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How to Become a Dentist

We are all familiar with the long road to becoming a doctor, but what does it take to become a dentist? The road is similar, with several degree programs and many years of education required. But what else should you consider when thinking about becoming a dentist?

Below is a guide to a career in dentistry, from what dentists do, the skills they need, and the steps you need to take to enter the field. 

What Is a Dentist?

The most basic definition of a dentist is a surgeon who specializes in the treatment of diseases related to teeth and the human mouth. That’s it. Of course, the specifics are much more complicated and nuanced.

What Does a Dentist Do?

A dentist is a healthcare professional who specializes in oral health. They diagnose, treat, and prevent decay, disease, and tooth loss. Some dentists also help patients correct functional issues with their teeth through orthodontic treatment.

Assess Oral Health

When you go to the dentist for a regular check-up, you usually only see the dentist for a few minutes after your cleaning. Their main job is to provide dental care by checking your teeth and assessing your overall oral health. If they find any areas of concern, they’ll decide if you need any further treatment.

Treat Patients

If a patient needs treatment because of decay, like cavities, the dentist is the one who will perform the dental surgery. Besides fillings, dentists also perform more complex surgeries, like root canals and gingivitis treatments. 

Provide Preventative Advice

Dentists are the first to remind you to floss every day. Annoying as it may be, dentists give this advice because it’s essential to helping you maintain good oral health. In addition to checking your teeth, diagnosing issues, and treating those issues, dentists are also responsible for giving patients advice on how to maintain and improve their oral health. 

Essential Dentist Skills

Academic Tenacity

Becoming a dentist requires many key skills. First, earning your degree in dental medicine takes many years, so dentists need to have persistence and tenacity in the classroom. After earning a bachelor’s degree, students must take the Dental Admission Test, apply to dental school, and complete dental school, a process that can take many years.

Patience and a Steady Hand

Because dentists are essentially dental surgeons, they must have patience and a steady hand. You wouldn’t want someone to rush through your filling treatment or to waver when prodding sharp, metal instruments into your mouth.

Strong Social and Communication Skills

Dentists have to interact with many patients every day and they have to perform dental checks and treatments that are often uncomfortable. It’s best for all involved if the patient feels relaxed and comfortable with the dentist and it is the dentist’s job to make that happen. With a calm, friendly demeanor and strong communication skills for their patients, dentists can do their best work. 

Dentist Salaries and Job Outlook

Dentistry is a high-paying profession. The median annual salary for a general dentist is $159,200. A dental specialty, like oral surgery, leads to even higher earning potential.

Aspiring dentists can rest assured that their many years of hard work will pay off. As doctors of dental medicine, dentists are some of the highest-paying professionals out there. 

Open positions for dentists are predicted to grow seven percent by 2028. This is because dentistry is a social service, which is something that will always be in demand. 

Dentists can join local, private practices or they can join larger dental offices, like those affiliated with hospital systems, dental schools, or research universities. 

Dentists are in high demand in rural areas where access to public health, especially dental public health, is less available. Dental students may even participate in programs where they commit to several years of service in a rural area in exchange for tuition benefits. 

How Long Does it Take to Become a Dentist?

According to the American Dental Association, the road to becoming a dentist is a long and rewarding journey. All told, it takes about eight years of college. 

Students typically earn a bachelor’s degree, which takes four years of full-time study. Then students must complete dental school to get their doctorate in dentistry, which takes another four years of full-time study. 

About 35 to 40 percent of graduating dental students go into a dental residency after completing medical school. Though residencies are not required, they are the pathways into certain specialties. Most residency programs take two to three years to complete.  

How to Become a Dentist: A Step by Step Guide

Because it is a long process, it’s best to break down the journey to becoming a dentist into a few concrete steps. Check out our step-by-step guide below.

Step 1: Get a Bachelor’s Degree and Meet Prerequisites

Students can pursue any field of study at the undergraduate level before applying to dental school. Students who major in a hard science like biology or chemistry will take many of the classes required as prerequisites for dental schools. Those that major in a different field will need to take those courses so that they are ready to apply to dental school. 

Technically, a bachelor’s degree is not required for admission to dental school but the majority of programs require it. If they don’t, they only consider admitting students in their third year of undergrad. 

Step 2: Take the Dental Admission Test

The DAT, the Dental Admission Test, is the dental equivalence of the medical exam known as the MCAT. All applicants must take this exam to be considered for admission into any dental program. The DAT is a standardized test that all aspiring dentists must take if they want to go to dental school in the United States.

Students must take the exam at least one full year before they plan on attending dental school. This is because of the lengthy application timeline and deadlines, requiring students to submit DAT test results with dental school applications. 

Step 3: Apply to Dental School and Earn a Dental Degree

You can apply to earn your dental degree straight out of your undergraduate studies. There are many different dental schools to choose from, though it’s important to consider that admission is very competitive. Each program will have different admission requirements and application materials, and most will require an interview as part of the process. Then, attend a dental school to earn your Doctor of Dental Surgery (DDS) and consider earning a specialization in fields like pediatric dentistry.

Step 4: Pass Your Dental Boards and Get Your Licensure

To get your state licensure, all states require dental school graduates to take and pass the National Board Dental Examinations. Some states also require practical exams to assess the student’s social skills and patient relations. Finally, some states also require additional certifications like CPR. 

Should You Become a Dentist?

Dentistry is a solid, well-paying, and stable field. Pursuing a career in healthcare makes sense because it is a social services field that isn’t going anywhere. 

Within the healthcare world, dentistry is a well-respected specialty. If you want to become an absolute expert in all things dental hygiene and health, this is the field for you.


Is it hard to get into dental school?
Dental school is one of the most competitive forms of higher education in the US. Students compete against each other for a limited number of spots in dental school programs. It is not, however, nearly as competitive or limited as medical school.
What kind of education do I need to be a dentist?
To become a dentist, you need either a Doctor of Dental Surgery (DDS) or a Doctor of Medical Dentistry (DMD) degree. Confusingly, they are the same degree. Some dental schools offer DDS degrees and others offer DMD degrees. To be eligible for dental school, students usually need to hold a bachelor’s degree including certain prerequisite courses including biology, chemistry, physics, and English.
How can I become a dentist without a degree?
Technically, some dental schools will consider applicants for admission if they are in their third year of undergraduate study. Sometimes, they may be able to skip their fourth year and go straight into dental school. This is a very competitive path and is not as common. The majority of students in dental school hold bachelor’s degrees.
How much money can I make as a dentist?
A career in dentistry is highly lucrative. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the mean annual salary for a general dentist is over $159,000. Dentists who are specialized in fields like dental surgery position themselves to make even higher salaries. It is an excellent career choice if you are willing to do what it takes.
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