How long does it take to become a dentist? The answer seems simple: you’ll need about eight years of education after high school to become a licensed dentist. Those eight years include four years earning your bachelor’s degree and another four attending dental school.
But it’s not always quite so simple. If you’re considering complex specialties, like orthodontics, periodontics, or a doctor of dental surgery, your journey may extend several years further.
This article will guide you through each step of the process, from undergraduate studies to potential postdoctoral specializations, to help you map out the time commitment you’ll need to pursue a rewarding career in dentistry.
- Becoming a dentist requires at least eight years of education, including a four-year bachelor’s degree and another four years in dental school. Add in additional time for most dental specialties.
- Dental specialties like orthodontics, oral surgery, pediatric dentistry, and periodontics involve extra training. They can lead to higher earnings, with some specialties making over $280,000 a year on average (with some dentists earning much more).
- The dental profession requires a significant financial investment for education. Still, it offers high earning potential, with the average annual salary for dentists currently around $230,000.
The Path To Becoming A Dentist
Choosing dentistry as your career path requires a significant personal and professional investment. It’s a journey that can take up to eight years or more, but the result — a fulfilling career in a respected field — is a worthy goal. Are you ready to discover what it takes to become a dentist?
Undergraduate education, dental school, dental exams, and an optional dental residency are the critical milestones on the path ahead of you. Each phase of this process is essential for a successful dental career, providing opportunities to learn, grow, and develop the vital skills you’ll use daily as a dental professional.
So, let’s explore each of these steps in more detail.
Your first step toward your dental career is earning a bachelor’s degree from a reputable four-year program. Some colleges and universities may offer a recommended pre-dental program but don’t worry if yours doesn’t. You won’t need any specific major for admission to dental schools. Still, most students will want to choose a science major to set the groundwork for their upcoming dentistry school experience.
Biology, physics, and organic chemistry are prerequisite courses for most dental schools because they arm you with vital knowledge for understanding the intricate systems and structures of the human body. Many dental schools require specific coursework, so review the educational requirements of your preferred dental programs sooner rather than later. You don’t want to arrive at the application process only to find you’re missing a course you needed to gain acceptance.
Toward the end of your undergraduate school, you’ll need to take a dental admissions test and apply to various dental schools. The Dental Admission Test (DAT) is a significant step in your journey towards becoming a dentist. This standardized test measures your general academic ability, comprehension of scientific information, and perceptual ability. And it’s a significant factor in getting accepted into a DMS or DDS program. You’ll take it at the end of your junior year or undergraduate school — be sure you studied hard in those science classes to be well prepared!
Once you’ve earned your bachelor’s degree and aced your DAT, you’re ready to move on to your next challenge: dental school. Here, you’ll spend four years immersing yourself in the world of dentistry, both in the classroom and the field, with dental professionals to give you the skills and knowledge new dentists need.
Dental schools accompany you through the intersection of dental theory and dental practice. You’ll study subjects like biology, anatomy, and preventive dentistry and get hands-on practice with real dental patients. Think of it as a boot camp where you’ll learn everything you need to know to become a dentist, like conducting a clinical examination, diagnosing dental problems, treating diseases, and managing a dental practice.
Dental Board Exams
The INBDE, also known as the Integrated National Board Dental Examination, is essential to your journey to becoming a dentist. It’s a two-day exam that tests your ability to understand, apply, analyze, and synthesize information relevant to the practice of dentistry. It is patient-centered and focuses more on comprehensive care than the previous dental board exam, the NBDE.
You must pass the INDBE to get your dental license or start a residency, so start preparing for it while still in dental school. The exam covers a broad range of topics, including the basic sciences, dental anatomy, and clinical procedures. It is often taken during the final year of dental school. Preparing for the INBDE can be daunting, but it’s a critical step in your dental career and a right of passage for new dentists.
There are tons of options for study guides, review courses, and study groups to help you prepare, so take advantage of them. The goal is not just to pass but to excel because your score on the INBDE can affect your chances of getting into a competitive residency program or landing the job you really want after graduation.
Dental Residency (Optional)
Following dental school, many dentists opt to participate in a dental residency. It’s not required, but it can be highly beneficial in preparing you to practice a specific dental specialty.
