How Dental School Programs Work

Students who like the sciences and working with their hands might enjoy a career in dentistry.
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The dental profession is a bright spot in the cloudy future U.S. employment picture. Students with a bent for the biological sciences, who are good with their hands and have an interest in helping others should be able to find good jobs in the dental field. First, of course, they must be willing to work hard to get accepted to dental school and to excel while they're there.

There are several reasons that the dental profession is expected to grow faster than most in the U.S. First, many baby boomer dentists are beginning to retire or work fewer hours. As a result, many of them will be unwilling to take on new patients.


Second, enrollment in dental schools declined in the mid-1980s. The high mark of enrollment in dental schools came in the 1980-81 school year, when there were nearly 23,000 students in American dental schools [source: ADA]. In the mid-1980s, enrollment began to drop amid fears of a glut of dentists. A few dental schools closed and the number of new dentists tapered off for a while.

As of March 2010, there are more than 19,000 students each year in pre-doctoral dental schools [source: ADA]. Yet, there is a shortage of dentists in many parts of the U.S., particularly in rural areas. Even as older dentists are retiring or seeing fewer patients, the demand for dental services is increasing. This increase in demand is due both to population growth and to an increase in the elderly population. The aging of the baby boom generation also means that there's more people living -- and keeping their teeth -- longer. That means a demand for complicated dental services. In addition, more employers offer dental insurance than in the past, so more people visit dentists regularly. What's more, new technologies allow more preventive work and cosmetic treatments like tooth whitening.

The result of these trends is a rosy picture for aspiring dentists. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that employment of dentists should grow by 16.8 percent through 2018 and that the demand for dental services will continue to grow into the future [source: Labor]. In addition to the prospect of setting up their own practice, new dentists may be able to take over the work of older ones.

But first, there's that matter of dental school. Read on to learn more.


Dental Schools

Aspiring U.S. dentists can choose among 58 dental schools in the U.S. and Puerto Rico. They may have to leave home, however: 18 states have no dental school [source: Schwartz].

All 58 dental schools are accredited -- but with varying degrees of accreditation. Within those schools, some programs, including some post-doctoral programs, may not be accredited. The American Dental Association's (ADA) Commission on Dental Accreditation reviews most accredited programs every seven years. It revisits oral and maxillofacial surgery programs every five years.


There are two levels of accreditation for established, fully operational dental programs:

  • Approval without reporting requirements. This is the highest level of accreditation. It means that a school or program is fully accredited and that it meets or exceeds all the basic requirements.
  • Approval with reporting requirements. A program with reporting requirements is accredited, but the commission has found it to have a weakness or problem in one or more areas. The program is given a certain amount of time to give a report showing that it has taken care of the problem and come up to standards. If it doesn't, it may lose its accreditation.

Programs in the planning stages or those that aren't in full swing yet may gain initial accreditation. Initial accreditation means that the first few visits showed that the program had the potential to become fully accredited. In 2010, the two newest dental schools in the U.S., Midwestern University in Glendale, Ariz., and Western University of Health Sciences in Pomona, Calif., had initial accreditation [source: ADA].

Some books and Web sites try to rank dental school programs. The ADA cautions against such rankings; the organization believes that different programs meet the needs of different aspiring dentists.

Once a student has made his or her choice, however, what is dental school actually like? Read on to find out.


Dental School Days

Most dental school programs last four academic years. At some schools, the first two years have a nine-month schedule, and the last two years have an 11-month schedule.

Typically, the first two years involve a lot of class work. Students will delve more deeply than they did in undergraduate school into such biology-related subjects as physiology, histology, pathology, anatomy, microbiology and biochemistry. Some classes may be designed to lay the groundwork for the clinical studies to come.


Some programs also offer ethics classes and courses designed to help future dentists deal with patients. Some also offer help in dealing with the business end of dentistry; that can be important because most dentists practice on their own rather than work for a partnership or a larger medical facility [source: BLS].

The third and fourth years in most dental programs are devoted largely to clinical studies. Students will begin to treat patients with a range of dental needs. Typically, these students will be working in dental clinics and supervised by licensed dentists.

The prize at the end of four years of dental school will be the degree. There are two basic dental degrees: the DDS, or Doctor of Dental Surgery; and the DMD, or Doctor of Dental Medicine.

