Making the decision to become a dentist represents an important commitment to helping others. As a dentist, you play an important role, not only in helping your patients preserve their smiles, but also in maintaining their overall oral health. Maintaining good oral hygiene is important to one’s physical health, but it also has implications for mental health as well. A healthy smile can contribute to good self esteem, making cosmetic dentistry just as vital to a patient’s dental care. Essentially, oral health is an integral part of a person’s general well being.

According to the American Dental Association (ADA), proper dental care is the most unmet health need in many communities and populations in America. By becoming a dentist, you’re joining a growing task force of professionals making a significant difference in people’s lives.

Why Become a Dentist?

Everyone becomes a dentist for their own reasons. For many, it is a passion for dentistry and a desire to help people that drives them. Patients are often incredibly loyal to their dentists, making it a personally rewarding field to work in, and the dental profession is highly respected. There are also a number of other benefits, including the flexibility that comes with owning your own practice. Dentists with their own practice are able to set their own hours, and while many do work full time, they are often able to have evenings and weekends off.

Dentistry is a growing field, with the Bureau of Labor Statistics projecting that the job outlook for dentists will grow by 16% percent by 2022. In 2012, the average annual salary for dentists was $149,310, making it a highly lucrative field as well.

Another enticing aspect of the profession is the numerous career options available. Aside from general dentistry, you can become a specialist or a cosmetic dentist. Dentists can also work in academia and research, contributing to the education of their peers and continued advancements in the profession. There are public health dentists who work directly with underserved communities to educate people about oral health, develop health policies, and prevent disease. The field of dentistry is so diverse that, regardless of your reason for pursuing a career, you can find a path that is right for you.

4 Steps to Becoming a Dentist

The path to becoming a dentist is nuanced, with the specific requirements for practicing varying on a state-by-state basis. However, there are some general steps all dentists must take in order to become qualified, licensed professionals.

1.  Determine your area of professional interest

Most dental professionals are general dentists, caring for the overall oral health of their patients. However, an approximate 20% are specialists, practicing one of the nine specialties recognized by the ADA.

Dental public healthworkers promote dental health and disease prevention in underserved communities.

Endodontists perform root-canal therapy and restore or remove damaged or infected teeth.

Oral and maxillofacial pathologists practice oral pathology, diagnosing oral diseases, such as cancer, that might have serious implications for the maxillofacial (face, jaw, and neck) region.

Oral and maxillofacial surgeons perform surgery on the mouth, jaw, head, and neck to treat and repair injuries or defects.

Oral and maxillofacial radiologists are specialists who use radiologic imaging to identify and diagnose conditions in the oral and maxillofacial region.

Orthodontistscorrect the misalignment of teeth and malformation of jaw structure by applying pressure to the area with braces, iBraces, and Invisalign.

Pediatric dentists focus on dentistry for children and special-needs patients.

Periodontists treat the gums and bone supporting the teeth.

Prosthodontists replace missing teeth with permanent fixtures, such as crowns and bridges or dental implants, or with removable fixtures such as dentures.

2. Apply to an accredited school of dentistry

All dentists must receive their education from an accredited school of dentistry. While specific requirements vary by school, most dental students need at least a bachelor’s degree with a certain number of credits in biology, chemistry, and other related sciences. Most schools require the ADA’s Dental Admission Test as part of the application process.

Students typically take classes in anatomy, periodontology, radiology, and anesthesiology, among other subjects. Dental school takes four years to complete, but pursuing a career in one of the nine specialties requires advanced education that may take an additional two or more years.

3. Complete your residency or additional training

A dental education includes practical training in a clinical setting under the supervision of a licensed dentist. Beyond this, general dentists usually do not require additional training. However, those pursuing a dental specialty must complete a one or two year residency program in that field.

4. Apply for licensure in your state

All states require dentists to obtain a license to practice, though specific requirements vary by state. In addition to a degree in dentistry, most states require dentists to pass a written and practical exam. Specialists must obtain licensure in their specialty.

While the road to becoming a licensed, practicing dentist is clear, the process requires dedication, hard work, and above all, passion. Please keep in mind that you must be licensed in the state where you wish to practice, and while education, a written examination, and a practical examination are universal to all states, specific requirements do vary. The state’s Board of Dentistry is the necessary entity to contact for information regarding your dental license. The ADA maintains a list of each state’s dental board.