Dentists diagnose and treat problems with patients’ teeth, gums, and related parts of the mouth. They provide advice and instruction on taking care of the teeth and gums and on diet choices that affect oral health.
Dentists typically do the following:
- Remove decay from teeth and fill cavities
- Repair or remove damaged teeth
- Place sealants or whitening agents on teeth
- Administer anesthetics to keep patients from feeling pain during procedures
- Prescribe antibiotics or other medications
- Examine x rays of teeth, gums, the jaw, and nearby areas in order to diagnose problems
- Make models and measurements for dental appliances, such as dentures
- Teach patients about diets, flossing, the use of fluoride, and other aspects of dental care
Dentists use a variety of equipment, including x-ray machines, drills, mouth mirrors, probes, forceps, brushes, and scalpels. They also use lasers, digital scanners, and other technologies.
In addition, dentists in private practice oversee a variety of administrative tasks, including bookkeeping and buying equipment and supplies. They employ and supervise dental hygienists, dental assistants, dental laboratory technicians, and receptionists.
Most dentists are general practitioners and handle a variety of dental needs. Other dentists practice in a specialty area, such as one of the following:
Dental anesthesiologists administer drugs (anesthetics) to reduce or eliminate pain during a dental procedure, monitor sedated patients to keep them safe, and help patients manage pain afterward.
Dental public health specialists promote good dental health and the prevention of dental diseases in specific communities.
Endodontists perform root canal therapy, removing the nerves and blood supply from injured or infected teeth.
Oral and maxillofacial radiologists diagnose diseases in the head and neck through the use of imaging technologies.
Oral and maxillofacial surgeons operate on the mouth, jaws, teeth, gums, neck, and head, performing procedures such as surgically repairing a cleft lip and palate or removing impacted teeth.
Oral pathologists diagnose conditions in the mouth, such as bumps or ulcers, and oral diseases, such as cancer.
Orthodontists straighten teeth by applying pressure to the teeth with braces or other appliances.
Pediatric dentists focus on dentistry for children and special-needs patients.
Periodontists treat the gums and bones supporting the teeth.
Dentists also may do research. Or, they may teach part time, including supervising students in dental school clinics. For more information, see the profiles on medical scientists and postsecondary teachers.
Dentists held about 155,000 jobs in 2018. Employment in the detailed occupations that make up dentists was distributed as follows:
|Oral and maxillofacial surgeons||5,900|
|Dentists, all other specialists||5,200|
The largest employers of dentists were as follows:
|Offices of dentists||74%|
|Offices of physicians||2|
|Outpatient care centers||2|
Some dentists have their own business and work alone or with a small staff. Other dentists have partners in their practice. Still others work as associate dentists for established dental practices.
Dentists wear masks, gloves, and safety glasses to protect themselves and their patients from infectious diseases.
Dentists’ work schedules vary. Some work evenings and weekends to meet their patients’ needs. Many dentists work less than 40 hours a week, although some work considerably more.
Dentists must be licensed in the state in which they work. Licensure requirements vary by state, although candidates usually must have a Doctor of Dental Surgery (DDS) or Doctor of Medicine in Dentistry/Doctor of Dental Medicine (DMD) degree from an accredited dental program and pass written and clinical exams. Dentists who practice in a specialty area must complete postdoctoral training.
Dentists typically need a DDS or DMD degree from a dental program that has been accredited by the Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA). Most programs require that applicants have at least a bachelor’s degree and have completed certain science courses, such as biology or chemistry. Although no specific undergraduate major is required, programs may prefer applicants who major in a science, such as biology.
Applicants to dental schools usually take the Dental Admission Test (DAT). Dental schools use this test along with other factors, such as grade point average, interviews, and recommendations, to admit students into their programs.
Dental school programs typically include coursework in subjects such as local anesthesia, anatomy, periodontics (the study of oral disease and health), and radiology. All programs at dental schools include clinical experience in which students work directly with patients under the supervision of a licensed dentist.
As early as high school, students interested in becoming dentists can take courses in subjects such as biology, chemistry, and math.
All dental specialties require dentists to complete additional training before practicing that specialty. This training is usually a 2- to 4-year residency in a CODA-accredited program related to the specialty, which often culminates in a postdoctoral certificate or master’s degree. Oral and maxillofacial surgery programs typically take 4 to 6 years and may result in candidates earning a joint Medical Doctor (M.D.) degree.
General dentists do not need additional training after dental school.
Dentists who want to teach or do research full time may need advanced dental training, such as in a postdoctoral program in general dentistry.
Licenses, Certifications, and Registrations
Dentists must be licensed in the state in which they work. All states require dentists to be licensed; requirements vary by state. Most states require a dentist to have a DDS or DMD degree from an accredited dental program, pass the written National Board Dental Examinations, and pass a state or regional clinical examination.
