Becoming a dentist usually requires four years of specialized dental education beyond a bachelor's degree. Depending on the dental school attended, a graduate earns the designation of Doctor of Dental Surgery (D.D.S.) or Doctor of Dental Medicine (D.M.D.). There is no difference between the two degrees with respect to the course of study, licensure requirements or opportunities for practice.
Getting Into Dental School
There are 66 dental schools in the U.S. and Puerto Rico, all affiliated with either a public or private university system. Admission to dental school is competitive. According to the American Student Dental Association, only 50 percent of applicants are accepted each year. Although the grade point average (GPA) varies among schools, most students accepted into a dental education program earned an undergraduate GPA of at least 3.25. They also scored 17 or higher on the Dental Aptitude Test (DAT), an exam designed to measure academic achievement and aptitude for the dental profession.
Preparation for dental school begins with studies for the bachelor's degree. Although there are no formal dentist requirements for most dental schools, many applicants complete coursework in life sciences, chemistry, mathematics, psychology and communications. Dental school length is typically four years of graduate study. A few schools offer an accelerated program, giving exceptional students the opportunity to earn a bachelor's degree and a dental degree in seven years or less.
Prospective applicants to dental school take the Dental Aptitude Test (DAT), usually in the junior undergraduate year. They must obtain three letters of recommendation from professors or employers who know the students and can attest to a high level of scholarship, a strong work ethic and a desire to work in the health care field.
Dental Education Programs
Students in dental school usually spend the first two years studying general and dental sciences in the classroom and the laboratory. Courses include anatomy and physiology, microbiology, pharmacology, biochemistry, pathology and histology. In the third and fourth years of dental school, students spend most of their time in supervised clinical settings. They learn to care for a variety of patients, including children, adults, the elderly and individuals who are disabled or have special needs.
Upon graduation from dental school, dentists must obtain licensure in the state where they plan to practice. In most states, dentists must pass a written exam and a clinical exam. Because requirements vary slightly from state to state, it is advisable to contact the state licensing board to determine what is needed. The board can also provide information on continuing education requirements to maintain licensure.
Dentists who are interested in specialty practice complete two to six years of additional training which may include a residency. Areas of specialization include pediatric dentistry, endodontics (concerned with the soft tissue, or pulp, inside the teeth), periodontics (diagnosis and treatment of gum diseases), orthodontics (correction of misalignment, or malocclusion), prosthodontics (restoration of missing teeth or jaw parts), and oral and maxillofacial surgery. Dentists who complete specialty dental education programs can become board certified in their area of expertise, which enhances their credentials and may lead to more opportunities and higher pay.
Becoming a Dental Hygienist
Becoming a dental hygienist is another path to a career in dentistry. Programs are offered through dental schools as well as many community colleges across the country. Students can earn an associate degree in dental hygiene after two years of study post-high school. Students interested in teaching or research may want to continue their studies and earn a bachelor's or master's degree in dental hygiene. Like dental school, admission to dental hygiene programs is competitive.
The Cost of Dental Education Programs
The American Dental Hygienists' Association estimates that the average cost of a two-year dental hygiene program is $22,692. This estimate is based on in-state or in-district tuition and does not include expenses such as uniforms, dental hygiene instrument rentals and purchases, books and other costs typically incurred by college students, including room and board, transportation and personal expenses. Earning a bachelor's in dental hygiene costs an average of $36,382 in tuition and fees only, while a master's costs an average of $30,421.
The price of becoming a dentist varies widely. Four years of dental school can cost from $21,600 (in-state) to $64,800 (non-resident) for a public school to almost $300,000 for a high-priced private school. Dental students must also purchase books, instruments and uniforms.
Salaries and Job Outlook for Dentists and Dental Hygienists
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the job outlook for dentists and dental hygienists is good. Both fields are expected to grow faster than average over the next 10 years when compared with other jobs. The aging of the American population and better awareness of the link between dental health and overall health contribute to the growth trend. The median salary for a dentist is $158,120, or $76.02 per hour. The median annual salary for a dental hygienist is $74,070, or $35.61 per hour. The median wage is the figure at which half of the workers in the occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less.