Dentist: What Education Do I Need to Become a Dentist?

Dentists are licensed professionals who specialize in the treatment and prevention of disease in the oral cavity and surrounding areas. Licensure requires a dental degree and passage of written and practical exams. Dentists who choose to specialize in a particular field of dentistry must complete postgraduate training.

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Dentist Education Requirements

Dental Degree

To be eligible for licensure, dentists must graduate from a dental school that's accredited by the American Dental Association's (ADA) Commission on Dental Accreditation. Admission to dental school is highly competitive, and students must take the Dental Admission Test (DAT) to be considered for admittance. Schools take various factors into account during the admissions process, such as grade point averages, DAT scores and interviews. Most students enter dental school with bachelor's degrees; however, some undergraduate students are admitted before graduation, and they earn their bachelor's degrees during dental school.

Dental students can obtain either a Doctorate of Dental Medicine (DMD) or Doctorate of Dental Surgery (DDS). DMD and DDS are equivalent degrees, and both programs consist of the same 4-year curricula. The first two years are comprised of natural and clinical science instruction in classrooms and laboratories. In the final two years, students gain hands-on experience in dental clinics, treating patients under the direction of skilled dentists.

Postdoctoral Education

Most dental school graduates go on to practice general dentistry; however, some graduates pursue postdoctoral degrees to become specialists. Dentists may specialize in one of nine recognized fields, including oral and maxillofacial radiology, endodontics and periodontics.

Licensure Requirements

Dentists must obtain licensure before practicing in the profession. Specific licensure requirements vary by state, but all require candidates to obtain a dental degree and pass written and clinical examinations. The National Board Dental Examination is a 2-part, multiple-choice exam that fulfills the written testing requirement in all states. Clinical exams are administered by state dental boards. Dentists must maintain licensure by earning a number of continuing education credits determined by their states.

To become licensed specialists, dentists must complete 2-4 years of postgraduate education. Some states also require candidates to pass specialty exams and complete up to two years of residency training.

Employment Outlook and Salary Information

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projected jobs for dentists to increase 21% during the decade from 2010-2020, due to a growing older population needing advanced dental procedures and the increased awareness of oral health. As of May 2012, there were 93,580 dentists employed in the United States; the average annual salary earned by these professionals was $163,240 (www.bls.gov).

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