What is a Dentistry Degree?

Dentists play an important role in our oral healthcare. Modern oral hygiene is the best it has ever been, resulting in people keeping their teeth longer than they ever have. Therefore, the demand for good dentists is high. Like most careers in the health industry, a dentist needs to be caring and compassionate, as well as highly competent and knowledgeable.

There’s quite a bit of training that is required for a career in dentistry. Students need to commit to many years of study if they want to move into professional practice. If this is a career path you are thinking of pursuing, ask yourself the following questions:

  • What makes me want to become a dentist?
  • Am I a people-person?
  • If I am not accepted to dental school, do I have other career options in mind?
  • Am I able to solve problems by thinking of creative solutions?
  • Am I open to doing work that may expose me to disease and infection?
  • Do I have an acute attention to detail?
  • Am I willing to keep up with new procedures and techniques?
  • Am I prepared to give the time and commitment needed to becoming a dentist?

Students in dentistry programs take courses in topics like molecular biology, dental anatomy, dental anesthesiology, radiology, physiology, pathology, oral microbiology, neuroscience, and pharmacology. They also learn about the various areas of dental practice, like geriatric dentistry, pediatric dentistry, periodontics, orthodontics, endodontics, prosthodontics, and oral surgery. Dental programs also teach students how to manage a practice and how to work effectively with different types of patients.

Throughout their program, dental students are able to observe dentists and work with actual patients, which puts what they’ve learned into practice.

Program Options

Bachelor’s Degree (Prerequisite) - Four Year Duration
Individuals must hold a four-year bachelor’s degree before gaining admission to dental school. It doesn’t really matter what the degree is in, however keep in mind that there are some pre-requisite courses in biology, physics, and chemistry that must be completed. For this reason, many pre-dental students choose to major in:

  • Biochemistry and Molecular Biology
  • Biological Sciences
  • Biomedical Engineering
  • Biomedical Sciences
  • Chemistry
  • Physiological Sciences

Note: Dental schools also look for applicants with high scores on the Dental Admissions Test. It may be worthwhile to look for colleges and universities that offer a pre-dental program. These programs ensure students meet dental school admission requirements and also prepare them for the Dental Admissions Test.

Doctor of Dental Surgery (DDS) - Four Year Duration
Doctor of Dental Medicine (DMD) - Four Year Duration
Dentists receive their training in graduate school, typically through a Doctor of Dental Surgery (DDS) or Doctor of Dental Medicine (DMD) program. Both programs provide the same level of preparation.

The first year gives students a grounding in anatomy, physiology and biochemistry. Teaching typically takes the form of lectures, seminars and practical sessions. In the second year, the students start to hone in on subjects like oral biology, pharmacology, and radiography. In the third year, the focus is mostly on practical application and learning on the job—students will start to work in real-life situations and with professionals. They will also continue to study subjects like child dental health, clinical pathology, or human disease. During the final part of a student’s studies, there are opportunities to see dentists performing complex oral surgery and special care dentistry techniques. There are also opportunities to learn about various specialties. This is when students can see if they resonate with one of the specialties. During this time, students will also learn more advanced dental techniques, such as dental implants, inlays, and bridgework design.

Once fully qualified, further study can be undertaken in order to train in a specific specialty. To become a specialist requires training in a residency or advanced graduate training program. In the United States nine specialties are recognized by the American Dental Association:

  • Orthodontics and Dentofacial Orthopedics
  • Pediatric Dentistry
  • Periodontics
  • Prosthodontics
  • Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery
  • Oral and Maxillofacial Pathology
  • Endodontics
  • Public Health Dentistry
  • Oral and Maxillofacial Radiology

Once residency is completed, the doctor is granted a certificate of specialty training.

Licenses, Certifications, and Registrations for Dentists
All states require dentists to be licensed; and dentists must be licensed in the state in which they work. 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.

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.

Degrees Similar to Dentistry

Physicians and surgeons diagnose and treat injuries or illnesses. They counsel patients on diet, hygiene, and preventive healthcare. The requirements for becoming a doctor in the U.S. may vary by specialty. In general, doctors complete a four-year undergraduate degree program, spend four years in medical school, and then complete three-seven years of residency training before they are eligible for medical licensing.

Dental Hygiene
Dental hygienists clean teeth, examine patients for signs of oral diseases such as gingivitis, and provide other preventive dental care. They also educate patients on ways to improve and maintain good oral health. Private dental offices usually require a minimum of an associate’s degree or certificate in dental hygiene. A bachelor’s or master’s degree is usually required for research, teaching, or clinical practice in public or school health programs.

Skills You’ll Learn

Communication Skills
Dentists must be able to articulate and communicate effectively with patients, dental hygienists, dental assistants, and office staff.

Detail Oriented
Dentists must be detail oriented so that their patients can receive the right treatments and medications. The mouth area is very small, therefore the smallest mistake can become a big problem for a patient.

A dentist needs to be able to explain complex procedures and processes simply so that patients can understand and feel comfortable with what is going on in their mouth and with any treatments that the dentist suggests.

Leadership Skills
Most dentists not only make high-level business decisions for their practice, but lead a team of people that may include dental hygienists, dental technicians, dental assistants, office managers, and receptionists.

Dentists often work with people that need special attention. For example, children and patients with a fear of dental work may need a lot of patience and time before they feel comfortable.

What Can You Do with a Dentistry Degree?

Many dentists choose to become general practitioners. However, there are opportunities in the dental field to practice in various specialty areas, such as:

Dental Public Health
Public health dentists promote good dental health and the prevention of dental diseases in specific communities. They provide leadership and expertise in population-based dentistry and policy development.

Endodontists are specialists in saving teeth, and are committed to helping their patients maintain the health of their teeth for a lifetime. Endodontists diagnose and treat tooth pain, perform root canal treatment, and maintain teeth through endodontic procedures which involve the soft inner tissue of the teeth, called the pulp.

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

Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery
An oral and maxillofacial surgeon treats dental and medical problems involving the oral cavity and the maxillofacial area (such as surgically repairing a cleft lip and palate or removing impacted teeth). The maxillofacial area of the body includes the cheekbones, mouth, jaws, teeth, gums, neck, and head. Treatment often involves performing surgery and related procedures to treat diseases, defects, or injuries, and to improve function or appearance.

Oral Pathology
Oral pathologists identify, diagnose, and manage conditions and diseases of the mouth and jaw area, such as bumps or ulcers, and oral diseases, such as cancer. Oral pathology investigates the causes, processes, and effects of these diseases.

An orthodontist specializes in how the jaws and teeth are aligned. They help people who have an improper bite, or malocclusion—most often by straightening teeth with braces or other appliances.

Pediatric Dentistry
Pediatric dentists focus on dentistry for children and special-needs patients. They may work with other specialists if specific areas (e.g. gum disease) are involved.

Periodontics refers to the area around the tooth, including the gums and other tissues. A periodontist will deal with gum disease and other gum ailments.

Prosthodontics refers to the area relating to cosmetic dentistry and the appearance of teeth. Prosthodontists fit implants to replace removed teeth and deal with other prosthetics in the mouth, such as dentures.

Some dentists teach or do research.

Career Paths

Learn about your career prospects after graduation.

Read about Career Paths