What Is the Best Degree Path to Becoming a Dentist?

Best Degree Path to Becoming a Dentist

Dentistry can be a rewarding profession, both in terms of earning potential and job satisfaction. You may already know that you want to be a dentist, but you may not know how to get there.

Undergraduate Options for Aspiring Dentists

Aspiring dentists may wonder how they can best use their undergraduate college education to prepare for a dental school program. Though competitive, most dental schools don’t require that students have a specific undergraduate degree as a prerequisite. The best way students can prepare themselves for dental school is by majoring in some field of science and taking courses such as:

  • biology
  • chemistry
  • anatomy
  • physiology
  • physics
  • mathematics

Such an option provides you with the educational backgrounds you will need to succeed in dental school. And it makes it obvious to dental school recruiters that have this academic background.

In addition to choosing the right course of study, it’s important to get good grades during your undergraduate careers. It may be helpful for you to spend time volunteering or shadowing an established professional. You must also take a standardized test called the Dental Acceptance Test (DAT) during your undergraduate education, usually as a junior, to be able to apply to medical school programs.

Dental School

In the United States, there are two degrees that can qualify graduates to become licensed dentists:

  • the Doctor of Dental Surgery (DDS) degree
  • the Doctor of Dental Medicine (DDM) degree

The American Dental Association recognizes more than 50 accredited dental programs in the nation, including both DDS programs and DDM programs. In fact, the curriculum is basically the same no matter which degree a school choose awards, according to the American Dental Association.

The United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS)   says students in both programs will study course material such as:

  • radiology
  • anatomy
  • the administration of local anesthesia
  • periodontology

Students in either type of program will also gain hands-on experience working with patients.

After completing dental school, you must obtain licensure in the state in which they intend to practice. You may also choose to specialize, which can require additional years of training and additional tests. Aspiring dentists should expect to continue learning throughout their career. They will learn about new technologies in the field of dental care and fulfill continuing education requirements.

During your path towards the career of dentistry, you will have several decisions to make. You can choose:

  • which science major to study as an undergraduate
  • whether to earn a DDS or DDM
  • whether you want to specialize

These options give you the freedom to make sure your education best prepares you to fulfill the specific career goals you have in mind.

Best Degree Path to Becoming a Dentist

Earnings Potential for Dentists

It’s no secret that dentists have a great earnings potential. According to the  BLS, the most recently published median annual wage for dentists was $164,010. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $80,000 per year. The highest 10 percent earned over $208,000.
Wages for dentists vary by dental specialty and industry. BLS reports that the top-paying specialties for dentists are as follows:

Tied for the top three are:

  • orthodontists
  • oral & maxillofacial surgeons
  • prosthodontists

These three specialties reported earnings of $208,000 or more. Dentists and all other specialists earned $183,300 on average, and general dentists earned $158,940. According to BLS, these wages vary by:

  • geographic location
  • the number of hours worked
  • specialty
  • the number of years in practice

Wages for dentists also vary across industries. BLS reports four of the top-paying industries for dentists as follows:

Government: $178,860
Dental offices: $165,830
Outpatient care: $155,040
Physician offices: $153,200

Dentists work varied schedules, depending on several factors. While some dentists work weekends, others structure their work-week to be Monday through Thursday. Those with three-day weekends often work 10- and 12-hour shifts during the week. While most dentists work around 40 hours per week, some work more.

Important Qualities for Aspiring Dentists

In addition to education and training, successful dentists have qualities that improve their skill and overall happiness. Not having one of these qualities doesn’t exclude you from dentistry, but having them helps improve your quality of life as a dentist. Below are various skills and characteristics of successful dentists.

When working on something as important and detail-sensitive as a patient’s tooth, it should come as no surprise that being detail-oriented helps. Dentists must pay careful attention to a tooth’s shape, color, and fit, often noting the minute space between the teeth. When fitting a patient’s tooth with a false one, close attention must be paid to the patient’s other teeth  to get a perfect match. Being detail-oriented helps.

Manual dexterity is critical to the job of a dentist. Dentists work with their hands using tools in tight, compact spaces. They must be good with their hands to ensure patient safety.

Effective communication skills
One of the key qualities for dentists is the ability to communicate with staff and patients. While working on a patient, the dentist must instruct and direct a dental assistant, dental hygienist, or another staff member. Having effective communication skills enables dentists to reduce the risk of errors.

Entrepreneurship and management skills
Many dentists launch their own practices following graduation from dental school. Having entrepreneurship and management skills can improve their likelihood of success.

Leadership skills
Leadership skills are important for dentists, especially those who have launched their own businesses. Dentists manage staff, mentor other dentists and hygienists, and oversee patient care in a medical and business setting. Having strong and effective leadership skills helps.

In any role serving the public, patience helps things run smoother. Dentists work for long stretches at a time, often seeing patients with special needs. Dentists who treat children must encourage them and help eliminate fear while performing dental work. Patience is one of the most important qualities a dentist can have.

