How to become

How To Become A Dentist

How To Become A Dentist

Table of Contents,


Fascinated by teeth? Love helping people? Then a career in dentistry might be a good fit for you. Dentists play an important role in society, providing oral health care to patients of all ages. Teeth and gums are an important part of overall health. Dentists play a crucial role in maintaining oral hygiene, handling responsibilities like preventative cleanings and filling cavities. These professionals commit their careers to bettering their patients’ oral health. Students seeking dentistry careers can choose from several paths, including orthodontics and general dentistry. Dive into each dental field’s professional requirements and educational routes below. No matter which field of dentistry they choose, dentists ensure their patients’ quality dental health and contribute to their communities’ overall wellbeing. Dentistry provides a lucrative, lifelong career and is a rewarding way to provide service to others.

Experts in oral health, dentists serve an important role in the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of common dental conditions. Aspiring dentists can typically complete their education and training requirements in about eight years, but it can vary.

What does the process of becoming a dentist entail? How long does it take to become a dentist?

In this guide, we go over how to become a dentist, starting in high school and going all the way through dental school. Before that, though, let’s look at the job outlook of dentists and the basic requirements you must have to become one.

If you’re interested in becoming a dentist, it’s important that you have a rough idea of what to expect in terms of salary potential and employment growth. Here’s the latest data. Keep reading for a deep dive on how to become a dentist.

What Does a Dentist Do?

Dentists diagnose and treat ailments of the teeth, gums, and other parts of the mouth. They either specialize in a certain part of dentistry or practice general dentistry, which covers overall oral health.

Dentists work with patients of all ages, beginning with children as young as one year old. Those who specialize in a dental field might work with a specific age group or solve a dental problem. For example, prosthodontists focus on dentures, and therefore might work with older patients and endodontists specialize in root canals.

‘After earning their dental degree, dentists can choose to work in a private practice, public health, or international health.’

Dentists must earn their doctor of dental surgery (DDS) or doctor of dental medicine (DMD) degree from a program accredited by the Commission on Dental Accreditation. Specialists usually complete a two- to four-year residency program as the final step in their dentistry training.

After earning their dental degree, dentists can choose to work in a private practice, public health, or international health. They can choose their own schedule, where they work, and the patients they serve. The best dentists enjoy working with their hands and helping people. They need to be able to problem solve and learn quickly.

Personal Qualities You Need to Excel as a Dentist

Dentists say their profession requires strong spatial awareness and excellent hand-eye coordination, since it involves performing delicate procedures in confined spaces.

Dr. Inna Chern, a dentist based in New York City, says one sign that a person has what it takes to be a dentist is if he or she enjoys building or crafting. Those hobbies involve the type of artistry and dexterity that are necessary for dentistry, Chern explains.

Another indication that dentistry is a suitable profession for someone is if he or she is intrigued by scientific advancements that are improving preventative dental care, says Dr. Edward Coryell, vice president of clinical affairs at DentaQuest, a multistate network of dental health care centers.

One example of groundbreaking dental technology, Coryell says, is an innovative method of identifying and addressing cavities early, before the structure of a tooth has been compromised. “We can hopefully treat disease at the earliest stage without waiting until it is having a devastating effect on the patient,” he says.

Chern adds that dentists, like all health care professionals, need to be empathetic, compassionate and calm.

Dr. Marc Lazare, a general and cosmetic dentist in New York City, emphasizes that dentists need to be versatile. “With patients,” he wrote in an email, “you are not only their oral health care provider, but at times you are their therapist, health educator, and the quarterback who coordinates between other dental specialists and other medical providers.”

A dentist who runs his or her own practice is not only an owner and manager but also a “staff coordinator and peacemaker,” Lazare says. Such a dentist may also be responsible for marketing and promoting a dental practice, he says.

