Dentists

Career, Salary and Education Information

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What Dentists Do[About this section] [To Top]

Dentists diagnose and treat problems with patients’ teeth, gums, and related parts of the mouth. They provide advice and instruction on taking care of the teeth and gums and on diet choices that affect oral health.

Duties of Dentists

Dentists typically do the following:

  • Remove decay from teeth and fill cavities
  • Repair cracked or fractured teeth and remove teeth
  • Place sealants or whitening agents on teeth
  • Administer anesthetics to keep patients from feeling pain during procedures
  • Prescribe antibiotics or other medications
  • Examine x rays of teeth, gums, the jaw, and nearby areas in order to diagnose problems
  • Make models and measurements for dental appliances, such as dentures, to fit patients
  • Teach patients about diets, flossing, the use of fluoride, and other aspects of dental care

Dentists use a variety of equipment, including x-ray machines, drills, mouth mirrors, probes, forceps, brushes, and scalpels. They also use lasers, digital scanners, and other computer technologies, such as digital dentistry.

In addition, dentists in private practice oversee a variety of administrative tasks, including bookkeeping and buying equipment and supplies. They employ and supervise dental hygienists, dental assistants, dental laboratory technicians, and receptionists.

Most dentists are general practitioners and handle a variety of dental needs. Other dentists practice in 1 of 9 specialty areas:

Dental public health specialists promote good dental health and the prevention of dental diseases in specific communities.

Endodontists perform root-canal therapy, by which they remove the nerves and blood supply from injured or infected teeth.

Oral and maxillofacial radiologists diagnose diseases in the head and neck through the use of imaging technologies.

Oral and maxillofacial surgeons operate on the mouth, jaws, teeth, gums, neck, and head, performing procedures such as surgically repairing a cleft lip and palate or removing impacted teeth.

Oral pathologists diagnose conditions in the mouth, such as bumps or ulcers, and oral diseases, such as cancer.

Orthodontists straighten teeth by applying pressure to the teeth with braces or other appliances.

Pediatric dentists focus on dentistry for children and special-needs patients.

Periodontists treat the gums and bone supporting the teeth.

Prosthodontists replace missing teeth with permanent fixtures, such as crowns and bridges, or with removable fixtures, such as dentures.

Work Environment for Dentists[About this section] [To Top]

Dentists held about 151,500 jobs in 2014. Some dentists own their own businesses and work alone or with a small staff. Other dentists have partners in their practice, and some work for more established dentists as associate dentists. In 2014, about 1 out of 4 dentists were self-employed.

Dentists usually work in dentists’ offices. They wear masks, gloves, and safety glasses to protect themselves and their patients from infectious diseases.

Dentist Work Schedules

Most dentists work full time. Some work evenings and weekends to meet their patients’ needs. The number of hours worked varies greatly among dentists.

How to Become a Dentist[About this section] [To Top]

Get the education you need: Find schools for Dentists near you!

Dentists must be licensed in the state(s) in which they work. Licensure requirements vary by state, although candidates usually must graduate from an accredited dental school and pass written and practical exams.

Dentist Education

All dental schools require applicants to have completed certain science courses, such as biology and chemistry, before entering dental school. Students typically need at least a bachelor’s degree to enter most dental programs, although no specific major is required. However, majoring in a science, such as biology, might increase one’s chances of being accepted. Requirements vary by school.

College undergraduates who plan on applying to dental school usually must take the Dental Admission Test (DAT) during their junior year. Admission to dental school can be competitive. Dental schools use these tests along with other factors, such as grade point average, interviews, and recommendations, to admit students into their programs.

Dental school programs typically include coursework in subjects such as local anesthesia, anatomy, periodontics (the study of oral disease and health), and radiology. All programs at dental schools include clinical experience in which students work directly with patients under the supervision of a licensed dentist.

Completion of a dental program results in one of three degrees: Doctor of Dental Surgery (DDS), Doctor of Dental Medicine (DDM), and Doctor of Medical Dentistry (DMD). In 2015, the Commission on Dental Accreditation, part of the American Dental Association, accredited more than 60 dental school programs.

High school students who want to become dentists should take courses in chemistry, physics, biology, anatomy, and math.

Dentist Training

All nine dental specialties require dentists to complete additional training before practicing that specialty. This training is usually a 2- to 4-year residency in a program related to their specialty. General dentists do not require any additional training after dental school.