Problem-solving skills
Not all dental cases are straightforward. There are times when dentists face challenges in evaluating a patient’s symptoms or performing an operation. Choosing appropriate treatments and executing remedies properly requires good problem-solving skills.

Best Degree Path to Becoming a Dentist

Job Outlook for Dentists

The job prospects for dentists in upcoming years continue to be favorable. According to the BLS, the overall employment of dentists is expected to grow three percent over the next eight years. The rate is almost as fast as the average for all occupations. It is stable and promising. Job prospects are especially good for dentists willing to work in underserved areas.

The demand for dental services corresponds with an aging population. As the population ages, the demand for dental services increases. As they grow older, members of the baby-boom population require dental work. So more services for dental care are needed in the years to come. As modern technology has improved, especially in dentistry, current generations are keeping their teeth longer than past generations have. As a result, there’s an increased demand for dental services. For example, increased services may include:

  • dental implants
  • bridge work
  • other complicated dental procedures

Also, as the risk for oral cancers increases with age, dental reconstruction and surgery is on the rise.

The American Dental Association (ADA) reports that the demand in dental services will also continue as dentists provide education and instruction on how to improve oral hygiene. Instead of focusing treatments exclusively on fillings and repair, preventive care that aims for  improving oral health will be needed.

Again, job prospects for dentists willing to provide services in underserved regions should be the most favorable. This means practicing in rural areas, small towns, and other communities with underserved populations. But, as more qualified students apply to dental school and get accepted, competition is fierce. Dental schools are seeing record numbers of graduates. This means more qualified individuals are available to fill job openings. As dentists retire, their roles will need to be filled. Competition is fierce, particularly in areas already flooded with dental services. Having special skills and strong entrepreneurial ambition can help with job prospects.

What Dentists Do

A typical day for a dentist involves diagnosing and treating problems with patient’s teeth and other parts of the mouth. Often, dentists also provide instruction and education on how to effectively care for teeth. Diet choices, flossing, and overall dental hygiene are all things that may be discussed with patients.

Dentists must be skilled in the use of dental tools and equipment. During dental school, students learn how to operate a variety of equipment, including:

  • brushes
  • drills
  • forceps
  • mirrors
  • probes
  • scalpels

Dentists also operate x-ray machines. They use:

  • digital scanners
  • lasers
  • other equipment and technologies

Beyond equipment training, dentists must know how to administer anesthetics to prevent patients from feeling pain during a procedure. They also prescribe medications, such as pain relievers and antibiotics. In dental school, students are trained to examine, diagnose, and treat damaged teeth and gums through repair and follow-up care.

Dentists, especially those in practice for themselves, oversee administrative tasks. The management of a dental practice’s daily tasks include:

  • bookkeeping
  • equipment & supply purchases
  • overseeing staff

Dentists often employ:

  • dental assistants
  • dental hygienists
  • lab technicians
  • receptionists

They must exhibit strong leadership and communication skills.

Most general practitioner dentists handle a variety of patient needs. A typical day may be filled with routine cleanings and cavity fillings. But there are also unusual cases. Emergency visits may present unique problems. Dentists should be prepared to expect the unexpected on a daily basis.

Best Degree Path to Becoming a Dentist

Work Environment of Dentists

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports 151,600 jobs held by dentists over the last two years. Employment has remained reliable and continues to steadily grow. The largest employers of dentists are dental offices. In fact, 74% of all practicing dentists work in dental offices. Self-employed dentists make up approximately 15% of all dentists in practice. About 3% work in government agencies and offices. Approximately 2% of employed dentists work in physician offices and another 2% work in outpatient care facilities.

Of the 151,600 occupations filled by dentists, nearly 132,000 are general dentists.

  • Orthodontists make up about 7,200 jobs
  • specialty dentists fill 6,200 positions
  • oral & maxillofacial surgeons make up 5,600 jobs

There are a limited number of prosthodontists. In fact, the number of dentists filling this position, according to the BLS, was 600.

Many dentists own their own practices and either work alone or employ a very small staff. Some dentists work alongside partners. It’s not uncommon for dental students to forge relationships in dental school that will lead to business partnerships.

The work environment of a dentist is mostly the same across employers and occupations. A general dentist and an orthodontist both work in offices. They wear protective gear like masks, gloves, and safety shields that prevent the spread of infectious diseases. Dentists typically work set schedules, though emergencies may call for weekend and evening patient visits. Depending on the occupation, schedules may vary. However, most dentists work 40 hours per week, on average.

Final Thoughts on the Best Degree Path to Becoming a Dentist

Adequate training and skills are needed to become a dentist. General dentists do not need specialty training after dental school. However, dentists who want to teach, conduct research, or pursue specialty programs should be prepared for additional schooling.

If you’re just starting out on the road to becoming a dentist, be prepared to work hard and keep your grade point average high. Admission to dental school is highly competitive and only the best students are accepted.

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BDP Staff:
April 2021

This concludes our article on the best way to become a dentist.

Brenda Rufener

Julie McCaulley

Carrie Sealey-Morris