Becoming a dentist requires at least 8 years of education beyond high school. After the required education, the dentist becomes licensed and can go into general practice, or choose to specialize further and get additional education. The American Dental Association recognizes nine specialties, which involve another 2 to 6 years of post-graduate education.
The Bachelor of Science degree is traditionally a four-year program, and an individual planning to become a dentist usually majors in pre-dental or pre-medical, or another science area such as biology or chemistry. The student then obtains a Doctor of Dental Surgery (DDS) or Doctor of Dental Medicine (DDM) degree from an accredited dental school, which is another four-year program. Many dentists go on to specialize in a certain area, and the length of training depends on the specialty.
Training programs which take 2 to 3 years include periodontists, endodontists, pedodontists, dental public health specialists, prosthodontists, and oral and maxillofacial radiologists. Training which requires an additional 4 to 6 years includes oral and maxillofacial surgeons, oral and maxillofacial pathologists, and orthodontists and dentofacial orthopedic specialists.
Periodontists treat gum disease and the damaging results to surrounding cartilage and bone structure, and insert dental implants when they cannot save loose teeth. Endodontists diagnose and treat diseases affecting the tissues, nerves, arteries and veins inside the tooth, with the most common procedure being root canal therapy. Pedodontists are pediatric dentists, who have learned the typical patterns of a growing mouth from infancy through adolescence. Prosthodontists repair teeth and replace missing teeth, using crowns, bridges, inlays, dentures and dental implants. A dental public health specialist works to prevent dental diseases and promote dental health in the greater community. Oral and maxillofacial radiologists interpret radiology images of the teeth and mouth to diagnose and manage diseases and disorders (see Resources below).
Oral and maxillofacial surgeons perform surgeries on the mouth, head and neck. They remove wisdom teeth, place dental implants and, in accident cases, assist with repairing broken bones in the face and jaw. Oral and maxillofacial pathologists study diseases that affect the mouth and surrounding areas, providing consultation services to dentists and other physicians, and performing biopsies and other laboratory diagnostic procedures. Orthodontists and dentofacial orthopedists bring teeth, lips, and jaws into proper alignment, with braces and other devices.
Course work for all dental programs is rigorous, with heavy emphasis on math and science. The years of study pay off in increased salaries, with general dentists making an average of $100,000 in 2008, orthodontists about $136,000 and oral surgeons nearly $240,000.