Career Information for HPAG Students: Dentistry

Dentistry is the medical care of the mouth, teeth, and gums. Common work includes cleaning teeth, filling cavities, repairing fractured teeth, removing unhealthy teeth, and creating implants or replacement teeth to replace those in too poor condition to save.  Cosmetic dentistry is also an important area, devoted to whitening teeth, repairing broken teeth, adding veneers, and filling in gaps between teeth. Many recent advances in dentistry have shown links between poor oral health and numerous body wide diseases, including heart disease, underscoring the importance of good oral hygiene. 

The Work: Dentists generally evaluate patients every 6 months (recommended), during which visits dentists clean teeth, check for cavities and other signs of damage to the teeth, assess gum health, and look for abnormal growths throughout the mouth.  In addition, dentists take and read X-rays. Emergency work is also part of the practice; evaluating tooth pain, filling cavities, and repairing teeth damaged in accidents are common procedures that occur between normal patient check-ups. 

Specialties:  Requiring 2-3 years further formal training after dental school:

  • orthodontics (straightening the teeth)
  • oral and maxillofacial surgery
  • endodontics (providing root canal treatment)
  • pedodontics (treatment for children)
  • periodontics (treatment of gum disease)
  • prosthodontics (replacement of missing teeth by prostheses such as dentures, bridges and dental implants)
  • operative dentistry (restoration of existing teeth)
  • dental public health (study of dental epidemiology and social health policies)
  • forensic odontology (gathering and use of dental evidence in law)
  • oral radiology and oral pathology (study of oral and dentally related diseases)

The Work Setting:  Most dentists are self-employed, running their own practices, or working in a small group.  Working hours vary, but often encompass 10-hour work days for 4 days a week.

Entry Into Field:  A license to practice dentistry is required in all 50 states (“Board Certification”) following completion of a doctoral program in dentistry (obtaining a D.D.S.).

Education:  There are 55 dental schools in the United States, but only one in Virginia (Virginia Commonwealth University School of Dentistry).  Most DDS programs require 4 years of study, including emphasis on basic science clinical work, and social science. 

The first two years of most programs are generally aimed at classroom learning of basic science as it relates to dentistry.  Subsequent years of most programs then focus on clinical training.

Admission to dental schools is highly competitive;  one should have at least a 3.3 grade point average, have spent considerable time shadowing a dental professional, have significant volunteer hours, positive letters of reference, and satisfactory to excellent scores on the DAT and perceptual ability tests.

Compensation: The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that the yearly earnings of dentists averaged $130,000 in 2004.
Most dentists are self-employed, running their own practices.  Self-employed dentists in private practice generally earn more, but like other business owners, they must provide their own insurance and retirement benefits.  Earnings also vary according to geographic location, specialty, and the number of years in practice.

Job Outlook: Government economists predict that jobs for dentists will grow about as fast as average for all occupations through 2014. Most jobs will become available when older dentists retire.

Helpful Web Sites:
College Board
Dental Schools

Dental Schools in the Region:

VCU School of Dentistry
UNC School of Dentistry
West Virginia University School of Dentistry
University of Maryland School of Dentistry