How to Become a Dentist: Education, Skills, Programs & More

If you’ve ever gone to get your teeth cleaned or checked for cavities, you’ve probably met a licensed dentist! Dentists are highly skilled medical professionals responsible for the safe and healthy care of teeth. A dentist’s responsibilities include examining teeth and gums for decay, treating any dental issues, including cavities, root canals, gum deterioration, and more, educating patients about proper oral health, and procedures to replace or protect ailing teeth, such as dentures, crowns,veneers, etc.

Pursuing a career in dentistry is challenging and demanding, but also very rewarding, financially and otherwise. Dentists enjoy high salaries, a good work-life balance, and support from a wide array of dental team members.

If you’re interested in a career in dentistry, read on for information on how to achieve your goal and become a licensed dentist.

Dental Education & Training Requirements

To become a licensed dentist, you must first complete your undergraduate college education and then apply to dental school. Some universities offer a joint bachelor’s-dental school degree that requires only 2-3 years of undergraduate education, but most dentists first complete a four-year bachelor’s degree before pursuing dental school.

Dental schools offer either a Doctor of Dental Surgery (DDS) or a Doctor of Medicine in Dentistry (DMD). The degrees are the same and the training requirements are equivalent; the only difference is which degree a school chooses to confer on its students.

There are a number of prerequisite courses that must be completed before you apply to dental school: for that reason, aspiring dentists often select a pre-dental or pre-med track while still in undergraduate school, which covers the necessary pre-requisites, such as anatomy and physiology, biology, and chemistry.

Dental school is pricey: according to the American Student Dental Association, the average debt carried by graduating dental students in 2018 was $285,184. Most students take out loans to cover the cost of their education, including undergraduate, dental school, and any residencies completed for specialist training.

Fortunately, dentists enjoy high salaries: according to U.S. News, the median salary of an American dentist in 2018 was $151,850. A higher salary makes it easier to pay off student debt in a timely manner. Be sure to assess your finances, make a budget, and have a loan repayment plan before applying to dental school.

How to Get Into Dental School

Like all other medical professionals, dentists undergo extensive education in their medical art. And much the same as applying to medical school to become a general doctor, applying to dental school is an extremely competitive and demanding process.

After achieving a bachelor’s degree and passing all pre-requisite courses, aspiring dentists must take the Dental Assessment Test (DAT). This exam is a multiple-choice, written test, administered periodically throughout the year by the American Dental Association. There is no passing score for the DAT, but a higher score will make you a more competitive applicant. The average score is 17 out of 30; students accepted to the most prestigious dental schools generally receive a score of 21 or higher, putting them in the top 10% of test-takers. Dental school admissions officers weigh your DAT score along with other factors: your undergraduate GPA, recommendations, application statement, and more.

When it comes to your application statement, passion matters as much as accomplishment: demonstrate your enthusiasm for dentistry and share the personal experiences that led you to pursue a career as a dentist. Good grades and a high DAT score will help make you a competitive candidate, but expressing yourself as an individual and sharing the reasons you want to become a dentist will set you apart in the dental school applications process.

Make Sure Your Dental Program is CODA-Accredited

To become a licensed dentist in nearly all states, you must attend a dental school that is accredited by the Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA). You can find a list of CODA-accredited dental schools on the American Dental Association’s website. There are currently 68 programs accredited by CODA in the U.S. (plus one in Saudi Arabia) where one can receive a DDS or a DMD.

Canada has its own accreditation system, the Commission on Dental Accreditation of Canada, and graduates of accredited Canadian dental schools can obtain licensure in the U.S. Graduates of dental schools in other countries will likely have to attend dental school a second time in the U.S. or Canada to be eligible for licensure. Most American and Canadian dental schools accept international applicants, although this will likely require a student visa application.

Top Dental Programs in the U.S.

There are over 60 CODA-accredited dental schools in the United States, and more in Canada. While graduating from any of these dental schools allows you to pursue licensure, some programs are higher-ranked than others. This can impact the quality of the education, acceptance into specialist residencies, and job prospects.

However, some of the most highly-ranked dental schools are also the most expensive, so if cost is a larger factor than prestige for you, finding an affordable program is an effective way to become a licensed dentist.

The below findings are from a 2019 survey by Higher Learning Today:

Harvard School of Dental Medicine: Boston, Massachusetts. 5-year program; cost: $87, 070 (not including living and travel costs).

  • Pros: Harvard’s dental program offers world-class education from some of the nation’s best dental instructors. Students complete a full primary care medical rotation in their first year of study.
  • Cons: The price tag is high, and cost of living around Cambridge, Massachusetts is higher than the national average. This extremely competitive program accepts only 35 students a year.

University of Michigan: Anne Arbor, Michigan. 4-year program; cost: $68,370 (non-resident; doesn’t include living and travel costs).

