Nearly 65 percent of adults and 86 percent of children in the US visit a dentist each year (CDC 2022). Routine dental care is important because not only does it help maintain healthy gums and teeth, but it can lead to early treatment to avoid losing teeth or having more invasive procedures. 

Currently, there are 139,200 dentists working across the country. They primarily work in private practices, although a few work for hospitals, government agencies, and outpatient clinics. Dentists provide routine screenings and dental care as well as fill cavities, perform root canals, and other treatments as necessary. Oral diseases can be indicative of other health problems, so dentists can be critical in the early detection of heart disease, diabetes, and kidney problems.

In order to become a dentist, students must complete a bachelor’s degree followed by four years of dental school. Dental school is very similar to medical school in that students are required to complete intensive lecture courses along with simulation classes, labs, and clinical experiences. Many dental procedures require dexterity, and it can take students several months to gain the skills necessary to care for patients properly. 

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS May 2020), dentistry can be a lucrative field with an annual average wage of $180,830. If dentists pursue additional certification or specialize, the earnings can significantly increase. Currently, the demand for dentists is expected to grow 8 percent between 2020 and 2030. This translates into approximately 11,100 more jobs in this field in the next decade. 

Continue reading to learn about top dental programs in the country, online options for dental-related education, and what certification and licenses are necessary to practice in this field.

Dentist Specializations & Degree Types

There are two primary degrees a dentist can earn: a doctor of dental surgery (DDS) or a doctor of medicine in dentistry (DMD). There is no significant difference between a DDS or DMD degree as they both have the same curriculum requirements from the American Dental Association’s Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA). It is simply up to each university as to which degree they award. 

Dentists can earn complete additional education in order to practice in a specialization such as pediatrics, orthodontics, oral and maxillofacial surgery, or restorative dentistry. These programs can be a master’s, PhD, or even a residency.

Admissions Requirements for Dentist Programs

Admission to dental school can be extremely competitive. Not only are dental schools looking for students who have a solid academic background as demonstrated by a high GPA, but they will also be considering Dental Acceptance Test (DAT) scores, extracurriculars, letters of recommendation, personal statements, and more. 

Also, students must have completed extensive prerequisite coursework in math, biology, general chemistry, organic chemistry, physics, and anatomy and physiology. Qualified applicants will often have to complete an interview with the admission committee to ensure they are a good fit for the program.

Dentist Program Accreditation

The American Dental Association’s Commission accredits dental schools in the United States on Dental Accreditation (CODA). Students should ensure that the school they attend is CODA-accredited, as this is required for licensing in many states. 

Accreditation assures students, employers, and licensing boards that the degree obtained meets a high level of quality in curriculum, facilities, and faculty.

On-Campus Dentist Schools Programs

University of Michigan – School of Dentistry

The doctor of dental surgery program at the University of Michigan School of Dentistry has an emphasis on biomedical sciences and clinical care. According to the QS World University Rankings, the UM dental school is number one in the US and number two in the world. The year 2021 marked the seventh year in a row that this school has received a number one ranking. As such, admission to this program is highly competitive.  

Dental students have the option of completing their DDS as a stand-alone program or as a dual degree. Other degrees they can complete concurrently include an MBA or a PhD in oral health sciences. Dentists who are seeking additional education can complete a pediatric dentistry, periodontics, orthodontics, or restorative dentistry master’s program. 

  • Location: Ann Arbor, MI
  • Duration: Four years
  • Accreditation: American Dental Association’s Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA)
  • Tuition: $43,541 to $51,835 per year for tuition

University of California San Francisco – School of Dentistry

With more than 120,000 patients each year, the University of California San Francisco School of Dentistry offers its students unparalleled hands-on experience. The School of Dentistry has been teaching students how to care for patients’ teeth since 1881. 

Students in this program will earn a doctor of dental surgery degree. They also have the opportunity to complete a PhD, postgraduate program, or residency through this school. There is a strong emphasis on research here, and they are recognized as one of the top schools for National Institute of Health funding. 

