Overview of the Profession
Advances in dental research including genetic engineering, the discovery of links between oral and systemic diseases, the development of salivary diagnostics and the continued development of new materials and techniques make dentistry an exciting, challenging and rewarding profession. Today's dentists are highly sophisticated health professionals who provide a wide range of oral health care that contributes to the general health and quality of their patients' lives. Dentists are instrumental in the early detection of oral cancer and systemic conditions that manifest in the mouth. They also can serve as first responders in the event of a large-scale health emergency. Today's dentists are at the forefront of a range of new developments in dental implants, computer generated imaging, and cosmetic and aesthetic procedures. For a listing of accredited dental schools in the United States, see the American Dental Association.
Dentistry is the health profession dedicated to maintaining the health of the teeth, gums and other oral structures. Dentistry is a rapidly changing, expanding profession. Dentists perform a wide range of care involving:
- Detection of diseases: Dentists are often the first health care professionals to recognize and identify a wide variety of diseases, ranging from hypertension to cancer.
- Diagnosis: Dentists diagnose and treat problems affecting the teeth, gingival tissue, tongue, lips and jaws. To accomplish this, they utilize new technology such as computers and magnetic resonance imaging.
- Aesthetic improvement: Dentists improve patients' appearance by using a wide variety of cosmetic dental procedures. These services can make patients feel better about their smiles.
- Surgical restoration: To repair, restore and maintain the teeth, gums and oral tissues that have been lost or damaged by accidents or diseases, dentists perform trauma surgery, implants, tissue grafts and laser surgery.
- Public education/prevention: Dentists teach good habits for good health. They educate their patients, as well as the general public, on how to achieve oral health and prevent disease.
Dentistry also offers individuals the opportunity to pursue an academic career, engaged in teaching and research.
Advanced Dental Education Programs
ADEA’s Postdoctoral Application Support Service (PASS) simplifies the process of applying to most postdoctoral programs in general dentistry as well as the specialties listed below. To learn about participating programs in all general and specialty fields, the PASS Program Search Engine provides current information that is maintained by the programs themselves.
- Clinical Fields: There are 9 clinical fields in dentistry. Although most dentists are in general practice (80%) 20% choose to specialize in one particular area.
- General Dentistry: General dentists diagnose, educate, perform surgery and rehabilitation to restore damaged or missing tooth structure and treat diseases of the bone and soft tissue in the mouth. Post-doctoral training is not required for general dentistry although general practice residencies and advanced education are available.
- Dental Public Health: These practitioners are involved in developing policy and programs, such as health care reform that affect the community at large. Post-doctoral work in public health is required. There are 13 programs and 19 first-year residents in the United States. Visit the American Association of Public Health Dentistry Web site.
- Endodontics: Endodontists diagnose and treat diseases specific to the dental nerves an matter inside the tooth. Postdoctoral education is required for this specialty – either a master’s or certificate program in endodontics. Visit the American Association of Endodontists Web site.
- Oral and Maxillofacial Pathology: Oral pathologists study the causes, processes and effects of diseases with oral manifestations., Oral pathologists do not treat patients directly but rather provide the diagnostic and consultative biopsy services to dental practitioners and physicians in the treatment of patients. Post-doctoral education is required. Visit the American Academy of Oral & Maxillofacial Pathology Web site.
- Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery: This specialty concentrates on the treatment of defects of the neck, head, jaw and other aligned structures. Postdoctoral education is required either in the form of a degree or certificate program. The length of these specialty training programs is generally 4 years. Visit the American Association of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeons Web site.
- Orthodonticas and Dentofacial Orthopedics: Specialists in Orthondontics treat irregular development of teeth – including missing teeth, over/under bites, crowded teeth etc. Postdoctoral education is required for this specialty generally lasting 24-36 months. Visit the American Association of Orthodontists Web site.
- Pediatric Dentistry: Pediatric dentistry concentrates on the dental population of children from birth to adolescence. Postdoctoral education is required for this specialty generally lasting 24-36 months. Visit the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry Web site.
- Periodontics: This specialty diagnoses and treats diseases of the gingival tissue (including the gums, oral mucous membranes and other surrounding tissue) and bone supporting the teeth. Postdoctoral education is required for this specialty generally lasting 36 months. Visit the American Academy of Periodontology Web site.
- Prostodontics: This specialty concentrates on the replacement of missing natural teeth with fixed or removable substitutes such as dentures, bridges and implants. Postdoctoral education is required for this specialty generally lasting between 12 and 36 months depending on the program. Visit the American College of Prosthodontists Web site.
- Self-employed in Private Practice: Most dentists still remain in private practice either on their own or with a partner or small group of dentists. In fact 92 percent of private practice dentists own their own practice. Most practitioners use a fee schedule, participate in preferred provider plans, or accept some combination of both as payment for providing care. Fewer than 15% of dentists participate in dental health maintenance organizations (HMOs).
- Salaried Employee or Associate: Most recent graduates begin their careers in salaried or associate positions in private practices, but most choose to move to practice ownership within several years.