  • Pros: This program is ranked #1 dental school in the world by Shanghai Ranking Consultancy. It offers 15 programs, so you’re sure to find a specialty that’s perfect for your interests.
  • Cons: Competitive and pricey.

University of Buffalo, SUNY: Amherst, New York. 4-year program; cost: $30,240. Higher Leaning Today rates the University of Buffalo’s dental school as one of the highest-quality, lower-cost dental schools.

  • Pros: Over the full 4 years, a dental arts degree from University of Buffalo costs $50,000 less than the average U.S. dental school, and all students are eligible for scholarships. Hands-on approach offers more clinical experience.
  • Cons: Focus on clinical training makes this a less ideal program for those interested in teaching and/or research.

You can compare dental programs using the latest annual report from the American Dental Association.

What to Do After Graduating Dental School

Applying to Residency Programs

Upon completion of dental school, graduates have options: some obtain their dental licensure and seek employment as a dentist. Others continue their education with a residency program, 1-2 years of advanced training in dentistry, or a dental specialty.

There are several types of dental residency programs:

  • Advanced education in general dentistry
  • General practice
  • Endodontics
  • Oral and maxillofacial surgery 
  • Orthodontics
  • Pediatrics
  • Periondontics
  • Prosthodontics
  • Dental Public Health

Whether to pursue a residency is up to you: unlike medical doctors, dentists do not need to complete a residency to begin practicing dentistry. Residencies often cost money or pay a small stipend rather than a full salary. Furthermore, licensed dentists can legally practice in all areas of dentistry, so a residency is not necessary to be able to work in a certain area.

However, residencies offer intensive training in a specific field of dentistry. If you are committed to becoming a certain kind of dental specialists, such as an orthodontist or endodontist, a residency gives you invaluable supplemental education in your desired field. Pursuing a dental residency program can make you more competitive on the job market, as well as raise your starting salary.

Like dental school, your residency program must be CODA-accredited and in the U.S. or Canada. Students generally apply to residency programs in their final year of dental school, although many dentists practice for several years before returning to school for a specialist residency. Residencies are extremely competitive – generally, you must be at the top of your dental class to be accepted into a program.

Depending on the residency, you will likely have to pass the national dental exam before beginning the program (see below).

Find out more about advanced education residency programs from the American Dental Association.

Becoming a Licensed Dentist

Whether you intend to practice directly after dental school or pursue a dental residency program, you will have to become a licensed dentist. In order to obtain licensure, you must pass national and state examinations that prove your competency to practice dentistry in a given state.

All certified dentists must take the National Board Dental Examination, which is administered by the Joint Commission on National Dental Examinations. The exam is administered in two parts: aspiring dentists take Part I, taken after the second year of dental school, and Part II, taken during the final year of dental school. As stated above, most residency programs require this license before admittance to the program.

Beyond the national exams, each state has certain criteria dentists must follow in order to practice in that state, which usually includes additional exams to demonstrate familiarity with that state’s dental laws. You can search your state’s licensure requirements on the American Dental Association’s database.

Like other types of licenses, dental licenses expire and must be renewed. Each state has its own requirements to keep your dental license updated, but generally, it involves a periodic renewal fee and a certain number of hours of continuing education.

All dentists, whether they go on to a dental residency, are licensed in the same way. In the U.S., there is no extra certification required to practice a specialty like orthodontics or periodontics, but specialists may elect to become certified by the national board of their specialty to demonstrate a high level of expertise and skill in the field.

Once you have secured your national and state licensing, you are a certified dentist, and ready to begin practicing dentistry.

Finding a Job as a Dentist or Specialist

There are a variety of tools to help new dentists and dental specialists find jobs in their field. Dentistry is an essential medical service, so dentists enjoy a high level of job security: there is a near-constant demand for skilled and effective dentists in every part of the country.

The following resources can help you find a dental position in your desired location:

  • Hiring resources from the American Dental Association. Whether or not you become a member of the ADA, this national organization has a vast network of resources to help you find a job after completing school, from resume/CV assistance, to a national job board.
  • The Career Compass from the American Dental Student Association. This is another excellent resource provided by a national organization.
  • Online job directories such as ZipRecruiter, Indeed, CareerBuilder, and more. These digital job boards have replaced classified ads in the newspaper as the go-to method for posting open positions. They offer filter options for your position preferences, such as full or part-time, minimum salary, and distance from home. These resources can be especially useful for those new dentists looking to move to a new part of the country.
  • Joining your local, regional, or state chapter of the American Dental Association. The ADA offers a wide array of professional resources, and many networking opportunities than can connect new dentists to practices in their area.
  • Open your own practice. While many private practice dentists spend a few years working as an associate dentist in a larger office, there’s nothing keeping you from opening your own private practice directly after dental school. There are many costs and responsibilities associated with being a small business owner, however: be sure to do your research before opening a dental practice.