A doctorate in dentistry is the highest general dental degree in the U.S. Dentistry schools award either a doctor of medicine in dentistry (DMD) or a doctor of dental surgery (DDS) to graduates. Despite the different degree titles, a DMD and a DDS typically entail the same training and qualify graduates for the same specialty practice areas.
Attending dentistry school can open doors to lucrative, challenging medical careers in the dental profession. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports a median annual salary of $164,010 for dentists as of May 2020, far exceeding the national median earnings for all occupations.
This page explores the prerequisites, requirements, and cost expectations for attending dentistry school.
What Is Dental Medicine?
One of the oldest medical professions, dentistry dates back to the Indus Valley Civilization around 7000 B.C. In the early 18th century, French surgeon Pierre Fauchard published a medical treatise on tooth decay, dental fillings, and prostheses. This marked the beginning of modern dentistry.
Fauchard's discoveries sparked significant progress in the dental profession worldwide. In the early 1840s, Baltimore established the first dentistry school. A few years later, Colgate began mass-producing toothpaste and toothbrushes. Even so, most Americans did not practice good dental hygiene until after World War II.
Today, general dentistry continues to play a critical role in society. Modern dentists often pursue specialty practice, such as oral oncology, cosmetics, or surgery. Dentistry often attracts ambitious individuals with strong interpersonal skills and a capacity to work independently.
Dentist vs. Hygienist Training
Students interested in the dental profession may wonder whether to pursue a career as a dentist or a dental hygienist. While the two degrees overlap, they differ in several crucial ways, including length, credit load, prerequisites, cost, coursework, goals, earnings, and job duties.
Below, we compare dentistry schools and dental hygienist programs:
|Degree||A dental doctorate (DMD or DDS)||An associate degree in dental hygiene|
|Education Requirements for Program Admission||A bachelor's degree in a STEM discipline||A high school diploma or GED certificate|
|Length||At least four years full time||At least two years full time|
|Credit Load||A minimum of 90 graduate credits||A minimum of 60 undergraduate credits|
|Common Courses||Physiology, microbiology, oral anatomy, oral pathology, periodontics||Dental hygiene, dental equipment, oral anatomy and physiology, epidemiology|
|Cost Tuition and Fees||$32,934 per year on average||$3,313 per year on average|
|Licensure/Certification||Licensure required||Licensure required|
|Median Annual Earnings||$164,010||$77,090|
|Typical job duties||Interpret X-rays, examine patients for signs of oral disease, administer anesthetics, fill cavities, perform root canals||Take X-rays, perform teeth cleanings and fluoride treatments, explain dental procedures, teach patients oral hygiene|
Ultimately, which degree a student pursues depends on their career goals. A dental hygienist program may appeal to students with more limited financial resources or those without the interests or academic strengths needed to succeed in dental school.
Learn more about the field of dental hygiene:
Why Go to a School for Dentists?
A career in dentistry can lead to a meaningful, rewarding career, enabling practitioners to promote the oral health of their community. Additional benefits of earning a doctorate in dentistry include:
What to Expect From Colleges With Dental Programs
Dentistry school requires a minimum of 90 credits and takes at least four years of full-time study. Prerequisites typically include a bachelor's degree in a life science discipline, like biology or chemistry. Many programs also require students to complete a dental residency.
Dentistry school offers aspiring dentists multiple options to shape their careers. Most programs provide a variety of specialization options, including endodontics, orthodontics, and periodontics.
A typical dental school curriculum comprises core classes such as anatomy, microbiology, and physiology, along with electives and concentration courses like oral oncology, oral pathology, and epidemiology.
Cost varies by program, but attending a public, in-state dentistry school usually means lower tuition than a dental doctorate from an out-of-state or private school.
Dentistry schools normally require applicants to hold a bachelor's degree in a life science discipline from a regionally accredited school. Learners with bachelor's degrees in other fields must usually complete prerequisites in mathematics, biology, and chemistry. Many dentistry schools require applicants to have a minimum 3.0-3.5 undergraduate GPA.
Dental school applicants must typically submit an online application, a CV, college transcripts, DAT and GRE scores, recommendation letters, a statement of purpose, and a nonrefundable application fee. Some schools may waive GRE testing requirements for U.S. citizens, residents, and DACA recipients. Programs commonly interview short-listed candidates.