Students in this program are expected to be well-rounded in all subjects. Required coursework includes dental classes along with science, art, and technology. Much of the curriculum is centered on team-based learning, teaching students how to work collaboratively with everyone in a dental office. 

  • Location: San Francisco, CA
  • Duration: Four years
  • Accreditation: American Dental Association’s Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA)
  • Tuition: $62,665 per year

University of Pennsylvania – School of Dental Medicine

The University of Pennsylvania School of Dental Medicine offers a doctor of medicine in dentistry degree. While there is an expectation that students develop their understanding of oral medicine and science, they are also encouraged to pursue interdisciplinary interests to be well-rounded dentists. In fact, there are seven dual degree options students can pursue, including law, bioengineering, bioethics, and public health. 

Clinical experiences are integral to this degree, and students will begin working with patients in their very first year. Students will care for patients in a variety of settings, including community clinics, orthodontics, oral surgery, and more. To help students develop the necessary dexterity, this program has high-tech virtual reality simulators.   

  • Location: Philadelphia, PA
  • Duration: Four years
  • Accreditation: American Dental Association’s Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA)
  • Tuition: $79,166 per year

University of the Pacific – Dugoni School of Dentistry

The University of the Pacific Dugoni School of Dentistry is the only school in the country where students can complete their doctor of dental surgery degree in just three years. This accelerated format does not compromise on education, clinical experiences, or skill development. At the center of the curriculum is a humanistic model of instruction that emphasizes each person’s value as an individual. Students are expected to actively participate in their education and develop strong critical thinking skills. 

During the three years that students are in this program, they will provide care to hundreds of patients. With a competency-based clinical model, students will practice their skills until they have mastered the techniques. This ensures all graduates have the necessary training to be excellent dentists.  

  • Location: San Francisco, CA
  • Duration: Three years
  • Accreditation: American Dental Association’s Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA)
  • Tuition: $119,360

University of California, Los Angeles – School of Dentistry

The University of California, Los Angeles School of Dentistry aims to train its students to not only be outstanding practitioners but also to be lifelong learners. The field of dentistry is constantly evolving, so students in this program are trained to embrace these changes and adapt to new technology as early as possible. Students in this program also receive extensive leadership training to prepare them to be excellent clinical managers in the future. 

This is a traditional four-year doctor of dental surgery program that has an emphasis on providing socially sensitive and responsible patient care. Each year there are 88 students admitted to this highly competitive program. To stand out, applicants should have high GPAs, good DAT test scores, extracurricular activities, shadowing experience, and outstanding letters of recommendation. 

  • Location: Los Angeles, CA
  • Duration: Four years
  • Accreditation: American Dental Association’s Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA)
  • Tuition: $76,588 to $96,267 per year

University at Buffalo – School of Dental Medicine

Dental students at the University at Buffalo School of Dental Medicine become not only great clinicians but also compassionate care providers. In addition to classroom learning, students participate in on-campus research projects, intensive simulation labs, and clinical rotations in order to be well-rounded dentists prepared to work in any environment. 

Current projects on campus include cancer, infectious diseases, periodontal disease, and salivary research. The first year of the doctor of dental surgery program is dedicated to knowledge acquisition, while the subsequent three years put that education to practice in clinicals. 

The fourth year of this program has set aside time for students to pursue specialty training or other areas of interest. Students can even choose to complete a minor in their chosen field, such as diagnostic science, pediatrics, or periodontics. 

  • Location: Buffalo, NY
  • Duration: Four years
  • Accreditation: American Dental Association’s Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA)
  • Tuition: $62,950 per year for tuition

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill – Adams School of Dentistry

One of the hallmarks of the doctor of dental surgery program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Adams School of Dentistry is access to groundbreaking technology. This program has a strong commitment to ensuring that its graduates are at the forefront of new developments in dentistry. To facilitate that, students train on state-of-the-art digital dentistry technology in order to provide the highest quality of patient care with the latest tools. 

Graduates of this program are ready to work as dental clinicians or to pursue other career paths or additional education. Students who complete this degree are prepared to go on to complete a residency, pursue research, or attend a postdoctoral program. All students are expected to have a dedication to lifelong learning in order to continue to give patients the best care possible. 