What's the difference between the two degrees? None except the name. The ADA says that whether a student receives a DDS or a DMD, he or she has the same education. Dental programs granting both degrees follow the same curriculum requirements set forth by the ADA's Commission on Dental Accreditation. States treat both degrees the same when granting licenses to practice dentistry. Dentists with either degree can offer the same general dentistry services.

The only difference is that some universities prefer to call their degree a DDS while others favor the DMD [source: ADA].

Differences in what dentists can and cannot do come into play when those with the basic DDS or DMD pursue further education. To learn more about post-graduate dental education and specialization, keep reading.


After Dental School

The vast majority of newly minted dental school graduates enter general practice after graduation.
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About 80 percent of dental school graduates go into general practice [source: ADEA]. The DDS or DMD they earn after four years of dental school qualifies them for general dentistry practice -- once they're licensed. The states handle licensing of dentists; state laws vary. Getting licensed usually involves passing both written and practical or clinical examinations.

In most cases, Parts I and II of the National Board Dental Examinations (NBDE) count as the written exam. Dental students usually take these exams during the last two years of dental school. The schools usually work with students to help them prepare.


The practical or clinical examinations are typically given by state boards of dental examiners or by regional testing agencies with which the states contract. The state of North Carolina, for example, requires a clinical exam given by the Council of Interstate Testing Agencies (CITA) [source: North Carolina Board of Dental Examiners].

While postdoctoral education isn't necessary for someone who wants to practice general dentistry, the number of dentists who choose to participate in residency programs is on the rise. Nearly 40 percent of dental school graduates in 2005 chose to participate in one [source: Schwartz].

Some dentists choose to get advanced degrees. Others complete advanced general dentistry programs and still others pursue dental specialties. Many states require a certain number of hours of continuing education each year to keep the dental license current.

All states and the District of Columbia recognize nine dental specialties. It can take two to four years to complete programs in these specialties. These are the most popular:

  • Orthodontics and Dentofacial Orthopedics. Orthodontics is the most popular dental specialty. Orthodontists straighten and otherwise adjust teeth for normal appearance and functioning.
  • Oral and maxillofacial surgeons. This is the second most popular specialty. These surgeons operate on the mouth, jaws, neck, head and gums.
  • Prosthodontics. This is the third most popular specialty. It involves replacing teeth with dentures, bridges, implants and the like.

Other specialties include:

  • Pediatric dentistry. Treat children and special-needs patients.
  • Endodontic dentistry. Deal with dental nerves and pulp, such as in root canals.
  • Oral and maxillofacial pathology. Diagnose oral diseases.
  • Oral and maxillofacial radiology. Diagnose diseases using imaging technology.
  • Periodontics. Treat the gums and bones supporting teeth.
  • Dental public health. Develop public health policy and programs.

Many dentists in general practice also pursue specialties so that they can, for example, do root canals, install bridges and implants, or straighten teeth [sources: BLS, ADEA].

Many beginning dentists start to work with an established practice so that they do not have to buy all the equipment. Within a few years, however, most have their own practices -- and all the patients they can handle.

Read on for more information.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles


  • American Dental Assocation. "Information." 9, 2010)
  • American Dental Association. "Survey and Economic Research on Dentistry: Frequently Asked Questions." Accessed Mar. 21, 2010
  • American Dental Education Association. "After Dental School." Accessed Mar. 9, 2010
  • Harvard School of Dental Medicine. "Selection Factors." Accessed Mar. 20, 2010
  • Medical University of South Carolina. The Bulletin. College of Dental Medicine.
  • North Carolina State Board of Dental Examiners. Accessed Mar. 20, 2010
  • Schwartz, Myron R. "The Pipeline From Dental Education to Practice: The Pennsylvania Experience." Journal of Dental Education. 2007. Accessed Mar. 18, 2010
  • University of Cincinnati Pre-Professional Advising Center. "Pre-Dentistry Students' Frequently Asked Questions." Accessed Mar. 20, 2010
  • University of Tennessee Health Science Center. "Frequently Asked Questions About Applying to Dental School. Accessed Mar. 20, 2010
  • U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Dentists." Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2010-11 Edition. Accessed Mar. 18, 2010