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Dentists are important 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 it takes to become one.
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.
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.
Whether or not you choose to specialize in an area of dentistry will also influence your timeline, as specializations require additional training.
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. Some students may choose to pursue a double major to further prepare themselves for dental school, but a double major can also take more time to complete.
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. The number of programs that you apply to and whether or not you are admitted into your preferred school can affect how long it takes to become a dentist.
Responsibilities of a dentist
Dentists often have the following responsibilities:
- Promoting and educating good dental 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
Additionally, dentists may choose to specialize in a certain area of dentistry. The American Dental Association recognizes nine specializations within the dentistry industry, which include:
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.
An orthodontist focuses on the alignment of the teeth. Orthodontists often work with children, teens and young adults in diagnosing and treating misaligned teeth.
Oral and maxillofacial pathologist
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.
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.
Oral and maxillofacial radiologist
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.
Oral and maxillofacial surgeon
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.
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.
A prosthodontist creates crowns and dental implants and focuses on improving the overall cosmetics of the teeth.
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.
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 nine 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:
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.
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.
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. These degrees include 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.
Jobs similar to dentists
There are many careers to consider if you're interested in becoming a dentist or entering the medical field. Here's a list of 10 jobs that are similar to dentists:
7. Oral surgeon