Dentistry Degree Programs – Information and Resources
Overview of the Dentistry Field
Dentistry is a healthcare field that focuses on the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of conditions affecting the teeth, gums and other parts of the mouth. There are four primary careers to choose from in dentistry, including dental laboratory technician, dental assistant, dental hygienist and dentist. Dentists can also continue their education and pursue a number of specialties, such as oral surgery, orthodontics and implant dentistry. All careers in dentistry vary according to their required education, salary and other characteristics.
Salaries in Dentistry
The amount you can expect to earn in dentistry depends on the career you choose, your experience, the location in which you work and more. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average salaries earned by professionals in various dentistry positions are as follows:
Work Environment for Individuals in the Dental Field
The work environment for professionals working in the field of dentistry varies based on the type of position. Dental assistants, dental hygienists and dentists all work in dentists’ offices, while dental technicians typically work in laboratories. While dental technicians may spend time both sitting and standing, dentists, dental assistants and dental hygienists spend the majority of their days on their feet. Most dentists, dental assistants and dental technicians work full-time. However, the BLS reports that more than half of all dental hygienists worked part-time hours during 2012.
Dentist Job Outlook
The job outlook for all careers in dentistry is better than average, with the exception of dental laboratory technicians. According to data published by the BLS, the average profession in the United States can expect an increase of 11 percent in available openings from 2012 to 2022. The rates of increase for various professions in the field of dentistry are as follows:
Dentistry Degrees by Education Level
Certificates/On-the-Job Training – Dental Assistants
Dental assistants are responsible for scheduling appointments, keeping records, taking x-rays and helping dentists during various dental procedures.
Some states require dental assistants to be certified, while other states do not require certification. In states where certification is required, you must complete a dental assisting program approved by the state, pass the Certified Dental Assistant exam and be certified in cardiopulmonary resuscitation. In states where certification is not required, you can become a dental assistant with only a high school diploma by completing some on-the-job training.
Formal dental assisting education programs typically last one year and available from technical schools as well as community colleges. Some dental assisting programs may last two years and award an associate’s degree, instead of a certificate. Dental assisting programs typically include the following courses:
•Dental Anatomy and Physiology
•Dental Office Administration
•Fundamentals of Dentistry
•Dental Equipment Use and Care
Most dental assisting programs will also include clinical experiences designed to teach you how to handle all of your responsibilities on the job.
Certificates/On-the-Job Training – Dental Laboratory Technician
Dental laboratory technicians are responsible for constructing, fitting and/or repairing various dental appliances, such as dentures, crowns and bridges. There are no formal education or certification requirements for dental laboratory technicians. Most technicians have only a high school diploma and prepare for their careers through on-the-job training. However, a few formal education programs do exist, and optional certification is available from the National Board of Certification in Dental Laboratory Technology.
When you begin training to become a dental laboratory technician, you may begin as a helper in the lab and then progress to more complex tasks as you build your skills. Formal education programs typically include a combination of classroom instruction and hands-on experience. To become certified as a dental laboratory technician, you must have at least five years of experience working in the field or have completed an accredited program. You must also pass three tests.
Associate’s Degree – Dental Hygienist
Dental hygienists are responsible for cleaning patients’ teeth and examining patients for signs of dental problems, such as gingivitis or cavities. All states require dental hygienists to be licensed. In order to obtain a license, you must typically complete an associate’s degree program in dental hygiene. Most associate’s degree programs require two years of full-time study. Programs are available from community colleges and technical schools.
Most dental hygiene programs include the following courses:
•Dental Tooth Anatomy and Morphology
•Dental Equipment and Materials
•Dental Hygiene Theory
•Head and Neck Anatomy and Physiology
•Clinical Dental Hygiene
•Community Dental Health
Most dental hygiene programs will require you to satisfy prerequisites prior to admission, which may include a high school diploma and/or one year of college.
