Is Dental School in Your Future?

Dentists make people smile -- literally. But frequent grins are not the only reward. Imagine being able to set your own hours, be your own boss, meet a variety of people -- all while drawing an awe-inspiring salary.

Sound good? For those who can rise to the challenge of a rigorous education, the dental field promises a fulfilling career.

The general dentist's primary responsibility is to insure oral health for patients of all ages. This includes examining teeth, filling cavities, putting in crowns, repairing fractured teeth, and more.

It might also involve spinning a giggling three-year-old around in a dental chair until she is ready for her first cleaning.

While the general dentist is trained to do a little bit of everything, one out of three dentists seeks out an additional specialty.

  • Oral surgeons operate on the mouth and jaws of patients.
  • Orthodontists straighten teeth.
  • Pediatric dentists work exclusively with children.
  • Periodontists treat the bones and gum, which support the teeth.
  • Prosthodontists develop artificial teeth or dentures.
  • Endodontists perform root canal therapy.
  • Oral pathologists work with diseases of the mouth.

Dentistry in the Years to Come

The Occupational Outlook Handbook (OOH) predicts that employment will increase at an average rate through 2016.

First-year enrollment in dental schools has been on a steady increase over the last decade. If applicants to dental programs exceed the number of positions, experts warn increased competition will be the inevitable result.

The long-term outlook for dentists has an important footnote: due to improved technology and consistent dental care, young people are experiencing fewer dental problems.

While aging baby boomers will keep dentists busy for some time, the younger generation may mostly require simple dental cleanings, which can be offered by less-specialized hygienists. Cavity fillings and other common procedures provided by general dentists may one day be a thing of the past.

Dentist Allan Coopersmith suggests that potential applicants to the field consider a specialization that will be around for the long term.

He recommends cosmetic dentistry as a hot new field, mostly due to the increasing needs of an aging population that, unlike their parents' generation, will retain their original teeth.

California dentist Ed Walter agrees, offering the periodontal specialization as another way to ensure business for years to come.

Hard Work, Big Results

For the practicing dentist, hard work pays. In the United States, annual pay can reach $200,000 for the general dentist, with specialists bringing in even higher amounts. The OES says the average annual pay for 2007 was $137,630.

According to the OOH, most dentists put in a 40-hour week. Typically, they work five days per week, with some offering weekend or evening hours to accommodate clients. Because of the high salary potential, some dentists choose to earn less by working part time.

However, success has its price; namely, years of education, exams, and licensing requirements -- not to mention school loan debts. After a four-year bachelor degree, a prospective applicant must take the Dental Aptitude Test for admittance into an accredited program.

Dental schooling continues for another four years, and is completed upon passing board examinations. Lastly, the dentist rounds off the training with a few years of internships or apprenticeships. If the dentist decides to specialize, an additional three-year program is mandatory.

For Walter, dentistry has finally paid off. But he advises newcomers to the field: "Be blessed with patience. Be prepared for long preparation and do not expect early financial return."

For both Walter and Coopersmith, creating a private practice was not financially gratifying -- at first. "Starting up a business was costly," explains Walter. "It took five to seven years for it to begin to make economic sense."

Judy Huson, a solo practitioner in San Francisco, believes that dental schools should include business classes. She recommends that students prepare for the future by complimenting a dental education with training in such areas as marketing and accounting.

"Schools may teach you how to be a dentist, but not how to be an owner of a business," she says. "I am learning all those skills now."

The Making of a Dentist

Besides business sense, a good dentist must have an aptitude for spatial relations, manual skills, scientific ability, interpersonal skills and more.

Huson points out that there is more to a filling than meets the eye: "When you put in a filling, you are actually carving a tooth. You definitely need hand-eye coordination."

Since nine out of 10 dentists own their own business, and getting referrals from existing patients is the key to growing a practice, interpersonal skills are essential.

Huson points out that a successful dentist must be patient with nervous clients, empathetic to their anxieties, and thick-skinned to avoid taking people's reactions personally.

"Sometimes you have to play detective to find out what is scaring the patient," she adds.

Advice From the Pros

"In my dental school, many people wasted money when they found out that dentistry wasn't for them," states Huson. "I think dental schools ought to require some sort of experience, or volunteer work in the field, before you go out and spend thousands of dollars on an education."

Huson, whose father is a recently retired dentist, had plenty of opportunities to observe and grow to love the dental business.

But for those who are less familiar with the industry, Coopersmith recommends that prospective dental students visit a practice for a full day before investing years of their life in training.

For those who love the prospects of a career in oral health, the rewards are immense. And they are definitely more than monetary, explains Huson.

"Being a dentist has allowed me to get in touch with my creative side. I truly enjoy taking someone who doesn't smile much and giving them back a smile that they aren't afraid of showing."

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