Dentistry Guide: How Long Does It Take to Become a Dentist?

By Jennifer Herrity

Updated June 28, 2022 | Published February 4, 2020

Updated June 28, 2022

Published February 4, 2020

Jennifer Herrity is a seasoned career services professional with 12+ years of experience in career coaching, recruiting and leadership roles with the purpose of helping others to find their best-fit jobs. She helps people navigate the job search process through one-on-one career coaching, webinars, workshops, articles and career advice videos on Indeed's YouTube channel.

This article has been approved by an Indeed Career Coach

Experts in oral health, dentists serve an important role in the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of common dental conditions. Aspiring dentists can typically complete their education and training requirements in about eight years, but it can vary.

In this guide, we review the requirements to become a dentist and how long, on average, it takes to become one in the industry, plus we look at the responsibilities of dentists and nine of the 12 recognized specialties within dentistry.

What is a dentist?

A dentist is a medical professional who specializes in oral health. They prevent dental diseases and use diagnostic measures to evaluate dental problems. Dentists also use tools to treat conditions like broken teeth, misaligned teeth, periodontal disease and exposed tooth roots.

Related: 12 Reasons To Become a Dentist (Plus Definition and Tips)

How long does it take to become a dentist?

It takes between six and eight years to become a dentist. The exact route to becoming a dentist will depend on a few factors, such as whether you choose a specialization. Specializations like becoming an oral surgeon or periodontist will require additional training and education. However, some students who choose not to specialize can shorten their time in school with a combined educational program.

The following factors can affect your timeline when becoming a dentist:

  • Type of program: Some aspiring dentists will complete four years in an undergraduate program, followed by another four years in a dental program. Dentistry programs that combine the undergraduate degree with dentistry training will typically allow students to complete the program in about six years.

  • Specialization: Whether or not you choose to specialize in an area of dentistry will also influence your timeline, as specializations require additional training.

  • Undergraduate major: The major that you pursue in your undergraduate program can affect how long it takes for you to become a dentist. For example, students who choose an undergraduate program in areas such as biology, chemistry or pre-med may have to take fewer courses in dental school.

  • Application results: Admission to dental school can be a competitive process. Students will need a good GPA and recommendations from previous professors or employers. Additionally, students will need a minimum score on the state exam.

Related: 8 Steps for Deciding What To Study in Graduate School

Job responsibilities of a dentist

Dentists often have the following responsibilities:

  • Promoting and educating good oral health with patients

  • Taking X-rays to determine the cause of dental pain

  • Cleaning teeth and routinely removing tooth decay

  • Creating treatment plans to overcome common dental problems

  • Monitoring the development and placement of children's teeth

Related: Dentist vs. Dental Hygienist: What's the Difference?

Dental specializations

Additionally, dentists may choose to specialize in a certain area of dentistry. The American Dental Association recognizes 12 specialties, which have been approved and adopted by the National Commission on Recognition of Dental Specialties and Certifying Boards. Here are nine of the 12:

1. Endodontics

An endodontist treats tooth conditions that extend to the root of the tooth. They evaluate, diagnose and treat diseases and injuries to the interior part of the teeth.

2. General dentistry

A general dentist typically works in a dental office in a public health environment. They complete checkups and educate patients on proper dental care practices but they may also sometimes perform surgeries.

3. Orthodontics

An orthodontist focuses on the alignment of the teeth. Orthodontists often work with children, teens and young adults in diagnosing and treating misaligned teeth.

4. Oral and maxillofacial pathology

Oral and maxillofacial pathologists are primarily focused on the diagnosis and treatment of oral diseases. They may work with dental patients with frequent cavities, periodontal disease, dental trauma or cleft lips.

5. Pediatric dentistry

A pediatric dentist specializes in the education and treatment of dental conditions affecting younger patients. Children and teens have unique dental concerns, as they are still growing and developing.

6. Oral and maxillofacial radiology

An oral and maxillofacial radiologist focuses primarily on the evaluation and interpretation of diagnostic images. Oral radiologists will often assist other dental professionals when evaluating the results of X-rays.

7. Oral and maxillofacial surgery

An oral surgeon focuses primarily on the surgical side of dentistry. They may conduct surgery to repair damaged tissue or to correct misalignments with the jaw.

8. Periodontry

A periodontist focuses primarily on periodontal disease. They use diagnostic tools to determine the extent of periodontal disease and develop a treatment plan to address it.

9. Prosthodontics

A prosthodontist creates crowns and dental implants and focuses on improving the overall cosmetics of the teeth.

Dental students may also choose to specialize in dental anesthesiology, oral medicine or orofacial pain. Dental specializations can offer aspiring dentists even more career opportunities but additional education and training are required. Dental students who want to specialize in one of the 12 approved ADA specializations will need to enroll in a dental program that offers the additional required training.

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Education levels for dentists

Becoming a dentist requires the completion of two degrees. First, students will need to complete an undergraduate degree before applying for dentistry programs. Then, you will need to complete all the requirements of your dentistry program before taking the state exam. The following education levels typically apply to dentists:

Bachelor's degree

The completion of a bachelor's degree is required before applying to any dental school. Some dental programs combine a bachelor's degree with a Doctorate of Dentistry, which can decrease a student's time in school by two years. After completing a bachelor's degree, students will need to complete the Dental Admissions Test and begin applying for dentistry programs.

Dental program

After completing a bachelor's degree, aspiring dentists will need to complete a dental program. This leads to a Doctoral degree, either a DDS or a DMD. Dental program students can expect to take courses in dental anatomy, biology, oral microbiology and dental radiology. Students will also complete multiple internships and residencies during their dental program to receive on-the-job dental training.

Specialty program

Students who want to specialize in a specific area of dentistry will need to complete additional training. This training usually takes place in the form of a residency, which often takes between one and two years to complete. More in-depth specializations can require even more time to complete. Oral surgery, for example, requires a four-year residency or a six-year program to become a medical doctor.

Completion of state exam

All dentists must be licensed in the state in which they want to practice. This requires the successful completion of the National Board Dental Exam. The National Board Exam for dentists consists of a two-part written exam with 500 questions. Dental students who have completed additional training in a dental specialization will also need to complete a board exam in that specialization.

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Types of dental degrees

Two types of degrees will qualify you to work as a dentist: a Doctor of Dental Surgery and a Doctor of Medicine in Dentistry. The educational and licensing requirements for each one are the same.

While they might sound like different degrees, the only difference is the dentistry program that you attend. Some dentistry programs award the DDS, while others award the DMD. Your job opportunities as a dentist should not be affected by which type of dental degree you have.

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