  • Location: Chapel Hill, NC
  • Duration: Four years
  • Accreditation: American Dental Association’s Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA)
  • Tuition: $33,731.07 tuition per year

Online or Hybrid Dentistry Training Programs

Due to the intensive hands-on nature of dentistry, there are currently no fully online dentistry degree programs. However, there are many online education options for distance-based continuing education once initial school and licensure have been completed. 

University of Southern California Herman Ostrow School of Dentistry 

The Herman Ostrow School of Dentistry at the University of Southern California offers several online certificates and one online master’s degree for practicing dentists. 

The orofacial pain and oral medicine program can be completed as either a master’s of science or a certificate and trains practitioners on more advanced care techniques for pain patients. The oral pathology and radiology certificate teaches additional skills to diagnose diseases and utilize imaging equipment.  

All of these programs are offered entirely online through asynchronous pre-recorded lectures and live-streamed classes. Students will be expected to complete quizzes, homework, and research projects in order to earn the certificate or master’s degree. 

  • Location: Los Angeles, CA
  • Duration: Varies
  • Accreditation: Western Association of Schools and Colleges
  • Tuition: $2035 per unit

University of Washington – School of Dentistry

There are several options for continuing education courses for dentists through the University of Washington School of Dentistry. While some of the courses are in person, there are many online options, including pre-recorded online courses, recorded webinars, live lectures, and grand rounds. The number of continuing education credits a dentist can earn varies based on the length of the lecture or course. 

Dentists who need to complete specific training, such as pain management in order to be able to prescribe opioids, can find courses to meet those needs. Costs for courses vary but are typically less than $100. 

  • Location: Seattle, WA
  • Duration: Varies
  • Accreditation: ADA Continuing Education Recognition Program (ADA CERP) 
  • Tuition: Varies

American Dental Association Continuing Education

The American Dental Association was established in 1859 as a professional organization for dentists. With more than 160,000 members, it is the largest professional association for dentists in the US.

In addition to providing advocacy services, the ADA offers continuing education opportunities. These opportunities include online courses, live streams, recordings, journal readings, and more. The ADA tracks all activities to accurately count continuing education credits for busy dentists. In addition, participants can print verification letters at any time should they need to provide proof of their completed activities. 

While the costs for the courses or activities vary, there are several cost-saving options, including a subscription to 300 classes for one low price or courses for dental teams at a significant discount over buying them individually. 

  • Location: Chicago, IL
  • Duration: Varies
  • Accreditation: ADA Continuing Education Recognition Program (ADA CERP)
  • Tuition: Varies

How Long Does it Take to Become a Dentist?

It takes, on average, at least eight years of education beyond high school in order to become a dentist. This includes four years to complete a bachelor’s degree and an additional four years to complete dental school.

How To Become a Dentist – Step-by-Step Guide

Step 1: Graduate from High School or Obtain a GED (Four Years)

Graduating from high school or earning a GED is the first step towards a career as a dentist, as they are required for admission to most bachelor’s degree programs. Aspiring dentists should focus on science and math classes to help prepare them for additional studies. 

In addition, advanced placement classes can help students earn college credits while still in high school, which can reduce the number of credits required to complete a degree. 

Step 2: Complete a Bachelor’s Degree Program (Four Years)

Students who want to attend dental school must first complete a bachelor’s degree. While students can complete a degree in any major, there are some subjects that will prepare students better than others. Top choices in majors include chemistry, biochemistry, physics, and pre-dentistry. 

Admission to dental school is highly competitive, so students should also ensure they enroll in extracurricular activities and complete shadowing experiences at dental clinics to help them stand out when submitting applications. 

Step 3: Take the Dental Acceptance Test (Timeline Varies)

All dental schools currently require students to take the Dental Acceptance Test (DAT). This standardized test takes five hours to complete and measures a student’s readiness to attend dental school. Students are encouraged to take the test at least one year before their desired dental school start date. 