Bachelor’s and Master’s Degrees in Dentistry
Some schools offer bachelor’s and or master’s degrees in the field of dentistry. If you obtain one of these degrees, you can typically work in a clinical setting or as an educator in a school of dental hygiene or dental assisting. Bachelor’s degree programs require four years of full-time study after high school or two years of study after completing an associate’s degree program. Master’s degree programs require approximately two years of full-time study after completion of your bachelor’s degree.
Doctoral Degrees – Dentists
Dentists diagnose and treat conditions of the teeth, gums, jaw and mouth. Two different doctoral degrees are available to prospective dentists: Doctor of Medicine in Dentistry (DMD) or Doctor of Dental Surgery (DDS). However, both of these degrees typically end in the same career and involve the same curriculum. A third doctoral degree, Doctor of Philosophy in Oral Sciences, is available to students who want to work in research or teach in a school of dentistry.
Doctoral programs in dentistry are typically four years in length. Before you can enter a School of Dentistry, you must have at least a bachelor’s degree. Most schools also require you to obtain at least a minimum grade in certain prerequisite courses. Curriculums vary by school. However, most DMD and DDS programs include courses similar to the following:
•Community Oral Health
Dentists must be licensed by the state before they can practice. Licensure requirements vary, but most states require dentists to complete an approved degree program and pass a licensure examination.
Doctoral programs leading to a Ph.D. in Oral Sciences typically focus more on the research and engineering aspects of dentistry, as opposed to clinical practice. Common courses in Ph.D. programs include:
•Advanced Oral Sciences
Post-Doctoral Certifications – Specialties in Dentistry
Dentists that want to pursue a specialty must complete a post-doctoral education and/or residency program. Nine different specialties exist in the field of dentistry, including:
•Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery
•Oral and Maxillofacial Radiology
•Dental Public Health
Most post-doctoral specialist programs take two to four years to complete. Specialists must also obtain licensure from the state by completing an approved program and passing any required examinations.
Choosing a Dentistry Program
Whether you are pursuing a career as a dental assistant or an oral surgeon, you need to be sure that the program you choose is effective and practical for your needs. Below are some of the characteristics to compare when choosing a dentistry program.
If you are pursuing a career as a dental assistant, dental hygienist or dentist, you may need to be certified and/or licensed before you can begin working. In order to obtain certification and/or licensure, you must attend a program approved by your state. Make sure that any program you are considering is on your state’s list of approved programs before you enroll.
In order to earn accreditation, dentistry programs must meet certain standards published by various professional organizations. If a program is accredited, this indicates that the program is of higher quality than other programs. However, keep in mind that some programs that are accredited may not be approved by your state and vice versa.
Some programs may have higher graduation rates than others. Low graduation rates indicate that the program may not offer as much support to its students.
Examination Pass Rate
If you must pass an examination in order to obtain licensure or certification, you want to be sure that the program you choose will effectively prepare you for the test. Before you apply to a program, find out what percentage of past students have successfully passed the licensure examination after graduation.
Another important characteristic to consider is the employment rate among past graduates of each program you are considering. A high employment rate indicates that the program is well respected and effective, whereas a lower employment rate indicates the opposite.
Lower faculty-to-student ratios are associated with more one-on-one attention than higher faculty-to-student ratios. If possible, choose a program with a lower ratio.
Some programs, especially those in dental assisting and dental hygiene, offer both part-time and full-time options. If you are unable to attend school full-time, make sure that part-time study is available from the program you choose.
The cost of dentistry programs varies considerably. Be sure to compare the costs of all of the programs you are considering before you make a choice. When comparing programs, remember to take financial aid, such as grants and scholarships, into consideration. Some programs may also offer payment plans to students who cannot afford to pay the full cost of tuition and fees upfront.
Beginning Your Career
All programs have their own admission requirements. Make sure you understand and can satisfy all of these requirements before you apply to any dentistry program. In addition, many states have licensure requirements above and beyond completion of a degree program, so make sure you can satisfy these requirements before you earn a degree.