Dentistry requires strong people skills, Lazare adds. “The challenging part of working with teeth is that they come attached to people … and each person is different,” he says. “Each patient comes with his or her own past dental history, phobias, concerns, desires, physical limitations, health issues and neuroses.”

Key Soft Skills For A Dentists

  • Communication: Licensed dentists must master clear communication of dental diagnosis and treatment plans to their patients. This also helps establish a trusting relationship between doctor and patient.
  • Leadership: Dentists running their own practice must be good leaders. They should strive to build solid relationships with every employee at their practice. This ensures a healthy work environment.
  • Empathy: Dentists must try to understand the concerns and fears of their patients so they can address these issues in a compassionate manner and build patients’ trust.

Key Hard Skills For A Dentists

  • Manual Dexterity: Dentists work with their hands all day. They must possess excellent manual dexterity skills to ensure good performance and no accidental harm to patients.
  • Conducting Dental Assessments: A dentist should be able to look at a patient’s mouth and immediately recognize any problems. They need to be able to accurately diagnose and treat any ailments of the teeth or gums.
  • Interpreting X-rays and Diagnostic Tests: Dentists must look at an X-ray or diagnostic test and determine treatment options based on the results.

A Day in the Life of a Dentist

A dentist’s work day varies based on the subfield of dentistry they specialize in. Professionals in general dentistry can expect to fill cavities, repair damaged teeth, place sealants, prescribe medications, and apply anesthetics for dental procedures. Each of these tasks requires dentists to be proficient in an array of equipment, including forceps, scalpels, mouth mirrors, and drills.

Dentists who own their practice might also manage some administrative tasks like bookkeeping, hiring employees, and buying supplies and equipment for their office. Activities of a day in the life include:

  • Clean decay from teeth and fill cavities
  • Prescribe medications
  • Place sealants on teeth
  • Whiten teeth
  • Fix or remove damaged teeth
  • Make models for dentures
  • Teach patients about general oral hygiene

An Overview of a career in dentistry

Degree RequiredDoctoral
Education Field of StudyDental medicine, dental surgery
Key ResponsibilitiesFinding issues via x-rays, filling cavities, sealing and repairing teeth, creating molds for mouth guards, teaching patients how to care for their teeth and mouths
Licensure/CertificationLicensure required in all states; specialty certification available
Job Growth (2020-2030)8% (as fast as average)*
Median Salary (May 2020)$164,010*

Overview: Dentist Requirements

The following steps are necessary to meet dentist degree requirements and licensing standards:

  • Obtain 4-year bachelor’s degree, usually in a science-related field
  • Take Dental Admissions Test (DAT)
  • Apply to and enroll in dental school
  • Complete classroom study and clinical experience
  • Pass licensing exams
  • Optional: training and licensing in a specialized dentistry field

What Education is Needed to Become a Dentist?

Before applying to dental school, you’ll first need to complete an accredited, 4-year bachelor’s degree program. The curriculum generally includes both general education and major coursework. Once you make the decision to pursue dentist education, you likely will major in a science-related field to meet the coursework requirements for admittance to an approved dental school. Alternatively, some schools may offer a pre-dental curriculum. Your program of study may include such classes as biology, organic chemistry, physics, calculus, physiology and human genetics. You’ll take the Dental Admissions Test (DAT) after you’ve earned your bachelor’s degree to ensure you’re prepared for dental school training. Your dental school should be fully accredited by the American Dental Association’s (ADA) Commission on Dental Accreditation. Dental school usually lasts four years, and it leads to a Doctor of Dental Surgery (DDS) or Doctor of Dental Medicine (DMD) degree. A DDS and a DMD are equivalent and meet the same curriculum requirements, according to the ADA (

Is an Internship Required to Become a Dentist?

The first two years of your dental school program will be dedicated to classroom study and laboratory projects. In the final two years of the program, you’ll gain clinical experience under the supervision of practicing dentists. You might participate in classes such as operative dentistry, gross anatomy, oral medicine and histology.

What Do You Have to Study to Be a Dentist?

