Dentists diagnose, prevent, and treat problems with teeth or mouth tissue. They remove decay, fill cavities, examine x rays, place protective plastic sealants on children’s teeth, straighten teeth, and repair fractured teeth. They also perform corrective surgery on gums and supporting bones to treat gum diseases. Dentists extract teeth and make models and measurements for dentures to replace missing teeth. They provide instruction on diet, brushing, flossing, the use of fluorides, and other aspects of dental care. They also administer anesthetics and write prescriptions for antibiotics and other medications.
Dentists use a variety of equipment, including x-ray machines, drills, and instruments such as mouth mirrors, probes, forceps, brushes, and scalpels. They wear masks, gloves, and safety glasses to protect themselves and their patients from infectious diseases.
Most dentists are general practitioners, handling a variety of dental needs. Other dentists practice in any of nine specialty areas. Orthodontists, the largest group of specialists, straighten teeth by applying pressure to the teeth with braces or retainers. The next largest group, oral and maxillofacial surgeons, operates on the mouth and jaws. The remainder may specialize as pediatric dentists (focusing on dentistry for children); periodontists (treating gums and bone supporting the teeth); prosthodontists (replacing missing teeth with permanent fixtures, such as crowns and bridges, or removable fixtures, such as dentures); endodontists (performing root canal therapy); public-health dentists (promoting good dental health and preventing dental diseases within the community); oral pathologists (studying oral diseases); or oral and maxillofacial radiologists (diagnosing diseases in the head and neck through the use of imaging technologies).
Most dentists work 4 or 5 days a week. Some work evenings and weekends to meet their patients’ needs. Most full-time dentists work between 35 and 40 hours a week, but others work more. Initially, dentists may work more hours as they establish their practice. Experienced dentists often work fewer hours. A considerable number continue in part-time practice well beyond the usual retirement age.
Most dentists are solo practitioners, meaning that they own their own businesses and work alone or with a small staff. Some dentists have partners, and a few work for other dentists as associate dentists.
Dentists held about 153,000 jobs in 2002. About 2 in 5 dentists were self-employed. Almost all dentists work in private practice. According to the American Dental Association (ADA), about 80 percent of dentists in private practice are sole proprietors, and 13 percent belong to a partnership. A small number of salaried dentists work in hospitals and offices of physicians.
All 50 States and the District of Columbia require dentists to be licensed. To qualify for a license in most States, a candidate must graduate from one of the 55 dental schools accredited by the ADA’s Commission on Dental Accreditation in 2002 and also must pass written and practical examinations. Candidates may fulfill the written part of the State licensing requirements by passing the National Board Dental Examinations. Individual States or regional testing agencies administer the written or practical examinations.
Dental schools require a minimum of 2 years of college-level predental education, regardless of the major chosen. However, most dental students have at least a bachelor’s degree. Predental education emphasizes course work in science, and many applicants to dental school major in a science such as biology or chemistry, while other applicants major in another subject and take many science courses as well. A small number of applicants are accepted to dental school after 2 or 3 years of college and complete their bachelor’s degree while attending dental school.
All dental schools require applicants to take the Dental Admissions Test (DAT). When selecting students, schools consider scores earned on the DAT, applicants’ grade point averages, and information gathered through recommendations and interviews. Competition for admission to dental school is keen.
Dental school usually lasts 4 academic years. Studies begin with classroom instruction and laboratory work in basic sciences, including anatomy, microbiology, biochemistry, and physiology. Beginning courses in clinical sciences, including laboratory techniques, also are provided at this time. During the last 2 years, students treat patients, usually in dental clinics, under the supervision of licensed dentists.
Most dental schools award the degree of Doctor of Dental Surgery (DDS). The rest award an equivalent degree, Doctor of Dental Medicine (DMD).
Currently, about 17 States license or certify dentists who intend to practice in a specialty area. Requirements include 2 to 4 years of postgraduate education and, in some cases, the completion of a special State examination. Most State licenses permit dentists to engage in both general and specialized practice. Dentists who want to teach or conduct research usually spend an additional 2 to 5 years in advanced dental training, in programs operated by dental schools or hospitals.
Dentistry requires diagnostic ability and manual skills. Dentists should have good visual memory, excellent judgment regarding space and shape, a high degree of manual dexterity, and scientific ability. Good business sense, self-discipline, and good communication skills are helpful for success in private practice. High school and college students who want to become dentists should take courses in biology, chemistry, physics, health, and mathematics.
Some dental school graduates work for established dentists as associates for a year or two in order to gain experience and save money to equip an office of their own. Most dental school graduates, however, purchase an established practice or open a new one immediately after graduation. According to the ADA, each year about 12 percent of new graduates enroll in postgraduate training programs to prepare for a dental specialty.
Employment of dentists is expected to grow more slowly than the average for all occupations through 2012. Although employment growth will provide some job opportunities, most jobs will result from the need to replace the large number of dentists projected to retire. Job prospects should be good as new dentists take over established practices or start their own.
Demand for dental care should grow substantially through 2012. As members of the baby-boom generation advance into middle age, a large number will need maintenance on complicated dental work, such as bridges. In addition, elderly people are more likely to retain their teeth than were their predecessors, so they will require much more care than in the past. The younger generation will continue to need preventive checkups despite treatments such as fluoridation of the water supply, which decreases the incidence of tooth decay. However, employment of dentists is not expected to grow as rapidly as the demand for dental services, because, as their practices expand, dentists are likely to hire more dental hygienists and dental assistants to handle routine services.
Dental care will focus more on prevention, including teaching people how to take better care of their teeth. Dentists will increasingly provide care that is aimed at preventing the loss of teethrather than simply providing treatments, such as fillings. Improvements in dental technology also will allow dentists to offer more effective and less painful treatment to their patients.
Median annual earnings of salaried dentists were $123,210 in 2002. Earnings vary according to number of years in practice, location, hours worked, and specialty.
Self-employed dentists in private practice tend to earn more than salaried dentists. A relatively large proportion of dentists is self-employed. Like other business owners, these dentists must provide their own health insurance, life insurance, and retirement benefits.
For information on dentistry as a career, a list of accredited dental schools, and a list of State boards of dental examiners, contact:
American Dental Association, Commission on Dental Accreditation, 211 E. Chicago Ave., Chicago, IL 60611.
For information on admission to dental schools, contact:
American Dental Education Association, 1625 Massachusetts Ave. NW., Suite 600, Washington, DC 20036.
Persons interested in practicing dentistry should obtain the requirements for licensure from the board of dental examiners of the State in which they plan to work.
Prospective dental students should contact the office of student financial aid at the schools to which they apply, in order to obtain information on scholarships, grants, and loans, including Federal financial aid.
Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2004-05 Edition,
Dentists, on the Internet at
(visited July 09, 2004).