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Becoming a dentist requires four years of specialty education beyond the bachelor's degree. Since undergraduate and professional schooling can be expensive, joining the military is one way to help manage costs.
Becoming a Dentist in the U.S. Military
There are advantages to professional practice in any branch of the military, including the Navy. Military dentists have access to cutting-edge technology. They have opportunities to participate in domestic outreach to the young, elderly and underprivileged. Perhaps most importantly, military dentists can focus on treating their patients without having to worry about the business side of a dental practice. Military dentists do not have to purchase their own equipment or malpractice insurance, and they are not responsible for the hiring of auxiliary employees.
The best military branch for dentistry depends on individual preference. As a Navy dentist, you could spend time at sea. Military dentists in all branches serve stateside as well as overseas. Ranks and pay are equivalent across the services.
The U.S. armed forces primarily commissions dentists who have completed their dental education and obtained licensure. Dentists enter the service as officers at the 0–3 pay grade, equivalent to the rank of captain in the Army, Air Force and Marines, and lieutenant in the Navy.
Navy Health Professions Scholarship
A limited number of Navy Health Professions Scholarships are available, which offer 100 percent tuition coverage for dental school. In addition, the Navy offers a signing bonus of up to $20,000, a monthly stipend, and reimbursement for expenses such as books, supplies, dental kits and health insurance while in school. If you're interested in a Navy dental scholarship, visit your local Navy recruiter to find out which programs are currently available.
Getting Into Dental School
Most military dentists complete their dental education before joining the military. There are 66 dental schools in the United States, including Puerto Rico. Admissions are competitive, and, on average, only 50 percent of applicants are accepted each academic year. To prepare, you'll need a minimum of a bachelor's degree. There is no specific requirement for a major, but students in pre-dental programs usually major in one of the life sciences, chemistry, physics or mathematics. Admissions officers look for candidates with a strong academic background. It's the best predictor of success for the rigors of dental school.
Most students admitted to dental school have an overall grade point average (GPA) of at least 3.25 and a minimum score of 17 on the Dental Admissions Test (DAT). The Dental Admissions Test (DAT) is typically taken by undergraduates in the spring of their junior year. The test is designed to measure a student's math and science knowledge as well as reasoning and problem-solving abilities.
Dental Education Programs
Dental school usually requires four years of study. During the first two years, students take classroom and laboratory courses in anatomy and physiology, microbiology, pharmacology and other advanced sciences. In the last two years, students see patients in a supervised clinical setting. They begin with cleaning and exams, then perform more complex procedures. They learn to work with children, adults, the elderly and people with special needs.
Dental students do not get paid for going to school or seeing patients. Classroom, laboratory and clinical experiences are all part of the training program that prepares them for professional practice.
New dentists must take a licensing exam to obtain licensure in the state where they want to practice. Most states require that dentists pass both a written and clinical exam. Requirements can vary slightly from state to state. Dental students are advised to contact the state licensing board during their last semester to determine what they need to do. Advisors at the dental school also can help students prepare for and schedule their licensing exams.
Post-Graduate Dental Education
Four years of dental school is adequate preparation to practice general dentistry. Some dentists want to specialize and therefore undertake two to six years of additional post-graduate training. Areas of specialty practice include endodontics (concerning the soft tissue, or pulp, inside the teeth), oral and maxillofacial surgery, pediatric dentistry, periodontics (diagnosis and treatment of gum diseases), prosthodontics (restoration of teeth or parts of the jaw), and orthodontics (correction of misalignment). Dentists who choose to specialize can opt to become board certified in their area of expertise. While not required for practice, board certification may enhance career opportunities and earnings.
Military dentists are encouraged to pursue post-graduate dental education for specialty practice. Applications for training programs are competitive, and placement is based on rank and military record. Training is at no cost to the service member, who is paid and continues to accrue benefits during the training period.
Being a Dentist in the Navy
As a dentist in the Navy, your practice will be very similar to that of a dentist in civilian in terms of patient care. You'll perform exams, treat dental diseases and respond to dental emergencies. You won't have just one duty station during your career as a dentist in the Navy. You'll likely have several different assignments in which you serve at a Navy or military medical facility in the U.S. or overseas.
Some Navy dentists practice at one of the highly acclaimed National Naval Medical Centers in Bethesda, MD; Portsmouth, VA; and San Diego, CA. Others provide care for deployed troops aboard the hospital ships USNS Comfort and USNS Mercy. Navy dentists are assigned to surface ships to work with a nearby air squadron, and they also serve with the Fleet Marine Force.
Auxiliary Dental Professionals
If you're neither interested nor qualified to be a dentist in the Navy, you might consider enlistment to become a dental hygienist or dental assistant. The Navy provides training for both auxiliary professions. Pay and benefits are commensurate with your enlisted rank.
To become a Navy dental hygienist, you must be a sailor in good standing who has served fewer than 12 years in the Navy. You must successfully complete coursework in general chemistry, English composition and intermediate algebra, as well as achieve good scores on the Navy's physical readiness test. Qualified sailors should see their Command Career Counselor for details.
You can start training to become a Navy dental assistant after completing basic training. As with dental hygienist training, you'll be on active duty during the training period and receive salary and benefits commensurate with your current enlisted rank. Your local Navy recruiter will explain opportunities and help you navigate the enlistment process.
Salary as a Dentist in the Navy
Dentists in the Navy, as in all branches of the military, receive pay and benefits according to rank, also known as pay grade. Promotions are based on exemplary service and time in grade. In addition to base pay, military dentists receive full health benefits for themselves and their families. They also receive a housing allowance based on rank and adjusted for the cost of living in the geographic area of their duty station. Service members who are on active duty for 20 years or more are eligible to receive a pension upon retirement from the military.
Monthly base pay for military officers, as of 2019, is as follows. The salary range reflects length of service at that pay grade:
- O–3 (Navy Lieutenant): $4,251.60 to $6,960.80
- O–4 (Navy Lieutenant Commander): $4,835.40 to $8,073.90
- O–5 (Navy Commander): $5,604.30 to $9,521.40
- O–6 (Navy Captain): $6,722.70 to $11,901.30
- O–7 (Navy Rear Admiral Lower Half): $8865.30 to $13,245.30
- O–8 (Navy Rear Admiral Upper Half ): $10,668.90 to $15,380.70
- American Student Dental Association: US Dental Schools
- America's Navy: Dentistry Careers
- American Dental Association: Dental School Admissions
- U.S. Navy: The Dental Hygienist
- Defense Health Agency: Navy Dental Assistant
- U.S. Department of Defense: Military Pay Table
- U.S. Army: Rank Insignia of the US Armed Forces
- Strive to be at the top of your class. Navy officer commissioning programs and dental school admissions are very competitive. Your grades and class ranking are important criteria in selection.
Denise Dayton is a a freelance writer who specializes in business, education and technology. She has written for eHow.com, Library Journal, The Searcher, Bureau of Education and Research, and corporate clients.