The majority of dentists are general practitioners who handle all varieties of dental emergencies and dental diseases as well as preventative care. There are several specialties including the largest, orthodontics, which involves the straightening of teeth. Oral and maxillofacial surgeons operate on the mouth and jaw for such issues as impacted wisdom teeth or diseases of the jawbones.
Others include pediatric dentists, periodontists (gum and jawbone diseases), prosthodontists (who deal with bridges, crowns, dentures, etc.), and endodontists (who specialize in root canals).
Duties, Activities, and Scope of Practice
Dentists diagnose and treat diseases of the teeth, gums, jawbones, and mouth tissue. Their primary goal is to provide preventative care and to encourage good oral hygiene. They correct defects such as decay, and cavities, and misalignment of teeth. They replace missing teeth and repair or remove broken or fractured teeth.
Dentists instruct in oral hygiene measures including brushing, flossing, diet, and using fluorides. They examine for diseases and infection of the gums, mouth tissue, tongue, and supporting bones. They prescribe treatments and refer to specialists for follow-up care as needed.
Education and Training
In the United States there are 56 dental schools that are currently accredited by the American Dental Association. Each of the 50 states requires that a dentist be licensed. In order to become licensed, the candidate has to have graduated from one of the accredited schools and then must pass a written and a practical exam.
Dental schools require applicants to have completed at least two years of undergraduate studies at a college or university. Most applicants will have their bachelor's degree, and many major in biology or chemistry. One year of biology and physics is required, along with two years of chemistry, including organic and inorganic chemistry. They must also take the DAT (Dental Admissions Test).
Competition for entrance to dental school is stiff. Admissions departments consider grades, DAT score, personal recommendations, extracurricular activities, and personal interviews. Specialization in such areas as orthodontics requires postgraduate education, usually two to four years of study. Dentists who wish to teach dentistry spend an additional two to five years training in programs run by dental schools.
The dental program consists of four academic years of study. The first year is primarily classroom and laboratory experience of basic sciences such as anatomy, physiology, microbiology, and biochemistry. The second year typically includes such things as endodontics, dental surgery, and making dentures. Second-year students also begin treating patients under the supervision of dentists.
The third year includes the study of building crowns and bridges, periodontics, and how to diagnose oral issues. In the fourth year specialty areas are explored. Upon successful graduation, students are awarded a D.D.S. (Doctor of Dental Surgery) or D.M.D. (Doctor of Dental Medicine), depending on the school.
Dentists are licensed by the state in which they intend to practice. (All 50 states plus the District of Columbia require this.) They must graduate from an accredited school of dentistry and then pass a written exam (the National Board Dental Examinations) and a practical exam. Some states require written and practical examinations in any specialty areas as well if the dentist intends to practice specialized care.
Work Settings and Salaries
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, most dental school graduates will buy an established dental practice or open their own after graduation. Some will work as associates with other dentists to gain experience and earn enough to move into their own practice. About 12 percent will enter specialty training.
Most dentists work in private offices, some in hospitals or clinics. They usually work 35 to 40 hours per week, and many offer flexible hours, working some evenings or weekend hours to meet the needs of their patients. Some work part-time, and, in fact, there are a considerable number of dentists working part-time today who are well beyond retirement age.
The U.S. Department of Labor's Bureau of Statistics reports that there were 150,000 dentists working in 2004, and their median salary was $129,920. One third of the dentists were self-employed. According to the American Dental Association, approximately 80 percent of dentists are sole proprietors, 13 percent belong to partnerships, and others are salaried and work for hospitals or physicians.
Career Potential and Additional Information
Employment for dentists is expected to grow more slowly than average through 2014, but there will continue to be an increasing demand for dentists. As the population ages, there will be more demand for such technologies as dental implants as well as maintenance on bridges and crowns. Also as the population ages, so will the baby-boomer dentists, leaving many openings for replacements as this group retires from practice.
To obtain more information about careers in dentistry and a list of accredited dental schools, contact the American Dental Association. Contact the American Dental Education Association for information on admission to dental schools.