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Dentistry is the area of study and practice related to treatment of the mouth and teeth. Individuals in this field will work with patients to maintain proper oral care, provide treatment for infection or cavities, and perform surgery and removal if necessary. Individuals in this field may also provide prescriptions in order to facilitate care.
Education and Schools
Individuals wishing to become dentists must first earn a bachelor’s degree in a related field. Upon completion, students are asked to take the Dental Acceptance Test (DAT), which must be passed in order to be considered by most dental schools. Once admitted, students will receive an education that may vary in length based on multiple factors, including if a specialty is being pursued and whether or not the dentist wishes to be able to teach. Individuals will earn a doctorate level degree, the name of which will depend on the type of study.
A curriculum will include:
- Local Anesthesiology
- Oral Care
Dental schools can be rated based on the success of their graduates, particularly whether or not the school’s students have high default rates on loans. High default rates mean a lack of successful dentists which can be equated to the education offered. Additionally, programs that offer assistance in residency placement and assistance in licensure examination preparation for a given state are of higher value.
Types of Dental Schools
Given the range of jobs listed above, it should come as no surprise the types of schools and degree tracks in dentistry range widely. In most cases, successfully completing a degree program or diploma program from an accredited college or university is followed by passing a state-based dental examination. The examination is often administered by a state’s dental board or equivalent agency, with a certificate or licensure to follow for successful candidates. Programs in the dental field can be part of a 4-year college or university, community college, vocational school, or dental specialty school.
Four-Year College or University – A 4-Year college or university may offer a variety of dental programs which often require students to have successfully completed lower level courses prior to matriculation. A four-year college or university can offer associate degrees, bachelor’s degrees, master’s degrees, and doctorate degrees in dentistry. The combination of leading edge research coupled with hands-on learning opportunities and ready access to subject matter experts makes a 4-year college an appealing starting point for many dental professionals. A four-year university or college offering dental degree programs also include a substantive number of general education coursework. The emphasis on general education courses (think English Composition or philosophy) remain in dental programs based on real-world feedback from employers and graduates.
Vocational School or Technical Institute – A technical institute or trade school is rooted in career preparedness. In other words, a vocational school targets skill development with a heavy emphasis on work-readiness. A traditional technical institute or vocational college would offer certificate or degree programs in dental assistant, dental hygiene, or dental lab technician. The objective for the school and the student, would be to immediately step into a job in the dental field upon program completion. A dental program offered by a vocational college would be focused on the skills at hand with limited general education studies and would generally last one to two years depending on the program and credits taken.
Community College – A community college provides an educational pathway for students pursuing certificate programs or associate degree tracks. For students who enroll in a community college in the dental field, you can expect a larger number of general education courses to be included in your program. Employers and alumni find the additional classes in general education classes like public speaking and writing to be useful after graduation as part of a well-rounded professional. The better equipped students are to engage and communicate with others, the better long-term vocational prospects exist.
Dental School – A dental school is a specialty school within dentistry to provide the core curriculum of courses for dental hygienists, dental laboratory assistant, and dental assistants. Certificate programs found at dental schools will provide students with more science-heavy courses than found at a typical community college. However, specialty dental schools tend to offer access to quality healthcare, dental operations, and research curricula to help students for vibrant dental careers upon graduation.
Which Dental School is Right for Me?
Figuring out which type of dental program or dental degree track is right for you is a factor of your long-term career aspirations along with your personal priorities. As a helpful guide, make sure the program you are researching has the right mix of quality curriculum, academic support, and program tracks to support your vocational goals.
A Robust Dental Curriculum – After you have ensured the school is one of the three hundred plus CODA accredited schools, you will need to ask great questions to determine the quality of the program. By meeting with admissions officers, alumni, and community members in the dental field, you will get a first-hand account of a college or universities programs. The school’s reputation, quality curriculum, rate of passing state exams on the first try, and student support are good indications of a successful program. In addition, the academic and pragmatic blend is a great learning tandem for most students. If an accredited school has a formal internship program and a partnership with local dental offices, you can rest assured the school is investing resources to ensure quality outcomes for everyone.
Degree Program Accreditation – Accredited schools have earned their designation by passing a rigorous set of audits by third-parties and have been found to be equipped to prepare students for state licensure examinations and to subsequently work in the dental field. During your research for quality dental programs, stick to schools with a CODA (The Commission on Dental Accreditation) affiliation for the best possible schooling experience for your educational investment.
Areas of Specialization – As you winnow down your list of top colleges and dental degree programs, it is more important than ever to ensure the schools on your short list have the programs you are most interested in pursuing. More specifically, let’s say you are focused on becoming a research specialist in pediatric dentist. You find a great school that fits your priorities and your budget, but the school only offers general dentistry. How do you proceed with this enigma? Does it make sense for you to complete the general dentistry program then transfer schools to work towards the research specialization in pediatric dentistry or attend a different school to being with? Knowing these vital factors in advance will save you time and resources regardless of the type of college or university you select. Take the time to perform the necessary research on schools, degree programs, and areas of specialization early in the process.
What Dental Degree Options Exist?
There are six primary degree buckets for students to pursue in dentistry. These include a diploma program, certificate program, associate degree, bachelor degree, master degree, and doctorate degree. Within these different degree levels, schools can provide hybrid programs (online and classroom based) or accelerated programs to meet the needs of students in tandem with the demands of the workforce. A brief overview of each type of degree level to help you jump start your research in the dental field.