One of the things you need to become a dentist is a college degree. While dentistry is not a major at the undergraduate level, there are many pre-dental bachelor’s degree programs available. These programs can usually result in a Bachelor of Science (BS) or Bachelor of Arts (BA) degree. Often, these degrees are in areas like biology with a pre-dentistry concentration or focus. Aspiring dentists are not required to have a specific major, but usually a major in science is most beneficial as they are likely to include courses in chemistry and biology.

Dentist DDS or DMD?

While researching what you need to become a dentist, you might have felt overwhelmed by all the different program options. There are many different colleges for dentistry degree programs at the doctoral level. The type of degree, DDS or DMD, depends on the institution, but these degrees are equivalent.

These programs require applicants to take the Dental Admission Test (DAT), complete an interview process, and meet other admission requirements before being accepted into dental school. Once accepted, these programs typically take 4 years to complete and include extensive clinical experience. Students in DDS or DMD programs are likely to study topics in:

  • Ethics
  • Diagnosis
  • Oral anatomy
  • Management of dental practice
  • Pediatric dentistry
  • Treatment planning
  • Oral surgery

Education levels for dentists

College students who wish to become a dentist have several years of schooling ahead. The majority of dental school programs require four additional years of education after completing a bachelor’s degree, plus students must pass additional requirements before earning a license in dentistry. Here are the steps you can expect to take while earning your degree:

  1. Earn a bachelor’s degree
  2. Take the Dental Admission Test (DAT)
  3. Earn a dental degree
  4. Become licensed
  5. Choose a specialization
  6. Apply for positions

1. Earn a bachelor’s degree

Dental schools require applicants to hold a bachelor’s degree. Your bachelor’s degree does not have to be in a dental-related field. Courses in chemistry, physics and biology can be helpful when applying for dental school so it helps to do some research before applying. This way you’ll know which prerequisites you need to take. Some students wish to join a dental mentoring program such as SMDEP or Summer Medical and Dental Education Program. Students can also participate in dental school preparatory programs.

2. Take the Dental Admission Test (DAT)

The DAT is required of students prior to attending dental school. Dental schools will look at your score on this exam along with your grade point average and any recommendation letters you might have. You’ll want to maintain a GPA of at least 3.2 to increase your chances of getting accepted into a competitive dental program.

3. Earn a dental degree

After four years in dental school, you can earn either a Doctorate of Dental Surgery (DDS) or a Doctorate of Dental Medicine (DMD). They both involve the same level of schooling and a similar curriculum. Students typically work in a classroom for the first two years of dental school. The last two years focus on working in a clinical setting.

4. Become licensed

Dentists are required to hold a valid license to practice dentistry. Passing the National Board Dental Examinations is required to earn your license and is a two-part test that will cover dental science, ethics and clinical procedures. In addition, candidates must pass a practical exam approved by their state’s licensing board. Some states have different licensing requirements, including certification in CPR and first aid. They might also conduct a background check and an interview.

5. Choose a specialization

There are several specializations beyond a general dentistry license. Some of these include oral surgery, orthodontics, pediatric dentistry, endodontics, dento-maxillofacial radiology and many others. Your specialty will depend on the area that seems most appealing to you. Receiving further education in these specialized fields requires two to four years of additional schooling and sometimes a residency of up to two years.

6. Completion of state exam

All dentists must be licensed in the state in which they want to practice. This requires the successful completion of the National Board Dental Exam. The National Board Exam for dentists consists of a two-part written exam with 500 questions. Dental students who have completed additional training in a dental specialization will also need to complete a board exam in that specialization.

7. Apply for positions

You can start your own practice at this point or you can search for open positions in clinics and hospitals. You do not have to limit where to search because dentists are needed worldwide.