- Dental Research/Academic Dentistry: Dental researchers are those individuals engaged in scientific research related to oral health. Many researchers are found in academic settings and also engage in teaching in a dental school environment. The ADEA Academic Dental Careers Network provides more detailed information about career opportunities in academics. Other faculty at dental schools are part-time, splitting their time between teaching and private clinical practice. Many researchers are faculty members at universities; others work in federal facilities such as the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research (NIDCR), the National Institutes of Health (NIH), or in private industry. Postgraduate fellowships and opportunities are available in a variety of areas and sponsored by public and private organizations.
- Service in the Federal Government: The federal government offers numerous opportunities for dental school graduates. Dentists may enlist in the military to serve military personnel and their families. Scholarships and loan repayment programs for dental students and graduates are also available. For information on careers in the military, check out the U.S. Army , the U.S. Navy or the U.S. Air Force.
- Salary and Lifestyle: Dentists treat people, not just teeth and mouths. They interact with people of all ages, cultures and personalities. The dentist's typical day is diverse and interesting. The careers and lifestyles of dentists are also flexible. The average income of a dentist is in the highest 5% of U.S. family income. Salaries will vary by geographic location and specialty, but the average net income of a practitioner in solo full-time practice is $174,350 for general dentists and $291,250 for specialists. (ADEA, 2002)
Outlook for the Future
The demand for dental care will continue to grow. Increasingly, older adults are keeping their teeth longer, and are more aware of the importance of regular dental care and require more dental services. Geriatric dental care and the greatly increased demand for newer services, such as cosmetic dentistry, also will contribute to this growth.
A dental education requires a minimum of four years of dental school. At the conclusion of dental school individuals receive a doctoral degree (DDS or DMD dependent on school). Students who decide to go into one of the eight specialties will need a minimum of two years of additional schooling. Dental education usually follows the completion of an undergraduate degree including certain pre-dental prerequisites. Dental education itself includes a study of the basic health sciences, including anatomy, biochemistry, histology, microbiology, pathology, pharmacology and physiology, with emphasis on dental aspects. It also includes application of these health sciences to patient care. The final two years of dental school concentrate on clinical training. This training is designed to introduce students to the basic techniques involved in oral diagnosis, restorative dentistry, periodontics, oral surgery, orthodontics, pediatric dentistry, prosthodontics, endodontics and other types of treatment. During these two years there is also a didactic emphasis on practice management in dentistry. Third and fourth year dental students rotate through various clinics to treat their own patients under the supervision of clinical instructors.
Pre-Dental Requirements: To check specific requirements please refer to ADEA Official Guide to Dental Schools or search by individual schools. For information about how to fulfill these courses at Columbia, please see Premedical Curriculum
Many factors are considered by dental schools when deciding who to admit into their classes. Applicants are assessed based on their academic potential, personal readiness, and motivation for a career in dentistry. The steps in the application process are outlined below.
Premedical Advisory Committee Evaluation : The Premedical Advisory Committee (PAC) Letter of Evaluation is a comprehensive letter of evaluation and supporting documents that is written for current students and alumni applying to graduate schools of the health professions. It is designed to provide admissions committees with a complete understanding of each candidate’s background and experiences both academic and otherwise.
This evaluation is written by the student’s request and only after the student completes all pre-application requirements by the stated deadline. The pre-applicant process includes submission of letters of recommendation, resume, autobiography, activities grids, supplemental information forms, as well as an interview with the Premedical Advisory Committee. For more information: Premedical Committee Letter of Evaluation
Timing of application : Admission at most dental schools is rolling which means that many schools have a large percentage of their class full by the end of December of each year. The message here is APPLY EARLY!
State of Residency: Virtually all public, state-supported dental schools show preference for admitting applicants who are legal residents of that state. You should understand that this practice is based on both economic and philosophical reasoning. First, education at those schools is funded primarily by the taxpayers of the state. Those taxpayers and their sons and daughters, in turn, expect some priority in access to medical training. In addition, the state legislators feel an obligation to educate health professionals to serve the people of their state; experience as well as data where available show that individuals who attend dental school in their home state will likely eventually practice in that state.
Full-time undergraduate students are considered residents of the state in which their parents live. Applicants may claim residency in only one state, which means that, an applicant’s likelihood of acceptance may be influenced greatly by their state of residence. Detailed information on acceptance rates of in-state vs. out-of-state applicants for professional schools can be found in the ADEA Official Guide to Dental Schools (a copy is located in our office). The time required to establish residency varies greatly, from 6 months to five years. Contact schools for further information about residency requirements.
Activities: Dental schools are looking for well-rounded individuals who demonstrate commitment, leadership, a disposition to serve others and a positive work ethic. They may also be looking for individuals who demonstrate an ability to interact with others and an appreciation of diversity. Your extracurricular activities can help you demonstrate that you can manage a rigorous academic schedule while still having meaningful involvement on campus and in the community.
Experience with Dentistry: Volunteering or working with a dentist is a valuable experience that will help you to learn more about the field and to determine whether this is the correct career choice for you. It also demonstrates to admissions committees that you are committed to your goal and have thoroughly researched your interest.