In addition, a dentist who wants to practice in a dental specialty must have a license in that specialty. Licensure requires the completion of a residency after dental school and, in some cases, the completion of a special state exam.
Communication skills. Dentists must communicate effectively with patients, dental hygienists, dental assistants, and receptionists.
Detail oriented. Dentists must pay attention to the shape and color of teeth and to the space between them. For example, they may need to closely match a false tooth with a patient’s other teeth.
Dexterity. Dentists must be good with their hands. They must work carefully with tools in small spaces to ensure the safety of their patients.
Leadership skills. Dentists, especially those with their own practices, may need to manage staff or mentor other dentists.
Organizational skills. Keeping accurate records of patient care is critical in both medical and business settings.
Patience. Dentists may work for long periods with patients who need special attention, including children and those with a fear of dental work.
Problem-solving skills. Dentists must evaluate patients’ symptoms and choose the appropriate treatment.
The median annual wage for dentists was $156,240 in May 2018.
The median wage is the wage at which half the workers in an occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $72,840, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $208,000.
Median annual wages for dentists in May 2018 were as follows:
|Oral and maxillofacial surgeons||$208,000 or more|
|Orthodontists||208,000 or more|
|Dentists, all other specialists||146,970|
In May 2018, the median annual wages for dentists in the top industries in which they worked were as follows:
|Offices of dentists||$161,610|
|Outpatient care centers||146,530|
|Offices of physicians||146,110|
Wages vary with the dentist’s location, number of hours worked, specialty, and number of years in practice.
Dentists’ work schedules vary. Some work evenings and weekends to meet their patients’ needs. Many dentists work less than 40 hours a week, although some may work considerably more.
Median annual wages, May 2018
- Health diagnosing and treating practitioners
- Total, all occupations
Overall employment of dentists is projected to grow 7 percent from 2018 to 2028, faster than the average for all occupations.
Demand for dental services will increase as the population ages. Many members of the aging baby-boom generation will need dental work. Because those in each generation are more likely to keep their teeth than those in past generations, more dental care will be needed in the years to come. In addition, there will be increased demand for complicated dental work, including dental implants and bridges. The risk of oral cancer increases significantly with age, and complications can require both cosmetic and functional dental reconstruction.
Demand for dentists’ services will increase as studies continue to link oral health to overall health. They will need to provide care and instruction aimed at promoting good oral hygiene, rather than just providing treatments such as fillings.
Job prospects for dentists are expected to be relatively good, especially for dentists who are willing to work in underserved areas. However, the number of graduates from dental programs has increased in recent years. And the rate at which these workers leave the occupation is expected to be lower than that for other occupations. Therefore, there may be competition for jobs, particularly in areas where there are already sufficient numbers of dentists.
|Occupational Title||SOC Code||Employment, 2018||Projected Employment, 2028||Change, 2018-28||Employment by Industry|
SOURCE: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Employment Projections program
Oral and maxillofacial surgeons
Dentists, all other specialists
This table shows a list of occupations with job duties that are similar to those of dentists.
|Occupation||Job Duties||Entry-Level Education||Median Annual Pay, May 2018|
Chiropractors treat patients with health problems of the neuromusculoskeletal system, which includes nerves, bones, muscles, ligaments, and tendons.
|Doctoral or professional degree||$71,410|
Dental and Ophthalmic Laboratory Technicians and Medical Appliance Technicians
Dental and ophthalmic laboratory technicians and medical appliance technicians construct, fit, or repair medical appliances and devices.
|High school diploma or equivalent||$36,690|
Dental assistants provide patient care, take x rays, recordkeeping and schedule appointments.
|Postsecondary nondegree award||$38,660|
Dental hygienists clean teeth, examine patients for signs of oral diseases such as gingivitis, and provide other preventive dental care.
Medical scientists conduct research aimed at improving overall human health.
|Doctoral or professional degree||$84,810|
Optometrists diagnose and treat visual problems and manage diseases, injuries, and other disorders of the eyes.
|Doctoral or professional degree||$111,790|
Physicians and Surgeons
Physicians and surgeons diagnose and treat injuries or illnesses.
|Doctoral or professional degree||This wage is equal to or greater than $208,000 per year.|
Podiatrists provide medical and surgical care for people with foot, ankle, and lower leg problems.
|Doctoral or professional degree||$129,550|
Veterinarians care for the health of animals and work to protect public health.
|Doctoral or professional degree||$93,830|
For more information about dentists, including information on accredited dental schools and state boards of dental examiners, visit
For information about admission to dental schools, visit
American Dental Education Association
For more information about general dentistry or on a specific dental specialty, visit
American Academy of Periodontology
For career videos on dentists, visit
Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Dentists,
on the Internet at https://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/dentists.htm (visited ).
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