Dental specializations

Additionally, dentists may choose to specialize in a certain area of dentistry. The American Dental Association recognizes 12 specialties, which have been approved and adopted by the National Commission on Recognition of Dental Specialties and Certifying Boards. Here are nine of the 12:

1. Endodontics

An endodontist treats tooth conditions that extend to the root of the tooth. They evaluate, diagnose and treat diseases and injuries to the interior part of the teeth.

With a focus on the tooth specifically, endodontists are concerned with the soft tissues and nerves living within the tooth. One of the most common procedures performed by an endodontist is the root canal, and patients are typically referred to them by their general dentist. The main goal of these professionals is to avoid extraction of a tooth if there is a way it can be saved. In addition to oral surgeries, endodontists also provide teeth whitening and bleaching services. After graduating from dental school, aspiring endodontists must complete two to three more years of training and must pass the American Board of Endodontology examination to be licensed.

2. General dentistry

A general dentist typically works in a dental office in a public health environment. They complete checkups and educate patients on proper dental care practices but they may also sometimes perform surgeries.These professionals serve as the backbone of the dentistry profession and the first port of call for any oral health issues. A general dentist’s day-to-day work involves examining patients and diagnosing or treating problems surrounding teeth and gums. Common procedures they perform include repairing cavities, fitting caps and treating diseases related to nerve or pulp issues. This career concentration is perfect for the future dentist who may feel limited by performing similar tasks each and every day.

3. Orthodontics

An orthodontist focuses on the alignment of the teeth. Orthodontists often work with children, teens and young adults in diagnosing and treating misaligned teeth. Orthodontists are tasked with correcting misaligned teeth and jaws for their patients. These issues can affect a wide range of daily activities in their patients’ lives and lead to problems with chewing, speech and articulation, and appearance. These professionals may correct anteroposterior deviations – also known as underbites and overbites – or realign teeth that have been overcrowded by lack of jawbone space. Whether fitting braces or realigning jaws, lips, and teeth to correct malocclusions, these professionals must be well versed in the nuances of orthodontic care.

4. Oral and maxillofacial pathology

Oral and maxillofacial pathologists are primarily focused on the diagnosis and treatment of oral diseases. They may work with dental patients with frequent cavities, periodontal disease, dental trauma or cleft lips.

5. Pediatric dentistry

A pediatric dentist specializes in the education and treatment of dental conditions affecting younger patients. Children and teens have unique dental concerns, as they are still growing and developing.

6. Oral and maxillofacial radiology

An oral and maxillofacial radiologist focuses primarily on the evaluation and interpretation of diagnostic images. Oral radiologists will often assist other dental professionals when evaluating the results of X-rays.

7. Oral and maxillofacial surgery

An oral surgeon focuses primarily on the surgical side of dentistry. They may conduct surgery to repair damaged tissue or to correct misalignments with the jaw. Oral and maxillofacial surgeons are most commonly associated with the extraction of wisdom teeth, but these medical professionals are also responsible for performing many other advanced dental procedures. In addition to removing impacted or compromised teeth, oral and maxillofacial surgeons are tasked with ensuring the health of other components of the mouth. This may include regenerating deficient bones; treating infections in salivary glands, jawbones, and the neck; diagnosing and developing treatment plans for ulcers; removing tumors and abnormal growths in the oral cavity; correcting cleft palates; and using tissues from other parts of a patient’s body to perform reconstructive surgery on the face or jaw.

8. Periodontry

A periodontist focuses primarily on periodontal disease. They use diagnostic tools to determine the extent of periodontal disease and develop a treatment plan to address it.

9. Prosthodontics

A prosthodontist creates crowns and dental implants and focuses on improving the overall cosmetics of the teeth. Unlike orthodontists who work with existing jawbones and teeth to correct structural issues, prosthodontists specialize in the use of prosthetics to replace missing teeth or correct deformities. Some of the procedures done by prosthodontists include dental implants, dentures, crowns, bridges and temporomandibular corrections. Aside from issues requiring surgery, these dental professionals may also be called upon to handle cosmetic procedures. In addition to dental school, prosthodontists must also complete three years of advanced training in a graduate-level prosthodontic program.

