How to Become a Dentist

Learn how to become a dentist. Research the education and career requirements, training and licensure information and experience required for starting a career in dentistry.

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Do I Want to Be a Dentist?

Dentists diagnose and treat conditions affecting the mouth, teeth and gums. In addition to performing extractions, root canals and tooth replacements, dentists provide preventive care and oral hygiene advice. Some dentists offer weekend or evening hours because of their patients' busy schedules.

Job Requirements

Four years of undergraduate college and four years of dental school are generally the minimum education requirements for becoming a licensed dentist. Additional licenses may be earned in areas of specialization, requiring completion of a residency. The following table outlines common requirements to become a dentist as reported by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS):

Common Requirements
Degree Level Postbaccalaureate first professional degree
Degree Field Dental surgery or dental medicine
Licensure and Certification All states require dentists to hold a state-issued license
Key Skills Strong communication and leadership skills; knowledge of dental anatomy and medical procedures; problem-solving skills; patience
Additional Requirements Good manual dexterity; physical stamina, since dentists often spend long periods of time standing or bent over patients

Step 1: Enroll in a Bachelor's Degree Program

Dental schools generally require applicants to hold bachelor's degrees before gaining admission. Some schools may admit students after 2-3 years of undergraduate study and allow them to earn bachelor's degrees as part of the dental program. Although no specific pre-dental major is required, coursework in biology, physics and chemistry can provide relevant preparation for dentistry school.

Success Tips:

  • Join a mentoring program. Students may benefit from joining dentist mentoring programs or the American Student Dental Association (ASDA), which supports aspiring dentists and guides them through the dental school admission process.
  • Participate in a dental school preparatory program. The Summer Medical and Dental Education Program (SMDEP) sponsored by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation offers students enrolled in their first two years of college a 6-week dental school preparation program at selected college or university campuses across the country (www.smdep.org). Students gain career development and financial advice, academic enrichment programs and a first-hand view of dental work in a clinical setting.

Step 2: Take the Dental Admission Test

Before applying to dental school, students must take the Dental Admission Test (DAT), which assesses academic capacity and scientific knowledge. A minimum score on this exam may be required to gain entrance to dental school. Dental schools consider DAT scores, grade point averages, interviews and letters of recommendation during the admission process.

Step 3: Earn a Dental Degree

Dental school generally lasts four years and results in a Doctor of Dental Surgery (DDS) or Doctor of Dental Medicine (DMD) degree. Programs may be accredited by the American Dental Association (ADA) Commission on Dental Accreditation (www.ada.org); some states require a degree from an approved program for state licensure. During the first two years of dental school, students focus on classroom and laboratory studies in health and dental science. Courses may include oral pathology, periodontics, dental anesthesia, orthodontics, radiology and pharmacology. The last two years of dental school emphasize clinical practice in which students diagnosis and treat patients under the supervision of dental instructors.

Step 4: Obtain Licensure

All dentists must obtain state licensure to practice. Requirements vary by state; however, all states require passage of the National Board Dental Examinations. This 2-part written exam covers dental sciences, ethics and clinical procedures. Additionally, all candidates must pass a practical examination administered or approved by their state's licensing board. States may also require prerequisites like first aid or CPR certification, a background check or an interview.

Step 5: Specialize

While dentists typically serve as general dentistry practitioners, some choose to specialize in one field of dentistry. Post-DMD or post-DDS education options are available to enable licensed dentists to practice in various specialties. Oral and maxillofacial pathology, orthodontics and dentofacial orthopedics, dental public health and pediatric dentistry are among the nine specialties recognized by the ADA's Council on Dental Education and Licensure. Becoming a specialist entails 2-4 years of additional education plus, in some cases, a residency of up to two years before earning a specialty state license.

Success Tip:

  • Take continuing education courses. While the ADA's online continuing education classes don't conclude with any kind of certification for licensed dentists, they can provide continuing education units. These courses focus on various aspects of running a dental practice, such as appointment control, as well as teaching dentists new procedures and techniques like air abrasion dentistry and crownless bridge work. Taking stand-alone continuing education courses may help dentists stay current with industry trends and expand their practices as professional dentists.
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