The field of dentistry encompasses many careers that can require as little as one year and as much as eight years of education. Modern dental work requires the combined efforts of hygienists, doctors, assistants and oral surgery specialists. Continue reading to learn more about dental career opportunities and their academic requirements to determine if dentistry is a good fit for you.
Dentistry involves surgical and non-invasive procedures that correct afflictions of the teeth and gums. Certificate programs and associate's degree programs typically offer training for dental hygienists or assistants and focus on cleaning methods and patient education. Bachelor's degree programs are also available in dental hygiene, and some universities offer pre-dentistry programs that allow students to complete entry requirements for a doctoral degree program in dental medicine. Master's degree programs are available in dental hygiene and public health with an emphasis in dentistry. At the doctoral degree level, enrollees can select from programs in dental medicine, dental surgery and dental science.
Everyone entering the dental field learns the basics of human dentition. This includes dental ethics, tooth arrangement, common afflictions and maxillofacial anatomy. In the undergraduate- and master's-level dental hygiene degree programs, participants explore theories of dental hygiene, learn to use dental tools and take classes in terminology. Bachelor's, master's and doctoral degree programs have science courses and graduate programs require that applicants have earned credits in chemistry, biology and physics. Most programs include practical training through a combination of labs, field experiences, clinical practicums and internships.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), dental professionals should have excellent manual dexterity, good memories, the ability to judge color and spaces between teeth and the ability to work well with others (www.bls.gov). As of May 2010, general dentists made a median salary of $141,040, prosthodontists made $118,400 and other specialists made $161,020. Dental hygienists made a median annual salary of $68,250 and dental assistants earned the lowest wages, with a median salary of $33,470. The BLS projects that the employment demand for dentists will increase between 2008 and 2018, with an increase of 16% for dentists and 36% for dental hygienists and dental assistants.
According to the BLS, dental assistants don't need to complete formal college education, since on-the-job training is available. However, earning a licensure is required, so completing a 1-year certificate program or an associate's degree program in dental assisting could be beneficial as the licensure exam includes many of the topics covered in those programs. Dental hygienists must earn an associate's or a bachelor's degree and pass a licensure exam that has both written and clinical components. Dental assistants and hygienists take x-rays, clean patients' teeth, prepare examination rooms and process records.
Individuals who earn a bachelor's or a master's degree in dental hygiene can also become dental hygienists. However, the BLS adds that those graduates can go into research, teach programs in dental hygiene or work in public health. Many master's degree programs in dental hygiene require applicants to have experience working in dental hygiene and a valid license, although no specific undergraduate requirements exist. Master's-level public health programs with an emphasis in dentistry prepare graduates to work with the community and dental professionals, helping promote good dental practices and inform people about the importance of dentistry.
Aspiring dentists must complete a bachelor's degree followed by a doctorate in dental science, dental surgery or dental medicine for a total of eight years of study. Undergraduate students who are interested in becoming dentists typically pursue a degree program in biology, chemistry or physics and work with their student advisor to complete the prerequisites for a doctoral degree program. The last two years of a doctorate in dentistry requires students to treat patients under the supervision of a licensed dentist. Graduates must earn licensure through their state before they can practice. Nine specialties are available, including orthodontics, endodontics and oral pathology, all of which have separate licensure exams and additional academic requirements.