How to Become a Dentist: Careers in Dentistry

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Get a degree, work with patients, make a difference.

Aspiring dentists need to complete years of education, training and residency before starting a practice of their own. They also need to decide on the type of dentistry they plan to pursue, whether general, pediatric or some form of oral or maxillofacial surgery. In addition to formal education, many future dentists may benefit from training in communication and management, specifically to hone the skills needed to run an office and hire, train and maintain a staff.

The path to dentistry may seem straightforward, with beginnings at the bachelor’s level and progression to dental school and residency. However, this path also requires students to consider a variety of questions and options before moving to the next level. For example, which undergraduate degrees give me the best chance to get into dental school? Does is matter? When do I apply for dental school? What does the exam cover? The following guide answers these questions and others, and discusses many of the details involved in the multi-year training process.

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what does a dentist do?

In general, dentists are responsible for the oral health of their patients. This might include everything from offering advice on foods or hygiene to repairing fractured teeth or performing more invasive procedures. Dentists might handle regular cleanings and hygiene, filling cavities, extracting teeth, applying sealants or whitening agents, creating dentures, straightening teeth and writing prescriptions.

what kind of skills are required ?

When contemplating a career as a dentist, take a quick inventory of your personal traits. In addition to having the patience and diligence required for oral health work, dentists must have excellent people skills in order to communicate well with colleagues and patients. They must be very good at working with their hands, trained with a variety of instruments, and very attentive to detail. For those who run their own offices, organizational and leadership skills are also a must.


When choosing the right career, it is important to understand what you can expect to make when you enter the profession. Those who choose to become dentists often do so not only because they want to help people, but because it is a career with a reputation for high salaries. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, dentists made a median annual wage of $163,240 in 2012. The top ten percent of dentists made greater than $187,199 per year. Those who choose to specialize might make even more.

The map below shows details of the 10th, 50th and 90th percentile earners for each state.

The Steps: Becoming a Dentist

Complete a Bachelor’s Degree

In most cases, a bachelor’s degree is required before admittance to dental school. Occasionally, some dental schools admit students who have completed a three-year pre-dental program. Each dental school has its own list or prerequisites. Make sure you research and understand them before advancing too far in your undergraduate studies.

Examples of common prerequisites include:

  • Chemistry
  • Organic Chemistry
  • Biochemistry
  • Biology
  • Statistics
  • Physics
Take the Dental Acceptance Test (DAT)

Admission to dental schools is competitive, and DAT results are one of the many factors that dental programs consider when it’s time to choose applicants. Aspiring dentists should take the DAT during their junior year of undergraduate studies. The DAT is conducted by the American Dental Association (ADA) and is made up of four multiple-choice tests that cover natural sciences, reading comprehension, quantitative reasoning and perceptual ability. You may take the DAT up to 3 times, if needed, but must wait 90 days between exams. The DAT can be taken a fourth time with special permission.

Complete a Doctor of Dental Surgery (DDS) or Doctor of Dental Medicine (DMD) Degree

The ADA hosts a list of all the accredited dental education programs in the United States. There are two types of degree programs that prepare students to work as a general dentist: DDS and DMD. The only difference between the two degrees is the name itself. Both degrees are accepted by state licensing boards.

Whether you choose to complete a DDS or DMD degree, your education will be based on curriculum requirements set by the ADA’s Commission on Dental Accreditation. Coursework includes a mixture of didactic and clinical courses, for example:

  • Anatomy
  • Biochemistry
  • Physiology
  • Microbiology
  • Pedonotics
  • Restorative Dentistry
  • Endodontics
  • Oral Surgery
  • Oral Diagnosis

The ADA recognizes nine dental specialties. If you are interested in pursuing a career as a dental specialist, additional post-graduate training may be required. This specialized training typically lasts one or two years and involves completing a residency.

Pass National and State Licensing Exams

All states require dentists to be licensed, but licensing laws vary. You should contact your state’s dental board for information on licensing requirements.

The Joint Commission on National Dental Examinations developed the National Board Dental Examination (NBDE), a pass/fail test that must be passed to practice dentistry in any state. The NBDE is broken into two parts. The first part focuses on basic sciences, while the second part focuses on dental topics. Your dental school may arrange for you to take this test with the rest of your class.

Depending on where you live, you may need to complete a state or regional exam. These are clinical tests that require students to perform real dental procedures on patients.

Dentistry Schools

Becoming a dentist begins with the proper schooling. The search tool below can help you explore a wide variety of schools that offer dental programs.

  • School:
  • State:
  • Degree Level:
  • Subject:
Total Results:
A T Still University of Health Sciences Kirksville, MO Doctorate/PhD Dentistry
Alpena Community College Alpena, MI Associate Pre-Dentistry Studies
Andrew College Cuthbert, GA Associate Pre-Dentistry Studies
Angelina College Lufkin, TX Associate Pre-Dentistry Studies
Austin Community College District Austin, TX Associate Pre-Dentistry Studies
Ball State University Muncie, IN Bachelor's Pre-Dentistry Studies
Barton County Community College Great Bend, KS Associate Pre-Dentistry Studies
Boise State University Boise, ID Bachelor's Pre-Dentistry Studies
Boston University Boston, MA Bachelor's Pre-Dentistry Studies
Boston University Boston, MA Doctorate/PhD Advanced Dentistry

what do related occupations make ?

When learning how to become a dentist, you might find that another, similar course of study is more suitable for your career goals. Those who choose the professional healthcare path might move into areas related to dentistry, including careers in podiatry, optometry, surgery and other medical professions. These related occupations have the following average annual salaries:

Dentist and Related Job Salaries

Keep in mind that salaries for any professional can vary widely depending upon the region, state or city you work in. This salary comparison tool can help you compare the salaries of dental professionals in your area.

Dentist Salary Comparison Tool
  • Select a state:
  • Select City 1:
  • Select City 2:
Birmingham 2012 MEAN PAY $217,760 per year $104.69 per hour
Dothan 2012 MEAN PAY $195,610 per year $94.05 per hour

Job Growth

Dentistry is a booming business; according to The Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment of dentists should grow by 16 percent from 2012 to 2022, which is faster than the average for all occupations. This growth may be spurred by the fact that baby boomers will need more dental work, individuals are keeping their natural teeth longer and the public begins to understand the definitive link between oral health and overall health. Technology that allows for faster, less invasive and less painful procedures will also be a catalyst for growth.

To see more on employment or job growth for dentists, select a state below.

  • Select a state:
  • Employed Dentists
    2.02% Average Annual Job Growth 90 Annual Job Openings