Many dentists own their own practices, while others work as partners or associates in large dental offices. They work in close personal contact with their patients, probing mouths, giving injections and fixing teeth. Depending on the office size, dentists may also supervise office staff and assistants. A dentist needs undergraduate study and a professional degree to prepare for state licensing. However, the work also requires special skills and personal qualities.
Some students enter dental school after two or three years of undergraduate college, but most dental students already have a bachelor's degree, according to the American Dental Education Association's "Go Dental" website. There's no required major, according to the ADEA, but you must take the necessary prerequisites, which depend on the dental program. In general, you need two semesters or three quarters each of biology, physics, general chemistry and organic chemistry, all including lab sections. Some colleges also require anatomy, physiology, biochemistry and microbiology, while others require English, arts or social sciences. These prerequisites prepare students for the Dental Admission Test, which students normally take before their senior year.
Dental school takes four years, including class and clinical work, and typically leads to the Doctor of Dental Surgery degree, or D.D.S. The first two years, students take classes in human anatomy, oral anatomy, pathology, physiology, microbiology and pharmacology. During the third and fourth years, students treat patients under the supervision of experienced dentists, working in health centers, hospitals or clinics. For example, at the University of Southern California Ostrow School of Dentistry, student dentists do clinical rotations in areas such as emergency, oral surgery and orofacial medicine.
In some states, dentists can take state licensing exams as soon as they complete dental school, but other states mandate post-doctoral education. According to the ADEA, these states usually require a one-year general practice residency or advanced educational program. In any case, dentists who have completed the required education must pass clinical and written examinations to qualify for state licensing.
To qualify as dental specialists, dentists must take additional post-doctoral training often lasting two years or more. Some states also require a residency of up to two years and an additional exam for specialty licensing. Some of the nine dental specialties with American Dental Association recognition include endodontics, oral and maxillofacial surgery, pediatric dentistry and periodontics.
In addition to ability in the sciences, a dentist needs good physical coordination, superior manual dexterity and the stamina to stand over patients for many hours. Dentists need strong problem-solving skills to diagnose abnormalities and determine the best treatments. They need meticulous attention to detail to match restorations perfectly, for example. Working on patients who are afraid or need special care, such as children, requires patience and interpersonal skills. A dentist who owns the practice needs leadership and business skills to supervise employees and manage the business.
- U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook: How to Become a Dentist
- U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook: Dentists -- Work Environment
- American Dental Association: Specialty Definitions
- ADEA Go Dental: Qualifying for Dental School
- ADEA Go Dental: Dental School Curriculum
- U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook: What Dentists Do
- University of Southern California Ostrow School of Dentistry: Doctor of Dental Surgery -- Curriculum
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