Surgery," and D.M.D. stands for "Doctor of Dental Medicine." (The reason the letters seem out of order is due to the Latin translation.) The training and education for both is virtually the same. Dental school is typically a four year graduate program.

Dental school acceptance requires a bachelor's degree, and passage of the DAT (Dental Admissions Test).

Other requirements vary, but typically, much like medical schools, dental schools will consider a variety of factors when accepting students, including grades, coursework, extra-curricular activities, essays, admissions test scores, recommendations, and some schools may conduct personal interviews as well.

To improve your chances of success and acceptance into dental school, Tammy Davenport also recommends volunteering or working in a dental office in high school and college, to increase your understanding of the field and help you obtain real life experience that may even transfer into your coursework and testing.

To be accepted into a dental school program, one does not necessarily have to major in science in college, but it may help. Additionally, one must at least fulfill the dental school pre-requisites which includes many science classes. Recommended courses include biochemistry, organic chemistry, physics, and general biology.

Dentists' Employment and Demand:

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, dentists are in demand in the workforce. The field is expected to grow by 16 percent through 2018, which is considered "faster than average". Three out of four dentists are solo practitioners. Therefore many dentists, about 30 percent or more, are also self-employed, as owners or partial owners of their own business, a dental practice.

Very few dentists work in a hospital setting. According to the BLS, dentists held about 141,000 jobs, and about 15 percent of dentists are specialists.

Challenges of a Career as a Dentist:

Denistry is a rewarding but challenging field, as are most healthcare careers. Some challenges include the high level of education required, and tuition costs can be prohibitive for some. Plus, there is a great deal of competition to get into dental school.

Being a business owner is always challenging, and many dentists must handle the responsibilities of business ownership in addition to their work as a dentist. Managing the financial and administrative aspects, including hiring and management of personnel, can be time-consuming and stressful.

Additionally, patient volume can decline in tough economic times, as many people will put off preventative or routine visits when cutting back financially. Office revenue (and the dentist's income) can decrease when patient volume declines.

Average Income for Dentists:

While there are many challenges being a dentist, one of the many draws to a career in dentistry is the pay. According to the BLS, the average pay for salaried dentists is $142,870. Dentists who are in private practice typically earn more than salaried (employed) dentists.

While this is a comfortable income, keep in mind you may incur a significant amount of debt while obtaining the necessary graduate degree in dentistry. Therefore your financial situation may be impacted while you are paying off your student loans for many of your initial years as a dentist.

Licensing and Certification for Dentists:

Most states require a state license to practice in the state. It may consist of both a written and practical section. The written portion may be satisfied by taking the National Board Dental Exam, in most states. Dentists may be licensed in general dentistry or another one of the nine recognized specialties of dentistry.

Some states may also require a residency training period of up to two years, which is shorter than the residency training for prospective physicians, which is a minimum of three years and can be five or more.

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