How to Become a Dentist: Everything You Need to Know to Get Started

BY Dr. McDowell  |  October 23rd, 2020
Dr. McDowell
Dr. McDowell has always been focused on using the latest technology to improve the patient experience. From radiation-free imaging to laser dentistry, he has always been ahead of the curve and is dedicated to improving the practice of dentistry one ..

If you love teeth and helping people keep their mouths clean, then you’re a unique breed of people that often go into dental work. Becoming a dentist isn’t exactly easy, but after you’ve gone through the schooling to become one, you’ll be able to work in the field for years to come.

Before we cover how to become a dentist, we should first talk about the different kinds of dentists there are.

Types of Dentists

Deep cleaning teeth with two dentists and a patient in the chair.

Here are several types of dentists and their job descriptions:

Each of these dentists has unique schooling and training that prepares them for the job they work. Additionally, you can expect that some of the schooling is more rigorous than others. An oral surgeon, for example, will go through much more schooling than a general dentist in order to safely and successfully perform surgeries on their patients.

Shadow a Dentist

One of the very first things you can do, whether you’re in high school or college, is shadowing a dentist. It’s a great way to get a feel for what the job might look like, how you like it, and whether or not you feel like it could be a long term fit for you. 

Many dentists are happy to let you shadow them during their day at work. Some of the best dentists will see themselves in you, remembering how they first began their journey to becoming a dentist.

Getting Started in Dentistry

The schooling required to become a dentist comes after your standard bachelor’s degree. This poses one of the greatest drawbacks to becoming a dentist. While yes, there is the potential of a high salary position with great benefits, there are also the challenges that come with paying for the extensive dentistry schooling that’s needed.

So, while you might not mind the loans for the time being, when you are finally finished with school, be sure to start paying down those loans as soon as you can. Becoming financially successful as a dentist will first mean that you have to pay down those loans.

After you’ve finished school, you’ll need to take your state-specific clinical and written exams. These exams allow you to obtain your dental license so that you can move on to treating patients. Until you’ve completed these exams, you won’t be able to work as a dentist.

Are you looking for the perfect dental school? Check out this list!

Residency Training

dental students


When you obtain your license from the state, you’ll be able to start your residency training. Some dental schools will include this in their programming, while others will recommend that you find another location to complete your residency. As a resident dentist, you’ll work on real patients and hone your skills to be better suited for your professional life. Many students will find this to be the time in their career when they learn and grow the most.

To be successful in your dental residency, it’s important to seek out opportunities to learn and grow. You’ll want to have a learner’s mindset the whole time. Every situation you come in contact with is an opportunity to learn more so that you’ll be prepared for your future career.

Deciding the Type of Dentist You’ll Be

Residency is one of the best times to begin deciding what type of dentist you’ll become. This time of your schooling will allow you to work with a multitude of patients and cases so that you can learn what type of work you prefer doing and why you prefer it. If you think you’d prefer a more specialized field of dentistry, such as oral surgery, then you’ll want to decide on that sooner. Some of the different types of dentists will have more specific schooling.

No one wants to be stuck in school forever; that’s why it’s good to decide what your end goal is as soon as possible!

dental students observing a cleaning

Common Questions About How to Become a Dentist

Many people going into the dental industry or considering going into the dental industry have some of these common questions. Here are some answers:

Q: How much do dentists make in a year?

A: Going into any job, you’re going to want to know how much you can make in the year. On average, a dentist’s salary ranges from around 160k -300k a year, according to Glassdoor. If you’re able to make closer to the higher end, then you should be able to pay back those dental school loans in a short amount of time.

Q: How long is dental school?

A: Just like other medical school degrees, dental school takes roughly four years to complete. It can take less or more depending on how dedicated you are, but most students finish in a full four years. You can expect a lot of hands-on learning as well as labs and lectures like a traditional four-year program.

Q: Is there an admission test for dental school?

A: There is a DAT or Dental Admissions Test that you’re required to take before you can enter dental school. The test consists of around 400 multiple-choice questions. You’ll have to first pass this test with an upstanding grade before you can start your journey to becoming a dentist.

Q: How long will it actually take to become a dentist?

A: As a prospective dental student, you probably won’t be surprised to hear that it takes a lot of dedication to become a dentist. First, you’ll have to finish four years of study in order to get your undergraduate degree. Then, you can do all the tasks we already talked about above to prepare yourself to apply to several different dental schools.

Once you’re accepted into a dental school program, you’ll need to spend another four years in dental school to obtain your DDS or DMD. So, to recap, you’ll be required to spend at least eight years studying to become a dentist at most dental schools.

For students who are interested in specializing in a certain type of dentistry, the timeline is even longer. Dentists who perform surgeries or provide orthodontic care, as well as other specialized dentists, need to go through a residency program (yup, just like Grey’s Anatomy) after they’ve completed dental school, like we already talked about above.

how to become a dentist - student getting real life experience cleaning teeth for a patient

Does that sound like too much school for you? If you’re certain that the dental field is your dream occupation, there is an alternative option. Some undergraduate programs offer something called “direct dental programs,” which can shave off a few years from your studies.

In these programs, prospective dental students will complete the dental school curriculum as well as their regular undergraduate classes simultaneously. This is a great option for people who have already determined that dentistry is the right career path for them.

Set Yourself Up for Success in Dentistry

If you’re considering taking the leap and starting to look at attending dental school, that’s awesome news! Now you just need to find the perfect fit for dental school, as well as an experienced mentor, to make the next eight years of your life much easier.

Talk with a trusted dentist at a dental practice in your area now to learn more about how they got their start in the industry and maybe even start shadowing, so you can be on your way to getting your dental degree and becoming the best dentist ever, soon.

Dr. McDowell
Dr. McDowell has always been focused on using the latest technology to improve the patient experience. From radiation-free imaging to laser dentistry, he has always been ahead of the curve and is dedicated to improving the practice of dentistry one ..