The 5 Steps to Becoming a Dentist

dentist examining patient's teeth

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Laura Berlinsky-Schine2.3k

Thinking of becoming a dentist? These health professionals work with patients to help them maintain their oral health and treat diseases related to the teeth, mouth and gums. They also educate their patients on how to keep good dental habits and advise them on oral healthcare in general. 

Many dentists find their work rewarding, although it is a demanding profession. If you’re considering pursuing a career in dentistry, read on for the steps you’ll need to take in order to become a licensed, practicing professional in the field, as well as answers to common questions.

Should I become a dentist?

There are many upsides to being a dentist: it’s a lucrative profession that’s always in demand, it gives you the opportunity to help people and often offers a solid work-life balance. If you have a passion for science and want to make a difference in people’s lives, it could be the path for you. 

At the same time, you should be aware of the challenges associated with dentistry. Your education will take a long time to complete, and it will be expensive. It can also be a demanding profession, both physically and psychologically, and you may be exposed to contagious infections and illnesses. Moreover, it’s a competitive field, both in terms of getting admitted to a dental school and attracting patients once you’re practicing.

Is it worth it? That depends on how committed you are and whether the pros outweigh the cons for you. It’s a good idea to research the profession and speaking to practicing dentists to learn more about what it’s really like to work in the field.

5 steps to becoming a dentist.

1. Earn a bachelor’s degree.

Most likely, you’ll need to earn your bachelor’s degree before starting dental school, although there are some combined BS/DDS programs. You don’t need to major in anything specific, but it’s a good idea to complete plenty of science and math courses, which are often prerequisites for dental school. Review the required coursework at various accredited dental schools while you still have time to complete it as an undergraduate.

2. Pass the Dental Admission Test.

The Dental Admission Test (DAT) is required for admission into dental schools in the United States. Admission is very competitive, so you’ll need to work hard to achieve a high score on the exam. Out of a possible 30, the average score is around 19, according to the American Dental Association (ADA). It’s a good idea to look up the average scores at schools to which you’re planning on applying to give you an idea of your target score. Keep in mind that this is a large component of your application.

3. Earn your doctorate.

Dental school lasts four years, with two years of classroom instruction and two years of supervised clinical practice, focusing on building skills you’ll need to work as a dentist. Make sure any school you consider is accredited by the ADA’s Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA). Note that if you elect to specialize, your education will likely take longer to complete. When you graduate, you’ll become a Doctor of Dental Surgery (DDS) or a Doctor of Dental Medicine (DMD). 

4. Get licensed.

Before you practice, you must pass the National Board Dental Examinations (NBDE), which cover topics such as dental science, biomedical science, patient care and management, ethics, clinical procedures, dental anatomy and others. You must complete a two-part written exam and a practical exam. States have varying requirements, so check with your state’s dental board to review everything you’ll need to do to get licensed. You may, for example, need to complete CPR certification in addition to passing the NBDE. Once you’re licensed, you’ll be able to practice dentistry in the state in which you’ve fulfilled these requirements.

5. Gain experience.

Before they open their own practices or work in a more advanced position, many dentists gain experience through an associateship or by completing a residency. In an associateship, you’ll work in a more experienced dentist’s practice. 

You may also choose to specialize, which may require postdoctoral education. Specialties recognized by the ADA include:

  • Dental anesthesiology
  • Dental public health
  • Endodontics
  • Oral and maxillofacial pathology
  • Oral and maxillofacial radiology
  • Oral and maxillofacial surgery
  • Orthodontics and dentofacial orthopedics
  • Pediatric dentistry
  • Periodontics
  • Prosthodontics

Required education, skills and certifications.

In addition to meeting the licensing and education requirements outlined above, dentists should have the following skills:

  • Communication
  • Integrity
  • Attention to detail
  • Management
  • Teamwork
  • Analytical
  • Good judgment
  • Interpersonal
  • Ability to work under pressure
  • Patience

How many years does it take to become a dentist?

Depending on how long it takes you to complete your bachelor’s degree, it usually takes around eight years in total to become a dentist (four years for your undergraduate degree and four years for dental school). 

What to study to become a dentist.

As discussed above, you don’t need to major in a particular subject for entry into dental school. There is no pre-dental major, just as there’s no pre-med major. However, most dental schools have specific coursework requirements. Most science majors will prepare you for dental school. While the requirements vary from school to school, the ADA notes that the general requirements include:

  • Eight hours of Biology with lab
  • Eight hours of Physics
  • Eight hours of English
  • Eight hours of General Chemistry with lab
  • Eight hours of Organic Chemistry with lab

Discuss your plans with your advisor, who can help make sure you’re on track. Your school may also have pre-dental or pre-health careers advisors who will work with you. Make sure to review the coursework requirements at different dental schools, too. You’ll need to have a high GPA — remember that admission to dental school is very competitive. 

Do you have to go to med school to be a dentist?

Dentists don’t need to go to medical school, but they do need to attend a dental school accredited by CODA. Medicine and dentistry are both respected professions but demand different qualities and skillsets, although there is some overlap in coursework during your education.

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