What Do Various Dentists Do?

Dentist Career Overview

Pediatric dentist examining a young patient's teeth in a dental office setting.

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A dentist examines patients' teeth and mouth tissue to diagnose and treat any problems they find. Treatment may include removing tooth decay, filling cavities, and repairing or removing damaged teeth when necessary. Most dentists are general practitioners, but some are specialists. General practice dentists give primary dental care while specialists have advanced knowledge of specific areas of dental care.

Common Dental Specialties

Dentists can specialize in a variety of different areas:

  • Orthodontists straighten teeth using devices such as braces and retainers.
  • Oral and maxillofacial surgeons operate on the mouth and jaws.
  • Pediatric dentists treat children and special-need patients.
  • Periodontists treat patients' gums and the bones that support their teeth.
  • Prosthodontists replace missing teeth with dentures and bridges.
  • Endodontists perform root canals.
  • Public health dentists promote good dental health within communities.
  • Oral pathologists diagnose oral conditions and diseases.
  • Oral and maxillofacial radiologists diagnose diseases in the head and neck using imaging technologies. 

Employment Facts, Earnings, and Outlook

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported 155,000 dental jobs in 2018. The BLS projects that the employment of dentists will grow faster than the average for all occupations through 2028. This number includes those who work in the dental specialties described above. Many of them own or co-own private practices.

Most dentists work full time and some have schedules that include evenings and weekends.

Salaried dentists earned a median annual salary of $159,200 in 2019, but this can vary quite a bit by specialty area.

A Day in a Dentist's Life

These are some typical job duties taken from online ads for general dentist positions found on Indeed.com:​

  • Examine, diagnose, and provide treatment counseling to patients in a comprehensive manner
  • Inspect and interpret diagnostic X-rays
  • Consider treatment methods and explain the options with patients to determine which works best for them based on their situations
  • Educate patients on oral health
  • Oversee auxiliary dental staff in their appropriate management of equipment and supplies
  • Provide professional judgment as part of a team effort
  • Refer patients to orthodontists or other dental specialists for more advanced procedures and care
  • Provide excellent customer service by offering same-day dental care and ensuring the parent or patient satisfaction

Education Requirements

To become a dentist, you must attend a dental school that is accredited by the American Dental Association's (ADA) Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA). Programs take approximately four years to complete. However, those who want to specialize must then spend an additional year or two in a residency.

To get accepted by one of the more than 66 dental schools in the U.S., you must complete at least two years of pre-dental education. Most programs require a bachelor's degree, however. Applicants face a great deal of competition—all must take the Dental Admissions Test (DAT) and meet other strict standards for their school. 

Visit the ADA website for a list of accredited schools to research different institutions and their specific requirements.

Other Requirements

To practice as a dentist, you have to be licensed by the state in which you want to work. Requirements for licensure vary from state to state, but all include graduation from an accredited school and passing of Parts I and II of the National Board Dental Examinations. The ADA's Joint Commission administers this multiple choice test on National Dental Examinations.

Candidates for licensure must also pass a clinical examination. To find out what the specific requirements are in the state in which you plan to practice, contact that state's dental board. The American Association of Dental Boards website has links to every state board in the US.

In addition to education and licensing requirements, a dentist needs certain soft skills, or personal qualities, to succeed in this occupation. Strong critical thinking skills will allow them to weigh the pros and cons of alternative solutions to problems to select the best one. They also need excellent judgment and decision-making skills. A dentist must be service-oriented and have good listening and speaking skills to provide appropriate care to patients. They must have interpersonal skills as well to aware of a patient's reactions and respond to them appropriately. Finally, good time management skills and active learning skills are necessary.