Dentists who want to teach or do research full time usually spend an additional 2 to 5 years in advanced dental training. Many practicing dentists also teach part time, including supervising students in dental school clinics.

Licenses, Certifications, and Registrations

Dentists must be licensed in the state(s) in which they work. All states require dentists to be licensed; requirements vary by state. Most states require a dentist to have a degree from an accredited dental school and to pass the written and practical National Board Dental Examinations.

In addition, a dentist who wants to practice in one of the nine specialties must have a license in that specialty. Licensure requires the completion of a residency after dental school and, in some cases, the completion of a special state exam.

Important Qualities for Dentists

Communication skills. Dentists must have excellent communication skills. They must be able to communicate effectively with patients, dental hygienists, dental assistants, and receptionists.

Detail oriented. Dentists must be detail oriented so that patients receive appropriate treatments and medications. They also must pay attention to the shape and color of teeth and to the space between them. For example, they may need to closely match a false tooth with a patient’s other teeth.

Dexterity. Dentists must be good at working with their hands. They work with tools in a limited area.

Leadership skills. Most dentists work in their own practice. This requires them to manage and lead a staff.

Organizational skills. Strong organizational skills, including the ability to keep accurate records of patient care, are critical in both medical and business settings.

Patience. Dentists may work for long periods of time with patients who need special attention. Children and patients with a fear of dental work may require a lot of patience.

Physical stamina. Dentists should be comfortable performing physical tasks, such as bending over patients for long periods.

Problem-solving skills. Dentists need strong problem-solving skills. They must evaluate patients’ symptoms and choose the appropriate treatments.


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Dentist Salaries[About this section] [More salary/earnings info] [To Top]

The median annual wage for dentists was $158,310 in May 2015. The median wage is the wage at which half the workers in an occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $68,400, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $187,200.

Median annual wages for dentists in May 2015 were as follows:

Orthodontists $187,200 or more
Oral and maxillofacial surgeons 187,200 or more
Dentists, all other specialists 171,000
Dentists, general 152,700
Prosthodontists 119,740

Earnings vary with the dentist’s location, number of hours worked, specialty, and number of years in practice.

Most dentists work full time. Some work evenings and weekends to meet their patients’ needs. The number of hours worked varies greatly among dentists.

Job Outlook for Dentists[About this section] [To Top]

Employment of dentists is projected to grow 18 percent from 2014 to 2024, much faster than the average for all occupations. Demand for dental services will increase as the population ages, cosmetic dental services become increasingly popular, and access to health insurance continues to grow.

Many members of the growing and aging baby-boom generation will need dental work. Because each generation is more likely to keep their teeth than past generations, more dental care will be needed in the years to come. In addition, there will be increased demand for complicated dental work, including dental implants or bridges. The risk of oral cancer increases significantly with age, and complications can require both cosmetic and functional dental reconstruction.

Cosmetic dental services, such as teeth-whitening treatments, are becoming increasingly popular. This trend is expected to continue as new technologies allow for less invasive, faster procedures.

Dentists will continue to see an increase in public demand for their services as studies continue to link oral health to overall health. They will need to provide care and instruction aimed at promoting good oral hygiene, rather than just providing treatments such as fillings.

Dentists are likely to hire more hygienists and dental assistants to handle routine services. Productivity increases derived from new technology, such as digital dentistry and radiography, should allow dentists to reduce the time needed to see each patient. As a result, dentists will be able to expand their practices and see more patients.

Whether patients seek care is dependent largely on their insurance coverage. The number of individuals who have access to health insurance is expected to continue to increase because of federal health insurance reform. People with new or expanded dental insurance coverage will be more likely to visit a dentist than in the past.

Dentists Job Prospects

Job prospects for dentists are expected to be good. There are still areas of the country where patients need dental care but have little access to it. Job prospects will be especially good for dentists who are willing to work in these areas.

In addition, many dentists are expected to retire in the next decade and replacement workers will be needed to fill those positions.

Employment projections data for Dentists, 2014-24
Occupational Title Employment, 2014 Projected Employment, 2024 Change, 2014-24
Percent Numeric
Dentists 151,500 178,200 18 26,700
  Dentists, general 129,000 152,300 18 23,300
  Oral and maxillofacial surgeons 6,800 8,000 18 1,200
  Orthodontists 8,200 9,700 18 1,500
  Prosthodontists 800 1,000 18 100
  Dentists, all other specialists 6,700 7,300 9 600


*Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor. Used by permission.

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