A dentist is an accredited medical professional who specializes in the care of teeth, gums,
and mouths. As with most medical professions, a keen eye for detail, comprehensive medical
understanding, manual dexterity, and strong interpersonal skills are important. Dentists deal
with procedures that involve actual manipulation of the teeth or gums. Dentists have also
evolved to provide cosmetic care that addresses society’s perception of hygiene and health, as
with the burgeoning business in whitening teeth. Problems dealing with the jaw or any invasive
oral procedure are usually undertaken by an oral surgeon, and dental hygienists and dental
assistants do much of the routine dental cleanings,
maintenance, and X-rays. A significant part of a dentist’s
job involves educating patients about ways to preserve a
healthy mouth, and the best dentists are skillful communicators. (Gum disease, for example,
ultimately attacks more than 87 percent of the population.) Cavities can develop and worsen
for a long time undetected by a patient, and sometimes the only remedy is root canal therapy
(less painful than in the early days but still expensive) or extraction of the tooth.
Dentists are the preventative doctors par excellence, ever alert for early signs of swollen
or bleeding gums, tooth decay, etc., but often they simply step in and correct the results of
their patients’ less-than-stellar personal hygiene. While dentists encourage frequent visits to
maintain good health, the reduced likelihood that patients have comprehensive health insurance
coverage for dental work as compared to other forms of health care has been known to
strain that effort. Dentists work 7–10-hour days, except when emergencies arise, which can
occasionally lengthen the workday. The life of a dentist is very similar to that of any other
doctor, except that dentists keep regular office hours—one notable attraction of the profession.
Many of the dentists we surveyed responded that although the hours are long, one is
able to lead a fairly predictable life, take standard vacations around major holidays, and enjoy
weekends with family. Reasonable hours were cited on over 90 percent of our surveys as one
of the most important features that led people to dentistry as opposed to any other medical
Dentists pay enormous premiums for liability insurance, large sums for fixed costs such
as rent and equipment, and significant overhead for qualified personnel and quality products.
Since each patient treated corresponds to additional revenue received, dentists often try
to see as many patients as they can on a given day. A dentist usually spends one afternoon a
week managing paperwork and insurance claims. The amount of time required to process
this paperwork is likely to increase as changes in health care management force doctors to
spend more time filing and defending claims of even routine prevention for their insured
Prospective dentists must complete a set of rigorous academic and professional requirements.
Academic course work on the undergraduate level should include anatomy, chemistry,
physics, and biology. All prospective dentists must complete four years at an American Dental
Association-accredited school and pass the individual exams administered by each state.
Passage of the National Dental Board Exam (administered twice a year), however, can exempt
the candidate from the written portion of the state exams. If you wish to teach, do dental
research, or engage in a dental specialty, an additional two to five years of study is required.
After passing the exams and receiving a Doctor of Dental Surgery (DDS) or Doctor of
Dental Medicine (DDM) degree, a new dentist may choose to apprentice under an established
practitioner for several years, after which time junior associates may either buy a larger share
of the partnership or leave to start their own practices. Nearly a quarter of all graduates buy
into or purchase outright an existing practice after graduation. Financing is rarely a problem,
as most dental practices are considered good investments by banks, as long as the internal
cash flow of the practice is properly managed.
Including retirement, health problems, death, migration to other fields, and return to
school for further education, only 9 percent leave the industry each year. A few professionals
decide to specialize in reconstruction, orthodontics, periodontics, oral surgery, or a related
medical field. Few people leave the medical field altogether.