Whether pediatric dentistry, oral surgery, orthodontics, periodontics, or another specialty, a residency can last one to six years. The additional hands-on training you’ll receive can set you apart from your peers and provide you with the advanced skills needed to provide exceptional patient care.
Popular Dental Specialties
On the topic of specialties, let’s look at the various fields within dentistry where you can choose to focus. The American Dental Association recognizes 12 dental specialties, each with its unique focus and additional training requirements. We’ll touch on a few of the most popular ones here and tell you how much additional time you’d need to invest.
Orthodontics (Add 2-3 Years)
Orthodontists are the architects of beautiful smiles. They specialize in correcting teeth and jaw alignment issues using braces, aligners, and other appliances. Becoming an orthodontist requires an additional two to three years of residency after dental school. It’s a challenging path, but the average orthodontist earns more than $50,000 per year more than a general dentist. The extra income and the reward of creating perfect smiles make the investment worthwhile for many future dentists.
Oral & Maxillofacial Surgery (Add 4 To 6 Years)
Oral and maxillofacial surgeons handle complex issues ranging from wisdom teeth removal to facial trauma, maxillofacial pathology oral diseases, and maxillofacial radiology oral procedures.
However, specializing in dental surgery requires a significant time investment. You’ll need four to six years of training after dental school, making it the longest career path in the dental world. But it’s a rewarding journey if you want to help people through performing surgeries and treating the most complex dental cases.
Pediatric Dentistry (Add 2 To 3 Years)
If you love working with children, pediatric dentistry might be the specialty for you. Pediatric dentists specialize in children’s oral health care from infancy through adolescence.
After dental school, aspiring pediatric dentists complete a two to three-year residency where they learn about child psychology, growth and development, and the specific dental issues that affect children. It’s a rewarding career combining the love for dentistry and the joy of working with kids.
Periodontics (Add 3 Years)
Periodontics is all about the gums. Periodontists specialize in the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of gum diseases and conditions affecting the supporting structures of teeth.
To become a periodontist, you’ll need to complete an additional three years of training after dental school. It’s a specialty that allows you to impact your patients’ oral health and overall well-being significantly.
Prosthodontics (3-4 Years)
A Prosthodontist is essentially an architect who formulates a comprehensive treatment plan to replace missing or defective teeth. As a prosthodontist, you would work with next-generation materials that look and feel like natural teeth. Prosthodontists are masters of all things crowns, caps, bridges, and dentures. It’s another challenging and rewarding specialty requiring two to four years of additional study after dental school.
Endodontics (Add 2-3 Years)
Endodontists are called to as the “tooth savers” of dentistry. As an endodontist, your primary focus is on the pulp and tissue surrounding the roots of teeth. Endodontists specialize in procedures such as root canals, which can save your tooth by removing the infected pulp.
To become an Endodontist, you must complete an additional two to three years of specialized training focused on diagnosing and treating dental pain and performing root canal treatment and other “tooth saving” procedures relating to the tooth’s interior.
Dentist Anesthesiologist (Add 2-3 Years)
Dentist anesthesiologists specialize in providing a wide range of pain management services in a dental practice. During a two- to three-year residency, you’d study how to administer local and general anesthesia, sedation, and pain management for patients undergoing dental procedures.
Dentist anesthesiologists are critical in ensuring patient comfort and safety during dental procedures. They are essential in cases involving severe dental anxiety, complex dental procedures, or patients with special needs, making it an excellent choice for those who have a particular interest in pharmacology and patient comfort. Plus, the extra years of training and the responsibility of this role often lead to higher earnings than in general dentistry.
Cost Of Dental Education
A career in dentistry is an investment both in terms of time and money. The costs can add up from undergraduate education to dental school and beyond. But so can the rewards.
The cost of dental education includes:
- Application fees
- Exam and exam prep fees
- Living expenses and other costs
As a result, as of 2022, the average dental school student leaves school with almost $300,000 in student debt. Choosing a specialization will add to that number but comes with the benefit of higher potential earnings. It’s an investment that must pay for itself over time.
While dental education costs are high, the potential earnings in the dental field can help you earn back your initial investment and much more. As discussed above, Indeed.com shows the median annual salary for dentists at ~$230,000 per year. And top earners in the profession, like dentists with their own private practice, can make many times that number.