Dental students may also choose to specialize in dental anesthesiology, oral medicine or orofacial pain. Dental specializations can offer aspiring dentists even more career opportunities but additional education and training are required. Dental students who want to specialize in one of the 12 approved ADA specializations will need to enroll in a dental program that offers the additional required training.

Components Of A Successful Dentist Career: Skills, Credentials, Tools & Technology

Although education plays a critical role in the abilities and successes of dentists, many other components combine to form a prosperous career. The following section highlights some of the top skills and credentials top dentists hold and takes a look at common tools and technologies they use.


Problem Solving

Dentists must be able to identify the issue affecting their patient before formulating an effective treatment plan. Because young children and older patients may not be able to withstand certain types of treatments, dentists must find the right solution to fit their needs.


Dental procedures can cause fear and anxiety in many patients, and the best dentist will be alert to these feelings and show compassion before, during, and after a procedure.

Time Management

Dentists must balance their time while also ensuring each procedure is done safely and according to set protocols.


In addition to working with their patients, dentists are also tasked with overseeing other members of the dental office, including dental assistants, dental hygienists, and front office staff.

Tools and Technologies

  • Dental matrix bands
  • Dycal instruments
  • Chemical sterilizers
  • Composite placement instruments
  • Dental bite blockers
  • Dental drills and bits
  • Impression trays
  • Laboratory devices


Licensure requirements are mandated at the state level and individual components vary by region; however, all states have three basic requirements:


To be eligible for licensure, students must graduate from a program accredited by the American Dental Association’s Commission on Dental Accreditation. As of 2016, there are 66 accredited programs throughout the United States.

Written Examination

Licensing boards use the National Board Dental Examination for the written component. The exam, which consists of two parts, is overseen by the Joint Commission on National Dental Examinations.

Clinical Examination

All 50 states except Delaware outsource the clinical exam component to a regional testing agency. Depending on where a licensee lives, they must contact one of these assessment boards:

  • Central Regional Dental Testing Service
  • Commission on Dental Competency Assessments
  • Council of Interstate Testing Agencies
  • Southern Regional Testing Agency
  • Western Regional Examining Board

Dentist Salaries & Job Growth

Dentist Job Growth

Much like other medical fields, roles for dentists are expected to expand significantly between 2014 and 2024: current projections show an 18 percent growth, or the addition of 26,700 jobs. While these figures represent the country as a whole, some states may be set for greater or lesser growth. Examine each state’s job outlook for dentists as well as the number of openings expected.

Dental School Courses & Requirements

Upon passing the application stage, admitted students are accepted to either a doctor of dental surgery or doctor of dental medicine program. These terminal doctorates both qualify a graduate for licensures, and the content in each is the same. The name differences are more a matter of semantics rather than differing curriculum.

Students dedicated to full-time study are typically able to complete their program in four years, during which time they sit in on lectures and seminars while gaining hands-on training in clinical rotations and laboratory sessions. The first two years of study are foundational in nature and expose students to an array of topics that inform the field. The final two years, conversely, heavily involve clinically-based courses; didactic learning continues alongside.

Some of the courses most commonly found at dental school include:

Microbiology & Oral Health Promotion

Teaches students how to effectively communicate with and provide culturally competent care to a spectrum of patients. In addition to lectures covering dental public health and health communication, students dig into demographic topics such as special needs and medically compromised patients.

Skills Gained

  • Providing care to a range of patients
  • Being socially and culturally aware of individual needs
  • Learning how to address dental public health

Dental Development and Anatomy

Introduces students to common frameworks used within the dental profession, including numbering and classification systems. This course provides a mix of lectures and laboratory time and underpins theoretical knowledge with real-world application. It is typically taken in the first year of study.

