How to Become a Dentist
Dentists must be licensed in all states; requirements vary by state.
Dentists must be licensed in the state in which they work. Licensure requirements vary by state, although candidates usually must have a Doctor of Dental Surgery (DDS) or Doctor of Medicine in Dentistry/Doctor of Dental Medicine (DMD) degree from an accredited dental program and pass written and clinical exams. Dentists who practice in a specialty area must complete postdoctoral training.
Dentists typically need a DDS or DMD degree from a dental program that has been accredited by the Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA). Most programs require that applicants have at least a bachelor’s degree and have completed certain science courses, such as biology or chemistry. Although no specific undergraduate major is required, programs may prefer applicants who have a bachelor's degree in a science, such as biology.
Applicants to dental schools usually take the Dental Admission Test (DAT). Dental schools use this test 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.
As early as high school, students interested in becoming dentists can take courses in subjects such as biology, chemistry, and math.
All dental specialties require dentists to complete additional training before practicing that specialty. This training is usually a 2- to 4-year residency in a CODA-accredited program related to the specialty, which often culminates in a postdoctoral certificate or master’s degree. Oral and maxillofacial surgery programs typically take 4 to 6 years and may result in candidates earning a joint Medical Doctor (M.D.) degree.
General dentists do not need additional training after dental school.
Dentists who want to teach or do research full time may need advanced dental training, such as in a postdoctoral program in general dentistry.
Licenses, Certifications, and Registrations
Dentists must be licensed in the state in which they work. All states require dentists to be licensed; requirements vary by state. Most states require a dentist to have a DDS or DMD degree from an accredited dental program, pass the written National Board Dental Examinations, and pass a state or regional clinical examination.
In addition, a dentist who wants to practice in a dental specialty 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.
Communication skills. Dentists must communicate effectively with patients, dental hygienists, dental assistants, and receptionists.
Detail oriented. Dentists 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 with their hands. They must work carefully with tools in small spaces to ensure the safety of their patients.
Leadership skills. Dentists, especially those with their own practices, may need to manage staff or mentor other dentists.
Organizational skills. Keeping accurate records of patient care is critical in both medical and business settings.
Patience. Dentists may work for long periods with patients who need special attention, including children and those with a fear of dental work.
Problem-solving skills. Dentists must evaluate patients’ symptoms and choose the appropriate treatment.