What Do Various Dentists Do?

A dentist examines patients’ teeth and mouth tissue to first diagnose and then treat any problems they find. Treatment may include removing tooth decay, filling cavities, repairing damaged teeth, and removing teeth when necessary. Most dentists are general practitioners, but some are specialists. General practice dentist gives primary dental care while specialists have advanced knowledge of specific areas of dental care.

The following is a list of several specialties and a brief description of each:

  • Orthodontists straighten teeth using devices such as braces and retainers.
  • Oral and maxillofacial surgeons operate on the mouth and jaws.
  • Pediatric dentists treat children.
  • Periodontists treat gums and the bone that supports the teeth.
  • Prosthodontists replace missing teeth with dentures and bridges.
  • Endodontists perform root canal therapy.
  • Public health dentists promote good dental health within communities.
  • Oral pathologists diagnose oral conditions and diseases.
  • Oral and maxillofacial radiologists diagnose diseases in the head and neck using imaging technologies.

Employment Facts

There were over 147,000 dentists employed in 2012. This number includes those who work in the dental specialties described above. Many own or co-own private practices.

Most dentists work full time and have schedules that usually include evenings and weekends.

Educational Requirements

To become a dentist, one must attend a dental school that is accredited by the American Dental Association’s (ADA) Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA). Programs take approximately four years to complete. However, those who want to specialize must then spend an additional year or two in a residency.

To get accepted by one of the more than 50 dental schools in the US, one must complete at least two years of pre-dental education, but most programs require a bachelor’s degree. Applicants face a great deal of competition. All must take the Dental Admissions Test (DAT). Visit the ADA website for a list of accredited schools.

Other Requirements

To practice as a dentist, one must be licensed by the state in which they want to work. Requirements for licensure vary from state to state, but all include graduation from an accredited school and passing of Parts I and II of the National Board Dental Examinations. The ADA’s Joint Commission administers this multiple choice test on National Dental Examinations.

Candidates for licensure must also pass a clinical examination. To find out what the specific requirements are in the state in which you plan to practice, contact that state’s dental board. The American Association of Dental Boards website has links to every state board in the US.

In addition to education and licensing requirements, a dentist needs certain soft skills, or personal qualities, to succeed in this occupation. Strong critical thinking skills will allow them to weigh the pros and cons of alternative solutions to problems to select the best one. They also need excellent judgment and decision making skills. A dentist must be service-oriented and have good listening and speaking skills to provide appropriate care to patients. They must be socially conscious as well. This skill allows them to be aware of a patient’s reactions and respond to them appropriately. Also, good time management skills and active learning skills are necessary.

Job Outlook

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that the employment of dentists will grow faster than the average for all occupations through 2022.


Salaried dentists earned a median annual salary of $145,240 in 2012. You can research salary data online to find out how much dentists currently earn in your city.

A Day in a Dentist’s Life

These are some typical job duties taken from online ads for general dentist positions found on Indeed.com:​

  • Examine, diagnose, and provide treatment counseling to patients in a comprehensive manner.
  • Examine and interpret diagnostic x-rays.
  • Consider treatment methods and explain the options with patients to determine which works best for them based on their situations.
  • Educate patients on oral health.
  • Oversee auxiliary dental staff in their appropriate management of equipment and supplies.
  • Provide professional judgment in part of a team effort.
  • Refer patients to orthodontists or other dental specialists for more advanced procedures and care.
  • Provide excellent customer service by offering same-day dental care and ensuring the parent or patient satisfaction.


Bureau of Labor Statistics, US Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2014-15 Edition, Dentists on the Internet at http://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/dentists.htm (visited on February 25, 2014).

Employment and Training Administration, US Department of Labor, O*NET Online, Dentists, General, on the Internet at http://www.onetonline.org/link/details/29-1021.00 (visited February 25, 2014).

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