Choosing dentistry as a career comes with some serious perks. You get to work with people one-on-one. You are personally responsible for helping others enhance the quality of their life and achieve better health and wellness. You get to work with your hands. So what could be better than that? A six figure paycheck. Dentistry is a field that will always flourish, as long as people keep consuming massive amounts of sugar and forget to floss at night.
These days in particular, the financial gains from a career as a dentist can even eclipse those in other types of medicine. That’s partly because dentistry is not subject to the managed care issues and federal funding reductions facing primary care medicine that has increased costs and deflated profits. The path to dentistry however is paved with hard work, serious academics and a time and money commitment. But why not start a business you love?
How to Become a Dentist
A general dentist is a person who diagnoses and treats problems related to teeth and gums. There are other specialists in the field of dentistry such as orthodontists and endodontists. Many dentists have their own private practice with staff members who work for them. The basic education to become a dentist is four years of undergraduate work, with an additional four years of dental school. Those still in high school would do well to take courses such as chemistry, biology, physics, math and health to prepare for coursework down the road to becoming a dentist.
Dental School Prerequisites
Every dental school has prerequisite courses that must be completed before a person attends their school. In fact, many schools won’t even look at an application if it doesn’t have the required hours logged in courses such as chemistry, biology, physics and English. Check the dental school’s website to find out what their particular requirements are, however many schools have the same requirements. Fine motor skills aren’t going to be listed as a prerequisite, but they are important for later on-the-job success. Many students opt to take a 3D studio art class, to test out their fine motor skills long before a working environment gives them a pass or fail. With a squirmy patient isn’t the time or place to find out if the natural talent is there or not.
Who makes a good dentist? People who have an aptitude for science will do well in dentistry. Good communication skills are also very important. Think about how many times a dentist has to communicate to patients on a daily basis, before, during and after a procedure. Good management skills are another plus as dentists have office help, dental assistants and dental hygienists and technicians working for them. Capital is another feather in the cap of a dental hopeful. There’s a considerable amount of cash needed to start a practice, so having access to capital is key. Lastly, there’s got to be a willingness to work long, hard hours in the beginning — often 60 hours or more — and manage your time well to get a practice going. 9-5 people need not apply.
Before applying to a dental school, applicants need to take the Dental Admissions Test, or DAT. It’s similar to those who take the LSAT before applying to law school or the MCAT for medical school. The American Dental Association is a good place to start for testing centers and fees. Most people choose to apply to more than one dental school accredited by the ADA’s Commission on Dental Accreditation. A few things are factored into a school’s decision to accept a candidate or not; DAT score, undergraduate grades, any personal recommendations from those respected in the field and the admissions interview.
Once a person is in, they will study courses such as anatomy, microbiology, biology and physiology. There will be both classroom and hands-on lab sessions, to give people a real-world feel for the job. Clinical courses will show students how to actually treat patients and are conducted in dental clinics on campus. It’s helpful if time permits to get a part-time job while in dental school to see what really goes on inside a practice. It’s also a great networking tool. Graduation day brings with it the distinction of having a Doctor of Dental Surgery (DDS) or a Doctor of Dental Surgery (DMD), which are essentially the same degree. The last step is to take board exams. Again, it’s like passing the bar to become a full-fledged lawyer able to practice in any given state. The National Board Dental Exams are written. The state’s board exam will grant licenses to practice dentistry.
As if that coursework wasn’t challenging enough and demanding of the upmost commitment of time and dollars, going into a specialty area of dentistry requires an even greater level of education. Become a specialist in fields such as Endodontics, Pediatric Dentistry, or Oral and Maxillofacial surgery requires a postgraduate education ranging from 2-6 years. People pursuing these fields need to be in the top of their class, because competition is fierce.
After graduation it’s off to the races and with a license to practice. How much money does a dentist make a year? That depends on the avenue to get started. However, The Bureau of Labor Statistics has reported that general dentists earn up to an average of $101,000 a year with Alaska reporting the highest wages for dentists. Although according to salary.com the average dentist salary is $150,223. Specialists such as orthodontists on the other hand can make upwards of close to $200,000 per year.
There are a few different ways to get started as a dentist, and begin treating patients:
Open a Private Practice
Starting a new business can be very exciting. After selecting the perfect location, with the right demographic mix to support the practice, there’s the decision to rent space in an existing building or build from the ground up. Find out what the dentist to population ration is, meaning are the current needs being served by the dentists there currently, and is there room for a new sheriff in town? If renting is the way to go, think years ahead and whether that space will grow with the practice and accommodate future employees and patients.
A new dental office will need leading edge equipment, including x-ray machines, forceps and drills. Protective gear, gloves and glasses are also necessary to maintain a safe work environment. Hiring is another critical phase in building a new practice and is dictated by professional goals and capital. Marketing and advertising to get the word out will take expertise and additional cash. Hiring marketing experts specifically in the dental field will help ensure the new practice gets the right exposure at a reasonable price.
Become an Associate or Partner in an Existing Practice
There’s the office sharing option or a full-on partnership. With a partnership, there’s equal ownerships of the hard assets of the dental practice. There’s also shared risk and less of an initial capital investment required, because much of the startup costs have already been incurred by the original owner. Most people start out as associates to build their income and fine-tune their clinical skills. It’s also a good way to test run the practice and find out if the people who own it are people you want to work with for the long haul. Plus, being on the inside gives a prospective partner time to see if the way the practice operates and is run lines up with their own personal values and business acumen.
Buy a Thriving Practice
If personal financial well-being is intact, this is usually a safe bet and a straightforward business move because the person is buying into a person’s name, client base and reputation. The key is making sure the practice supports the purchaser’s values, goals and ways of doing business. Hire a broker to help with the search, or ask dental reps if they know of any practices that are for sale. How much money does a dentist make a year when he or she buys a practice? Considerably more because it already has a track record for success.
Dentistry continues to grow and those with the right skills for the job will enjoy a long, prosperous career.