Step 4: Apply for Dental School (Timeline Varies)

During the fall of a student’s senior year of their bachelor’s degree, they will need to submit applications to dental school. Qualified applicants will then be invited to complete an in-person or virtual interview with admission staff. 

Admission to most schools is highly competitive, so students should ensure they submit the strongest application they can. 

Step 5: Attend Dental School (Four Years)

Dental school takes four years to complete and encompasses extensive classroom learning with labs, simulations, and clinical practice in order to gain the hands-on skills needed to be a dentist. 

Step 6: Obtain State Licensure (Timelines Vary)

All dentists must be licensed by their state board in order to care for patients. Requirements vary by state. More details can be found in the certification and licensure section below.

What Do Dentists Do?

Dentists primarily work in private clinics, although some may be self-employed or work for the government, a hospital, or an outpatient center. Job duties vary by place of employment but typically include:

  • Meeting with patients to assess oral health
  • Removing decay or plaque from patients’ teeth
  • Repairing or removing damaged teeth
  • Administering anesthetics in order to perform procedures
  • Applying sealants or medications to patients’ teeth
  • Evaluating x-rays to determine what care a patient needs
  • Educating patients about oral health
  • Prescribing medications for dental conditions

Dentist Certifications & Licensure

In order to practice, dentists must be licensed by their state dental board. The requirements vary by state but typically include earning a DDS or DMD degree, passing a comprehensive exam, completing an application, and passing a background check. For example, in Florida, the requirements are:

  • Be 18 years old
  • Graduate from a dental school accredited by the American Dental Association Commission on Dental Accreditation
  • Pass the Dental National Board Examination, Florida Laws and Rules Examination, and ADEX Dental Licensing Examination

There are additional licenses and certifications that dentists can earn in order to practice in specialty fields or to differentiate themselves in the market, such as the American Board of Dental Specialties or the American Board of General Dentistry.

How Much Do Dentists Make?

The 95,920 dentists working in the US earn $180,830 per year on average, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS May 2020). The percentiles for wages are:

  • 10th percentile: $ 81,060
  • 25th percentile: $115,290
  • 50th percentile (median): $158,940
  • 75th percentile: >$208,000 per year
  • 90th percentile: >$208,000 per year

Please note that the BLS does not give specific figures for ranges in excess of $208,000.

Dentist Career Alternatives

Here are some alternatives to a career as a dentist. 

Become a Podiatrist

Podiatrists are healthcare providers who specialize in the lower leg, ankle, and foot. They have completed a four-year doctor of podiatric medicine degree and three years of podiatric residency to have the necessary training and education to provide quality care. 

  • Typical Education: Doctors of podiatric medicine (DPM)
  • Licensing or Certifying Organization: American Board of Foot and Ankle Surgery (ABFAS), American Board of Podiatric Medicine (ABPM), or American Board of Multiple Specialties in Podiatry (ABMSP)

Become a Physical Therapist

Physical therapists provide evaluations and treatment to patients who have neurological disorders, chronic illness, injuries, arthritis, or any other conditions that may restrict movement. They typically work in private clinics but can also be found in rehabilitation offices and hospitals. 

  • Typical Education: Doctor of physical therapy (DPT)
  • Licensing or Certifying Organization: American Board of Physical Therapist Specialties

Become a Physician Assistant 

Physician assistants can provide much of the same care that a physician can with less schooling. While they typically have to work under the supervision of a physician, they can provide primary care service, assist in surgery, write prescriptions, and make diagnoses. 

  • Typical Education: Master’s of physician assistant studies (MPAS), a master’s of health services (MHS), or a master’s of medical science (MMSc)
  • Licensing or Certifying Organization: Varies by state
Kimmy Gustafson

Kimmy Gustafson


Kimmy is a freelance writer with extensive experience writing about healthcare careers and education. She has worked in public health, at health-focused nonprofits, and as a Spanish interpreter for doctor’s offices and hospitals. She has a passion for learning and that drives her to stay up to date on the latest trends in healthcare. When not writing or researching, she can be found pursuing her passions of nutrition and an active outdoors lifestyle.

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