Education Needed To Become a Dentist
Dentists are licensed professionals who provide oral health care and preventative treatment to patients. Becoming a dentist begins with completion of a science-related undergraduate degree program. Aspiring dentists then attend dental school to earn a Doctor of Dental Surgery (DDS) or Doctor of Dental Medicine (DMD). Graduates of dental programs are required to earn state licensure to practice in the profession.
Step 1: Earn a Bachelor's Degree
No formal undergraduate major is required for students pursuing dental school; however, many dental schools require that applicants complete science courses, such as chemistry, physics, mathematics and biology. For this reason, a bachelor's degree in either biology or chemistry provides sufficient preparation for continued study in a dental program.
Some colleges and universities offer pre-dental preparation programs through their biology departments. Pre-dental programs are designed to fulfill the course requirements set by dental school admissions departments. Coursework covers topics like organic chemistry, microbiology and genetics. Students may also begin preparing to take the Dental Admissions Test (DAT) - passage of which is required for admission.
Step 2: Complete a Dental Degree Program
Dental school programs generally begin with instruction in the biomedical and dental sciences, covering a range of concepts from cell walls to wisdom teeth. Many of the first- and second-year dental science courses have corresponding laboratories. In these labs, students demonstrate their knowledge of dental topics while building skills in areas such as imaging and fixed partial dentures.
Step 3: Become Licensed
In all states, dentists are required to hold licensure to practice. Individual state boards regulate dental licensing. After completing accredited dental programs, dentists generally obtain licensure by passing a written and clinical exam. The National Board Dental Examinations is typically used to fulfill the written exam requirement, while the licensing board administers the clinical exam.
Step 4: Find a Job or Start a Practice
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), a majority of dentists work in private practices or form partnerships with other dentists, while a minority are employed by physicians or hospitals. Most dentists start up their own practices directly after dental school or buy a practice from another dentist. Dentists may also start out as employees of other, more experienced dentists for 1-2 years before starting their own practices. Employment opportunities for dentists are expected to increase by 16% from 2008-2018, according to the BLS. Many positions will open due to retirees or elderly dentists who choose to work less.
Step 5: Maintain Licensure Through Continued Education
State dental boards require dentists to complete a specified number of continuing education credits or hours to maintain licensure. Some licensing boards require a minimum number of these credits to focus on a specific subject, such as life support or pain management. Depending on the state, dentists may be allowed to earn a limited number of credits through online courses. States may also allow dentists to earn credits by attending state approved events like seminars and conferences.