How Long Does It Take To Be A Dentist?

By Chris Kolmar - Jan. 12, 2021

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You’re thinking about becoming a dentist. That’s great! There’s a lot of job security in dentistry, and it’s a fascinating career. On top of that, you’ll get to call yourself a doctor, and dentists are basically guaranteed financial security.

The downside to becoming a dentist is that it takes a lot of school and quite a bit of money to become a dentist. That means it’s a real commitment, and it’s not something to undertake if you’re not serious about putting in the work.

How Long It Takes to Become a Dentist

Let’s look at the big question, how long will it take you until you’re working as a dentist. Of course, it depends on if you’re going to school full-time, if you’re double majoring or taking extra classes, and if you pass all of your classes the first time. Let’s assume you’re a full-time college student, and you’re doing well in school.

  • General undergraduate school. Most dental schools require that you have an undergraduate degree before even starting. That means you’ll be attending a four-year college and getting a degree. If you’re buckling down and getting your work done, you can be done with that portion of our training in four years.

  • Dental school. The next step is applying to, getting accepted, and going to dental school. This is set up as another four-year college with the entire focus being on dentistry.

    When you’re finished, you will earn either a DDS or a DMD, which means you’re either called a Doctor of Dental Surgery or a Doctor of Medicine in Dentistry. The funny thing is, they actually mean the same thing, and you’ve had the same education.

    You’d think that one meant you had a specialty in surgery, but that’s not the case. The only difference is the dental school you attend. Some give you a DDS, and some give you a DMD.

  • Specialties. So, you’re already into it for eight years after high school at this point, if you’re doing well and getting through school at a good pace. Now, you have a decision to make – are you going to specialize? The American Dental Academy lists the following as potential dental specialties:

    • Dental Anesthesiology

    • Dental Public Health

    • Endodontics

    • Oral and Maxillofacial Pathology

    • Oral and Maxillofacial Radiology

    • Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery

    • Oral Medicine

    • Orofacial Pain

    • Orthodontics and Dentofacial Orthopedics

    • Pediatric Dentistry

    • Periodontics

    • Prosthodontics

    Each of these specialties could take you another two years of specialized training and school to earn your certificate in that field.

  • National Board Dental Examination. This is a national test with two parts, and you must pass both of them before taking your clinical exam.

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    The good news is that you can take these exams during dental school, which most people do. If taken concurrently with school, this won’t add any extra time to the process of becoming a dentist.

  • Clinical Examination. This exam is called a clinical or live-patient dental examination. It can also be taken during your last year of dental school, or you can take it immediately after.

    There are two important things to note about this exam. The first thing is that it’s not required in all states, so you might not have to take it at all. The second important point is that if you fail, you can retake it, and it’s not going to count against you.

    When you add all of that up, it comes to roughly eight years after high school to become a general dentist. If you want to specialize, you’ll be adding about two years to your timeframe for each specialty.

The Steps to Becoming a Dentist

If that hasn’t scared you away from becoming a dentist, then you might have exactly what it takes to succeed in the field of oral health. The next thing you need to do is learn the steps for becoming a dentist so you can get on the right path.

When a career takes this long to get off the ground, you want to make sure you’re headed in the right direction as soon as possible.

  • High school dental prep. No, you don’t have to know you want to be a dentist in high school to become one, but you can begin preparing early if you do know. Start by taking as many health and science-related classes as you can.

    Get that grade point average up there and start networking. That’s right; it’s never too early to network. Contact a few local dentists to see if they would be willing to mentor you.

  • College. You’re still in the prep stage for dental school. Most students entering dental college have their undergraduate degrees, but not all. A few exceptional dental students get into dental school with only a couple of years of college under their belt.

    If you are dedicated enough, you might make it, but it’s still good to plan to hit all dental school prerequisites. They can vary a little bit from school to school, but the following are fairly standard.

    Expect to have to earn eight credit hours or have two semesters of the following:

    • Biology and lab

    • Physics

    • General chemistry and lab

    • Organic chemistry and lab

    Some colleges have additional requirements. You might want to plan to take eight credit hours or two semesters of the following fields to open your dental school options to more college:

    • Math (Calculus or Statistics might be required)

    • Anatomy & Physiology

    • English

    • Upper-level sciences (These can be Biochemistry, Microbiology, and/or Genetics)

    The good news about undergraduate studies is that there is no required major. There are prerequisite classes, but you can pick any major you find interesting, and it would be in your benefit to select the one you will excel in – grades matter.

  • Get involved. To get into dental school, you don’t just need good grades in the right classes. Dental schools will also review your extracurricular and volunteer experiences.

    They ideally want to see applicants who have had exposure to dentistry, done some community service or local outreach, and that there has been a research element to your experiences.

    You’ll rate even higher if you have demonstrated experience in healthcare, a clinical setting, and of course, they’d love to see dental office experience. This is why making connections with dentists and getting a mentor in high school can be so useful in the future.

  • Dental Admission Test (DAT). This is THE test for future dentists. The latest you should take this test is September of your senior year of university if you plan to go on to Dental School immediately following your graduation from college.

    You might want to take it several months before, so there’s no rush. Studying should also begin several months before you take the DAT.

  • Recommendation letters. Dental schools ask for recommendation letters as part of the application process. It’s a good idea to start gathering these letters early – at least asking for them early so your letter writers have time to write you the thoughtful and thorough letter you deserve.

    Interestingly, dental schools don’t just want a couple of references; they want specific letters from specific people. That will be detailed on their website or through their admissions office, and you need to check with them to make sure you are denied just because you’re missing one important letter.

    Most schools require the following, but again, checking with your preferred school is crucial:

    • Two evaluation letters from science faculty who taught you in a college course

    • One from a college instructor who taught you a course outside of science or your main discipline

    • 1-2 letters from dentists (again, that high school mentor is important)

  • Dental school applications. There is a centralized application service through the Associated American Dental Schools Application Service (AADSAS)

    Applications are often submitted around the time you begin your senior year at university. You’ll need your passing DAT results to submit.

  • Specialization. Are you going to narrow your field of study and specialize in one or two areas of dentistry? If so, you’ll want to decide that at some point during your dental school training and start gearing your education in that direction.

    Once you graduate from dental school, you’ll begin this certification process.

  • National Board Dental Examination. Everyone who wants to work as a dentist in the United States will need to take and pass both parts of the NBDE test.

  • Clinical or live-patient examination. This is not required in every state, so this might not be something you have to do. Even if it is required, your state may have a different setup than another, so you’ll have to find out what you need to do from your state dental board.

Other Professional Dental Options

Dentistry is a lucrative and in-demand profession. But, it’s also apparent that it takes years of work and dedication to succeed in this field. If you love the idea of working in a dental office but aren’t sure you’re cut out for all of the school and training that it takes to be a dentist, there are other options:

The great thing is, if you work in a dental office, you’re actually headed in the direction of becoming a dentist – if that’s truly what you want. You’re starting to develop your connections, getting in some clinical hours, and learning the business.

You can take your knowledge and go to school part-time while you work until you’re ready for dental school. For some, this is the best path toward achieving their dental dreams.

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Chris Kolmar

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Chris Kolmar

Chris Kolmar is a co-founder of Zippia and the editor-in-chief of the Zippia career advice blog. He has hired over 50 people in his career, been hired five times, and wants to help you land your next job. His research has been featured on the New York Times, Thrillist, VOX, The Atlantic, and a host of local news. More recently, he's been quoted on USA Today, BusinessInsider, and CNBC.

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