The practice of dentistry affords you the opportunity to have a very real impact on patient's health, both physical and psychological, on a daily basis. A healthy mouth is not only the key to good health, it is an essential part of a positive self-image. Being a dentist also provides great opportunities for self-employment and the benefits and rewards that accompany independence.
While a career in dentistry can be financially rewarding, many practicing dentists will say their greatest reward is the healthy smiles and improved lives of their patients. A healthy mouth and teeth are the foundation of good overall health because teeth play an essential role in processing food for digestion. A healthy set of teeth also goes a long way to ensuring proper nutrition is achieved.
The process of becoming a dentist is a lengthy one, and it likely begins with a bachelor's degree. As with other medical and health professions, there are no undergraduate course requirements. Still, many students interested in attending dental school choose to major in something like applied science, biology or chemistry. While basic bio and chem are requisites for dental school admission, the predominant consideration is the applicant's DAT score.
The dental profession is not a monolith but rather one that includes an array of specialties, such as endodontics and periodontics, where the focus is on the gums and supporting structures of the teeth. Other specialties are oral and maxillofacial surgery, pathology and radiology. Orthodontics and dentofacial orthopedists are responsible for the diagnosis and correction of dental malformations. Another important area of specialization is pediatric dentistry, where you have the opportunity to work with children, correcting problems and building healthy smiles that last a lifetime.
While there are no associate degree programs for dentistry, there are programs for fields like dental hygienist and dental assistant, which can provide for employment while a bachelor's degree is obtained.
Completing a bachelor's degree is the first milestone in a future dentist's education. While you cannot become a dentist with just a bachelor's, strong undergraduate performance along with a solid score on the DAT (Dental Admission Test) is the way to dental school. While there is no such thing as a pre-dental major, many schools do offer pre-dental programs that help students select a mix of classes that will aid them in applying for dental school.
Schools offering a master's in dental science usually do so in conjunction with their doctoral program. This is for the benefit of dental students interested in pursuing a career in dental research.
Doctoral – Dental School
Dental school is a specialized 4 year program that begins with the foundational science necessary for the practice of dentistry. After the foundational science coursework is complete, dental students receive extensive training in the skills and methodology of modern dentistry. Upon completion of dental school, students are granted the degree of D.D.S., a Doctor of Dental Science and the right to be called a doctor.
A Ph.D. in dentistry is often pursued by those seeking to pursue a career path in dental research. Some dental schools offer a combined DDS and Ph.D. program and others offer a separate Ph.D. program for graduates wishing to complete this additional degree at a later date. Space in joint DDS/PhD programs is generally very limited and highly competitive.
Ideal Candidates for Dentistry
The first consideration before embarking on plan to become a dentist should be an honest self-evaluation of your willingness to dedicate the full eight years of education and training required to emerge a dentist. Being a successful dentist involves more than just technical skills and specialized medical knowledge; it requires having a personality that is well suited to working with people. A practicing dentist works closely with people from all walks of life and often under very stressful circumstances for the patient. This requires dentists to be able to offer empathy to patients while maintaining a professional persona.
The current projections from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) for dentists are all positive, with higher than average growth expected over the next ten years. The need for dentists is expected to increase at a rate of about 16% through the year 2022. The rise in demand for dentists will largely be due to an aging baby boomer generation that will have an increased need for dental services. Another factor in the increased demand for dentists is improved access to dentists, resulting in more people keeping their teeth longer and therefore requiring dental care.
The median wage for dentists in 2012 (the last year surveyed by BLS) was $149,310, with the top 10% of dentists earning $187,200 for specialties such as oral and maxillofacial surgeons. The bottom 10% of dentist wages was $73,840. Earnings are tied to several factors, including years of experience, years in practice, specialty and location, with dentists in cities like New York earning more.
For those who are interested in learning more about becoming a dentist and the demands of the profession contact one of the professional organizations for dentists and request more information. Another alternative is to strike up a conversation with your dentist as part of your next visit. Finally consider a dental internship or shadowing program offered by many colleges and universities.