Diploma Programs in Dentistry - Diploma programs are often one year programs intended to provide students with the basics in dentistry. The skills and courses built into a dental program are configured to provide a framework for entry-level positions in the dental field. Examples include a dental assisting diploma program and a dental lab technician diploma program.
Certificate Programs in Dentistry – A certificate program in the dental field is a one to two-year program providing more depth and breadth than a diploma program yet less than an associate degree for most tracks. There are a number of certificate programs designed for postgraduate students to enhance a master’s degree or doctorate degree. In either case, certificate programs can be a great segue into the dental field for many students as well as exceptional add-ons for postgraduate students.
Associate Degree in Dentistry– An associate degree program in the dental field is typically a two-year program designed to provide students with the essential information about a degree program plus general education coursework. Classes a student may take include dental radiology, anatomy, dental materials, radiology, chair-side assisting, and human anatomy & physiology.
Bachelor’s Degree in Dentistry – The bachelor’s degree programs in dentistry are more advanced degree programs compared to an associate’s degree and will last approximately four years. Much like the difference between a certificate program and an associate’s degree, the difference between a bachelor’s degree and an associate’s degree is a step-up across all modalities. With a more diverse set of general education courses and additional dental core courses, a student enrolled in a dental program to earn a bachelor’s degree with have exposure to a wide variety of courses. A sampling of courses in the dental field may include: dental law, periodontics, dental practice management, clinical research, and pharmacology. For professional development purposes, it is important to note that a bachelor degree is often times a company requirement for professionals seeking to step into a managerial capacity in the dental field.
Master’s Degree in Dentistry– While not a mainstream degree track, a master’s degree in dental hygiene is a two-year program after successful completion of a bachelor’s degree. These high-level courses in healthcare and dentistry are often couched in deep research, industry best practices, public health-based for dental practitioners and future teachers. Courses you may see in the MSDH program are: leadership, teaching dental hygiene, grant writing, community health advocacy, epidemiology, and health research topics.
Doctorate Degrees in Dentistry – A student seeking a doctorate track will end up earning either a DDS or DDM upon successful program completion. What is the difference between a DDS and DDM? A DDS is a Doctor in Dental Surgery while a DDM is a Doctor in Dental Medicine and both are equivalent degrees. Since the curriculum and awards conferred are equivalent to one another, the ultimate designation of DDM or DDS is up to the university or college. A sampling of doctorate courses may include the following: radiographic occlusion, head & neck anatomy, biostatistics in dentistry, oral microbiology, and advanced periodontics.
Online Dental Programs
Online dental programs that lead to a diploma, certificate, or degree have been rapidly expanding across the country. With their popularity and acceptance gain traction in the marketplace, it is important to remind students to get matched with CODA accredited schools. Prior to applying to an online college or university program, assess your schedule, learning style, and motivation. Online courses offer flexibility to complete courses on your schedule not bound by a traditional classroom time and spaces but require students to be highly motivated and focused to keep on pace.
For additional information on online college degree and diploma programs, visit our advice articles listed below. The extra information and research are typically well worth the investment of time to ensure your learning style and focus align with the educational offerings from a college or university.
Dental Associations and Accreditation Agencies for further research.
- American Dental Association, Commission on Dental Accreditation
- Academy of General Dentistry
- American Association of Endodontists
- American Academy of Periodontology
- American Academy of Oral and Maxillofacial Radiology
- American Association of Public Health Dentistry
- American Association of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeons
- American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry
- American College of Prosthodontists
What Jobs in Dentistry Exist?
Dentistry is an ever-growing field as a number of national factors coalesce together. From demographics (growing, aging population) to healthcare access (access to quality coverage) to technology advancements (cleanings, problem detection), the dental field has continued to grow at an above-average pace and expected to grow at approximately 18% over the next decade. For comparison, the composite average job growth for all occupations during the same timeframe is 7% thus making the dental field an exciting vocational opportunity.
The job types and specialties in dentistry range from surgical to assisting in nature. While not intended to be inclusive of every type of dental job, the following list can be used as a primer to understand the breadth of the dental field. The list of jobs available in the dental field include:
- General Dentists
- Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeons
- Maxillofacial Radiology
- Dental Public Health
- Dental Assistants
- Dental Hygienists
- Dental Laboratory Technicians
- Oral Medicine
- Forensic Odontology
- Geriatric Dentistry
- Special Needs Dentistry
- Veterinary Dentistry
- Oral Biology
- Oral Implantology
- Pediatric Dentistry
- Oral Surgery
Dentists are always in high demand, and as such job growth is expected to increase at approximately 18% over the next decade, particularly as population ages and healthcare becomes more commonplace. As a comparison, the average for all occupations in the United States during this same time frame is 7% putting the demand for dental professionals in perspective. Oral health is important in overall health, and as this becomes more commonly accepted, the field is expected to continue its growth trajectory.
The median income for dental professionals through 2024 is listed below to provide you with a starting point for additional research: dentists $158,310, dental hygienists $72,330, dental assistants $35,980, and dental laboratory technicians $33,950.
For additional information on a future in the dentistry field, read our comprehensive career guide on our blog which includes job duties, common treatments, educational requirements, dental specialties, and job outlook information for dentists, dental hygienists, dental assistants, and dental lab technicians.