Dentist – Training and Education

Training to be a Dentist

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Dentist-TrainingA dentist is a medical doctor devoted exclusively to providing oral health services. They work to diagnose and treat disorders and diseases of the teeth, gums and mouth. Many dentists deal with general dentistry in the public or private sector, though some choose to study a subspecialty like orthodontics, periodontics, pediatric dentistry, or endodontics.

The Skinny on Dentist Training

Most dental schools will require a general bachelor’s degree before a student will be admitted to study dentistry. Dental schools offer two distinct degrees: Doctor of Dental Surgery (DDS) and Doctor of Dental Medicine (DDM). These degree programs will typically take four years to complete and include classroom, pre-clinical and clinical instruction.

Dental schools also offer courses in specialized fields of dentistry, including orthodontics, maxillofacial surgery and pediatric dentistry. These post-graduate programs will between 2-6 additional years to complete (depending on the student’s chosen specialty). Some specialties will also include a number of years in a residency program.

Starting Early

If you’re still in high school and you’re considering a career in dentistry, you don’t have to wait till college to begin your studies. While you can’t go into a dentistry course just yet, advanced placement classes in chemistry, physics, biology, anatomy, and mathematics will give you a solid foundation to build on.

Bachelor’s Degree

As mentioned, dental schools will typically require a bachelor’s degree before a student will be considered, though requirements will vary from school to school. Every dental school will expect students to have completed courses in certain scientific fields like chemistry and biology, and while most programs don’t require students to declare a specific major while in general college, a science major (biology, for example) certainly won’t hurt your chances of being accepted.

Some universities and colleges do offer pre-dentistry preparation courses through their biology department. These tailored courses make it easier for students to fulfill the various requirements for dental school admission. Pre dentistry courses will also provide a solid footing in medical fields like microbiology, genetics and organic chemistry.

Dental School

Dentistry schools are in high demand and competition for admission can be fierce. Dental schools require all applicants to take the Dental Acceptance Test (DAT) during their junior year of college. Schools will accept or deny applicants based on the result of this test, as well as on other factors like recommendations and grade point averages.

Once an aspiring dentist is accepted into a dental degree program, he will begin his studies, starting with instruction in dental and biomedical sciences. He’ll study a huge range of concepts from wisdom teeth to cell structure. First and second year students will do a lot of classroom study, though many of their dental science courses will also have corresponding lab work. In the laboratories, the dental students will have the opportunity to strengthen and build their skills in areas like fixed partial dentures and imaging.

As they progress into their third and fourth years of dental school, the dental students will dive into more hands-on work, participating in group clinical exercises. At this point, they’ll begin working under the supervision of licensed dentists (in a scholastic setting) as they learn to diagnose various dental problems and disorders. They will eventually begin performing basic dental treatments like tooth extractions and cleanings.

Throughout the course, the students will learn all the basics of dental practice. They’ll learn the simpler procedures like cleanings and cavity fillings as well as more complicated procedures like root canals and oral surgery. Course work in a dentistry program will also typically include topics like:

  • Orthodontics
  • Pharmacology
  • Radiology
  • Oral Pathology
  • Molecular Genetics
  • Treatment Planning
  • Professional Ethics

Aside from learning in a classroom setting, students will typically complete a minimum of three months in general rotations and one month in oral surgery rotations. Upon completion of a dental study program, students will become either a DMD or DDS.

Continuing Education

There are nine recognized dental specialties, and some dentists choose to further their education in one of these specific fields. All nine specialties require two or more years of additional training as well as a 1-2 year residency before a dentist can practice in that specialty.

Some dentists also branch into full time research or education. To do this, a dentist must spend an additional 2 to 5 years in advanced dental training. Many practicing dentists eventually choose to teach part-time in addition to their regular work with patients. Most of these dentists will typically work with students in a supervisory capacity in dental school clinics.


All US states require dentists to be licensed before they can practice. In most cases, a license can be obtained by providing a degree from an accredited dental school and passing written and clinical state exams. The written exam is usually the National Board Dental Exam, while the clinical exam will be administered by the state licensing board.

In addition, state dental boards require licensed dentists to maintain their licensing through a specific number of continuing education credits. Some states will require a dentist to focus a number of their continuing education credits on a specific subject like pain management or life support. Other continuing education topics include fields like dental pharmacology, local anesthesia, sleep apnea, and geriatric dentistry. In certain cases, dentists can also earn credits by attending specific seminars or conferences.