Skills Gained

  • Understanding traits of different teeth within the classification system
  • Developing an awareness of primary vs. permanent dentition
  • Recognizing the differences of maxillary vs. mandibular arches

Oral Health and Nutrition

Provides an understanding of how nutrition affects tooth and gum health while teaching dentists-in-training how to employ behavioral management techniques with their patients. Many case studies are used to help students develop their skills in working with varied populations and demographics.

Skills Gained

  • Overcoming barriers to care with different types of patients
  • Teaching patients how to properly care for their teeth and gums
  • Delivering the best oral health care to patients regardless of their circumstances

Anesthesia and Pain Management

Incorporates both classroom instruction and clinical rotations to provide future dentists with a thorough understanding of how to manage dental pain associated with procedures. Many courses allow students to observe licensed dentists administering anesthesia and offer the first opportunity for students to administer local anesthesia.

Skills Gained

  • Understanding how anesthesia blocks nerve impulses
  • Learning how to safely administer anesthesia
  • Identifying the correct amount of anesthesia to use for different types of patients and procedures

Oral Surgery

Offered as a bundle class incorporating both lectures and clinical rotations on oral and maxillofacial surgeries, this block exposes students to the foundational skills behind more complicated procedures. These classes also provide students with their first opportunity to perform exodontia and pre-prosthetic procedures under the watchful eyes of professors. This course is typically taken in the third year.

Skills Gained

  • Awareness of implant selection and surgery
  • Understanding how post-surgical care is implemented
  • Ability to diagnose and treat conditions requiring oral and maxillofacial surgeries

Frequently asked questions about dentists

Here are some of the most frequently asked questions and answers that should help you pursue a career as a dentist with confidence:

  1. What skills should I have if I want to become a dentist?
  2. What is the demand for dentists?
  3. Is there a potential for growth if I am a dentist?
  4. Do I have to have a degree to become a dentist?
  5. Do I have to have any other certifications?
  6. Do I have to work for someone or can I have my own dental practice?
  7. Is there any danger of contracting a disease in the dental field?
  8. What skills should I have if I want to become a dentist?

You should enjoy working with the public. You should have strong communication skills as well as meticulous attention to detail. You will be using small and very sharp instruments to perform dental procedures so you should have very steady hands. You should also be able to teach since you will be educating your patients on proper dental healthcare. You should be a strong team player, since you will be working with a staff of others to help you perform dental procedures.

  1. What is the demand for dentists?

Dentistry is a fast-growing occupation. Dentists are needed in every town, village and city worldwide, no matter what income level. Dentists will always be needed as long as people have teeth. There can also be several dentists in one city, so the position can never be completely full.

  1. Is there a potential for growth if I am a dentist?

There is potential for advancement in the dental field. This typically involves moving to a higher paying location or having your own dental practice. You can also move to a different field of dentistry if you are not happy with one field.

  1. Do I have to have a degree to become a dentist?

Yes, to enter dental school, you must have at least a bachelor’s degree. After four years in dental school, you will receive a doctorate degree.

  1. Do I have to have any other certifications?

No, but you do have to hold a valid license to practice dentistry in your state.

  1. Do I have to work for someone or can I have my own dental practice?

There are so many options when it comes to employment options for a dentist. You can work for a hospital or clinical setting or even start your own dental practice. Clinics can offer valuable experience if your goal is to one day start your own practice. They can give you a glimpse at the type of patients you will have in your area, along with your community’s dental needs. You will also have colleagues who work with you so you can seek advice from them when needed. You will also learn to work with a team.

  1. Is there any danger of contracting a disease in the dental field?

With proper sanitary items such as gloves and hand washing, other diseases can be prevented or the chances of catching them can be greatly reduced. The use of masks can also prevent dentists from contracting any airborne viruses. Dental tools are also disposable or sterilized after every use, so this also helps prevent the spread of disease. Dentists also use many preventative items such as disposable gowns, gloves and disposable head covers to prevent blood from getting on them.