Degree and Concentration Options
Dentistry schools confer either a DDS or a DMD on graduates. However, DDSs and DMDs receive equivalent training. Most programs provide a variety of concentrations in addition to a general dentistry option. Most specialty dentistry requires additional clinical training. Below, we describe a few of these specialization options:
A concentration in orthodontics focuses on the diagnosis and treatment of malocclusions and dentofacial deformities. Learning objectives include proficiencies in identifying abnormal facial growth and tooth development, determining potential orthodontic regimens, and treating cleft lip and palate.
A speciality in periodontics trains students in preventing, diagnosing, and treating gum and bone disease. Learners also study placing, maintaining, and repairing dental implants. Coursework familiarizes enrollees with the latest methods for treating inflammatory periodontal disease, performing cosmetic procedures, and fitting implants.
Endodontics is a special area dedicated to the study and treatment of the dental pulp — the portion of the tooth containing blood vessels, nerves, and connective tissues. A concentration in this specialty area focuses on teaching students to perform root canals and treat dental trauma and cracked teeth.
Popular College Dentistry Courses
A typical dentistry school curriculum comprises core requirements, specialization courses, and electives. Dental programs usually make students complete clinical training as required for state licensure exams. Below, we describe commonly offered dental school courses.
- Oral Anatomy and Physiology: This core class examines the physiology and anatomy of the mouth. Topics include permanent and primary teeth, facial morphology and dental occlusion, and anatomical structures of the neck and head.
- Microbiology: This core requirement familiarizes students with quantitative and observational methods for studying the biology of microorganisms, with a special emphasis on microbes that affect teeth and oral tissues. Lectures also cover diseases that influence oral bio-pathology and how microorganisms can improve oral health.
- Oral Pathology: This essential core course introduces the theories and methods used to study oral diseases and pathologies that affect maxillofacial tissues. Participants learn to diagnose and manage oral pathologies and systemic diseases that influence oral health.
- Orthodontics: This elective cultivates an in-depth understanding of biomechanical theories and concepts relating to orthodontic care. Through computer simulations, dental model devices, and laboratory sessions, the course teaches learners to apply mechanotherapy and techniques to the clinical practice of orthodontics.
- Immunologic Aspects of Oral Diseases: Concentrations in periodontics often feature electives that familiarize enrollees with concepts of immunology and immunopathology. Topics include immunopathological mechanisms, elements of acquired and innate immunity, genetic bases of antibody function and structure, and caries and periodontal disease.
How Much Will Going to a University for Dentistry Cost?
A dental doctorate is a substantial financial investment. According to the Commission on Dental Accreditation, the cost of graduate tuition and fees averaged $32,934 for the 2018-19 academic year.
In-state public dentistry schools typically provide lower tuition rates than private and out-of-state public institutions. Online or hybrid programs sometimes offer lower tuition than on-campus programs. To calculate the total cost of dentistry school, aspiring dentists should also factor in expenses for textbooks, relocation, commuting, parking, and campus amenities.
Learners in need of financial aid may want to research financing options such as scholarships, fellowships, and grants, which do not require repayment. Students should pursue loans as a last resort, since these require repayment with interest. According to U.S. News & World Report, the median debt of 2018 dental school graduates with loans was $280,410.
Read more about financing options:
Choosing the Right College Dentistry Program
Dentistry school rankings are an excellent starting point for aspiring dentists to begin their search for programs. However, prospective students must also consider their own career goals and personal interests before choosing which schools to apply to. Other critical factors to weigh include regional accreditation, field-specific credentials, and state authorization.
Frequently Asked Questions
To study dental medicine, you must hold a bachelor's degree from an accredited school. Most dentistry schools require a college degree in a STEM discipline and a minimum 3.0-3.5 GPA.
The application process for dental school can be very competitive. Students with high undergraduate GPAs and strong test scores are more likely to secure admission.
The difficulty of dental school depends on your academic strengths. A typical dentistry curriculum includes STEM courses such as anatomy, physiology, and microbiology, which makes a degree in dentistry particularly well suited for students who excel in STEM disciplines.
Dentistry school normally takes four years of full-time study. Proficiency in a specialty area, such as orthodontics, periodontics, and endodontics, typically requires additional clinical training.
There are currently 68 accredited dental schools in the U.S.