How Dental School Programs Work

After Dental School

The vast majority of newly minted dental school graduates enter general practice after graduation.
The vast majority of newly minted dental school graduates enter general practice after graduation.
Hemera Technologies/

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.

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