Factors such as specialization, experience, and location can significantly impact a dentist’s earning potential. For example, oral and maxillofacial surgeons can earn around $336,000 on average, while orthodontists can make about $285,000 a year.
Preparing For A Career In Dentistry
We’ve established that becoming a practicing general dentist takes eight years after high school. But that number doesn’t tell the whole story. The journey to becoming a dentist really starts in high school, where you can begin laying the groundwork for your future dental career.
From taking advanced science courses to getting involved in health-related extracurricular activities, high school students can take steps today to prepare for a successful career in dental medicine.
High School Preparation
If you’re a high school student contemplating a dentistry career, the time to commence preparations is now. Taking advanced placement courses in biology, chemistry, and physics can give you a head start on the prerequisites for dental school. Plus, they will help you get into a better university, giving you a better chance to land at the medical school of your choice.
Participating in extracurricular activities related to healthcare and volunteering in your community can also help you stand out when applying to dental schools. Remember, becoming a successful dentist is not just about academic achievement but also compassion, leadership, and service.
Acquiring practical experience in the dental field is another way to prepare for a career in dentistry. Internships, shadowing, and volunteering can provide invaluable insights into the world of dentistry and demonstrate your commitment to being the best dentist possible.
Whether observing a dentist in action or volunteering in a community health clinic, these experiences can help you decide if dentistry is the right career path for you. Plus, they look great on your dental school application!
How Long Will You Need To Become A Dentist? It Depends!
As you’ve seen, the path to becoming a dentist differs for each aspiring dental professional. The basic route will take you about eight years from start to finish. But the real work starts even earlier, and many paths may take you an additional three to six years.
In each case, you’re about to dedicate somewhere close to a decade of your life to this journey, so be sure it’s what you want. It’s a long, challenging road filled with opportunities to learn, grow, and significantly impact people’s lives. With dedication, passion, and perseverance, you’ll be a dentist before you know it!
Frequently Asked Questions
Is it very hard to be a dentist?
A career in dentistry can be rewarding, but becoming a dentist is challenging due to the years of schooling, financial cost, and competitive application process. Plus, the career itself is demanding and stressful. It requires dedication, discipline, and time management. It’s not for everyone, but it is a well-paying and rewarding career for many people.
Should I get a DDS or a DMS degree?
The DDS (Doctor of Dental Surgery) and DMD (Doctor of Dental Medicine) are equivalent degrees, meaning they have the same curriculum requirements and standards. The difference is a matter of semantics. Some dental schools award a DDS degree, while others award a DMD degree.
So, you should focus more on the specific dental school and its curriculum, faculty, culture, location, and other factors that are important to you. The type of degree it awards shouldn’t be a significant factor in your decision-making process.
Do dentists go to medical school?
Dentists don’t attend traditional medical school but undergo extensive medical training. After earning a bachelor’s degree, aspiring dentists proceed to dental school, not a general medical school. Dental schools, much like medical schools, are rigorous four-year programs that provide intensive education in the sciences and practical clinical skills.
What is the shortest time to become a dentist?
It typically takes around eight years to become a general dentist, and pursuing a specialization can extend it to a total of 10 or even 14 years. Some accelerated programs may allow you to finish in 7 years.
Is it too late for me to become a dentist?
No, it’s not too late for you to become a dentist. Pursuing a career in dentistry requires dedication and several years of education and training. It’s achievable regardless of your age, but the path may be more challenging for older students.
Does it take longer to become a doctor or dentist?
It takes longer to become a doctor than a general dentist. Most doctors require at least 3 years of post-graduate medical training, which puts their commitment at 10-14 years, compared to 8 years for dentists. However, the path for some dental specialties may be similar to that of certain doctors.
How long does it take to become a dentist?
Becoming a general dentist typically takes 6-8 years, including a four-year bachelor’s degree and four years of dental school. Specialties may require additional years of training.
Should I take the INDBE or NDBE?
Deciding whether to take the Integrated National Board Dental Examination (INBDE) or the National Board Dental Examination (NBDE) is a critical decision in your journey to becoming a dentist. The INBDE is a newer, more integrated version of the NBDE designed to assess better the ability to use information across different disciplines. If you have a choice, the INBDE is the preferred option in 2024 and beyond.