Students with passions for medicine and for helping patients often face the difficult choice between going to dental school to become a dentist or going to medical school to become a physician. Both career fields share a focus on medical care, but there are vast differences between dental school and medical school.

History of the Professions

The differences between dental school and medical school stem from the historical roots of each profession. In the past, dentists were typically viewed as technicians, rather than as medical specialists. For this reason, from Colonial times through the early 20th century, barbershops were the main center for dental care in America. Physicians, on the other hand, were expected to have a more comprehensive understanding of medicine and the human body. Although today dental care is considered to be a medical profession, the tradition of dental schools focusing solely on oral health and dental skills and techniques continues.

Curriculum Differences

The greatest difference between dental school and medical school is the curriculum. Both dental school and medical school feature foundation courses in human anatomy, biochemistry, human physiology, pathology and neuroanatomy. However, dental school focuses more on courses that directly concern oral health and dental problems, such as oral biology and operative dentistry. Medical school, on the other hand, continues to focus on foundation courses and general courses about organ systems, genetics and the like through the second year.

Timeline for Study

The timeline for obtaining a degree can also differ between dental school and medical school. Both medical school and dental school are designed to last four years, and both offer optional postgraduate training for those who wish to become a specialist. However, dental programs for specializations, such as cosmetic dentistry and peridontology, last one to three years, whereas medical specialty programs can last as long as five to seven years after graduation from medical school.

Deciding Between Dentistry and Medicine

For many students, the choice between dentistry and medicine comes down to subject matter preference. Students who are passionate about dental care will naturally gravitate toward dentistry, whereas those who strongly wish to become a dermatologist, for example, will attend medical school. However, other students also consider the shorter timeline for dental school or the salary differences between their preferred medical specialty and dentistry. Dentistry may be more attractive for adult students who wish to change careers because they may only need to be in school for four to seven years, versus nine years or more.