Dentists diagnose and treat problems with teeth and tissues in the mouth, along with giving advice and administering care to help prevent future problems. They provide instruction on diet, brushing, flossing, the use of fluorides, and other aspects of dental care. They remove tooth decay, fill cavities, examine x rays, place protective plastic sealants on children's teeth, straighten teeth, and repair fractured teeth. They also perform corrective surgery on gums and supporting bones to treat gum diseases. Dentists extract teeth and make models and measurements for dentures to replace missing teeth. They also administer anesthetics and write prescriptions for antibiotics and other medications.
Dentists use a variety of equipment, including x-ray machines, drills, mouth mirrors, probes, forceps, brushes, and scalpels. Lasers, digital scanners, and other computer technologies also may be used. Dentists wear masks, gloves, and safety glasses to protect themselves and their patients from infectious diseases.
Dentists in private practice oversee a variety of administrative tasks, including bookkeeping and the buying of equipment and supplies. They may employ and supervise dental hygienists, dental assistants, dental laboratory technicians, and receptionists.
Most dentists are general practitioners, handling a variety of dental needs. Other dentists practice in any of nine specialty areas. Orthodontists, the largest group of specialists, straighten teeth by applying pressure to the teeth with braces or other appliances. The next largest group, oral and maxillofacial surgeons, operates on the mouth, jaws, teeth, gums, neck, and head. The remainder may specialize as pediatric dentists (focusing on dentistry for children and special-needs patients); periodontists (treating gums and bone supporting the teeth); prosthodontists (replacing missing teeth with permanent fixtures, such as crowns and bridges, or with removable fixtures such as dentures); endodontists (performing root-canal therapy); oral pathologists (diagnosing oral diseases); oral and maxillofacial radiologists (diagnosing diseases in the head and neck through the use of imaging technologies); or dental public health specialists (promoting good dental health and preventing dental diseases within the community).
Dentists held about 139,200 jobs in 2020. Employment in the detailed occupations that make up dentists was distributed as follows:
- Dentists, general - 120,300
- Dentists, all other specialists - 6,800
- Orthodontists - 6,400
- Oral and maxillofacial surgeons - 5,200
- Prosthodontists - 700
The largest employers of dentists were as follows:
- Offices of dentists - 74%
- Self-employed workers - 16%
- Government - 3%
- Offices of physicians - 3%
- Outpatient care centers - 2%
Some dentists have their own business and work alone or with a small staff. Other dentists have partners in their practice. Still others work as associate dentists for established dental practices.
Dentists wear masks, gloves, and safety glasses to protect themselves and their patients from infectious diseases.
Dentists’ work schedules vary. Some work evenings and weekends to meet their patients’ needs. Many dentists work less than 40 hours a week, although some work considerably more.
Education & Training Required
In 2008, there were 57 dental schools in the United States accredited by the American Dental Association's (ADA's) Commission on Dental Accreditation. Dental schools require a minimum of 2 years of college-level predental education prior to admittance. Most dental students have at least a bachelor's degree before entering dental school, although a few applicants are accepted to dental school after 2 or 3 years of college and complete their bachelor's degree while attending dental school. According to the ADA, 85 percent of dental students had a bachelor’s degree prior to beginning their dental program in the 2006-07 academic year.
High school and college students who want to become dentists should take courses in biology, chemistry, physics, health, and mathematics. College undergraduates planning on applying to dental school are required to take many science courses. Because of this, some choose a major in a science, such as biology or chemistry, whereas others take the required science coursework while pursuing a major in another subject.
All dental schools require applicants to take the Dental Admissions Test (DAT). When selecting students, schools consider scores earned on the DAT, applicants' grade point averages, and information gathered through recommendations and interviews. Competition for admission to dental school is keen.
Dental school usually lasts 4 academic years. Studies begin with classroom instruction and laboratory work in science, including anatomy, microbiology, biochemistry, and physiology. Beginning courses in clinical sciences, including laboratory techniques, are also completed. During the last 2 years, students treat patients, usually in dental clinics, under the supervision of licensed dentists. Most dental schools award the degree of Doctor of Dental Surgery (DDS). Others award an equivalent degree, Doctor of Dental Medicine (DMD).
Licensing is required to practice as a dentist. In most States, licensure requires passing written and practical examinations in addition to having a degree from an accredited dental school. Candidates may fulfill the written part of the State licensing requirements by passing the National Board Dental Examinations. Individual States or regional testing agencies administer the written or practical examinations.
Individuals can be licensed to practice any of the 9 recognized specialties in all 50 States and the District of Columbia. Requirements include 2 to 4 years of postgraduate education and, in some cases, the completion of a special State examination. A postgraduate residency term also may be required, usually lasting up to 2 years. Most State licenses permit dentists to engage in both general and specialized practice.
Other Skills Required
Dentistry requires diagnostic ability and manual skills. Dentists should have good visual memory; excellent judgment regarding space, shape, and color; a high degree of manual dexterity; and scientific ability. Good business sense, self-discipline, and good communication skills are helpful for success in private practice.
How to Advance
Dentists and aspiring dentists who want to teach or conduct research full time usually spend an additional 2 to 5 years in advanced dental training, in programs operated by dental schools or hospitals. Many private practitioners also teach part time, including supervising students in dental school clinics.
Some dental school graduates work for established dentists as associates for 1 to 2 years to gain experience and save money to equip an office of their own. Most dental school graduates, however, purchase an established practice or open a new one immediately after graduation.
Overall employment of dentists is projected to grow 8 percent from 2020 to 2030, about as fast as the average for all occupations.
About 5,000 openings for dentists are projected each year, on average, over the decade. Many of those openings are expected to result from the need to replace workers who transfer to different occupations or exit the labor force, such as to retire.
Much of the projected employment growth in this occupation is due to recovery from the COVID-19 recession that began in 2020.
Demand for dentists is expected to increase as larger numbers of older people require dental services. Because each generation is more likely to keep their teeth than the previous generation, more dental care will be needed in the years to come. Furthermore, there will be increased demand for complicated dental work, including dental implants and bridges. The risk of oral cancer increases significantly with age, and complications can require both cosmetic and functional dental reconstruction.
Demand for dentists’ services will increase as studies continue to link oral health to overall health. In addition to providing treatments, these workers will be needed to provide care and instruction aimed at promoting good oral hygiene.
The median annual wage for dentists was $163,220 in May 2021. 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 $63,880, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $208,000.
Median annual wages for dentists in May 2021 were as follows:
- Orthodontists - $208,000 or more
- Oral and maxillofacial surgeons - $208,000 or more
- Dentists, all other specialists - $175,160
- Dentists, general - $160,370
- Prosthodontists - $100,950
In May 2021, the median annual wages for dentists in the top industries in which they worked were as follows:
- Government - $182,330
- Offices of dentists - $163,650
- Outpatient care centers - $162,120
- Offices of physicians - $159,730
Wages vary with the dentist’s location, number of hours worked, specialty, and number of years in practice.
Dentists’ work schedules vary. Some work evenings and weekends to meet their patients’ needs. Many dentists work less than 40 hours a week, although some may work considerably more.