What Dentists Do
Dentists diagnose and treat problems with patients’ teeth, gums, and related parts of the mouth. They provide advice and instruction on taking care of the teeth and gums and on diet choices that affect oral health.
Dentists typically do the following:
- Remove decay from teeth and fill cavities
- Repair or remove damaged teeth
- Place sealants or whitening agents on teeth
- Administer anesthetics to keep patients from feeling pain during procedures
- Prescribe antibiotics or other medications
- Examine x rays of teeth, gums, the jaw, and nearby areas in order to diagnose problems
- Make models and measurements for dental appliances, such as dentures
- Teach patients about diets, flossing, the use of fluoride, and other aspects of dental care
Dentists use a variety of equipment, including x-ray machines, drills, mouth mirrors, probes, forceps, brushes, and scalpels. They also use lasers, digital scanners, and other technologies.
In addition, dentists in private practice oversee a variety of administrative tasks, including bookkeeping and buying equipment and supplies. They employ and supervise dental hygienists, dental assistants, dental laboratory technicians, and receptionists.
Most dentists are general practitioners and handle a variety of dental needs. Other dentists practice in a specialty area, such as one of the following:
Dental anesthesiologists administer drugs (anesthetics) to reduce or eliminate pain during a dental procedure, monitor sedated patients to keep them safe, and help patients manage pain afterward.
Dental public health specialists promote good dental health and the prevention of dental diseases in specific communities.
Endodontists perform root canal therapy, removing the nerves and blood supply from injured or infected teeth.
Oral and maxillofacial radiologists diagnose diseases in the head and neck through the use of imaging technologies.
Oral and maxillofacial surgeons operate on the mouth, jaws, teeth, gums, neck, and head, performing procedures such as surgically repairing a cleft lip and palate or removing impacted teeth.
Oral pathologists diagnose conditions in the mouth, such as bumps or ulcers, and oral diseases, such as cancer.
Orthodontists straighten teeth by applying pressure to the teeth with braces or other appliances.
Pediatric dentists focus on dentistry for children and special-needs patients.
Periodontists treat the gums and bones supporting the teeth.
Dentists also may do research. Or, they may teach part time, including supervising students in dental school clinics. For more information, see the profiles on medical scientists and postsecondary teachers.
Dentists held about 155,000 jobs in 2022. Employment in the detailed occupations that make up dentists was distributed as follows:
|Dentists, all other specialists||5,800|
|Oral and maxillofacial surgeons||4,900|
The largest employers of dentists were as follows:
|Offices of dentists||78%|
|Offices of physicians||2|
|Outpatient care centers||2|
Some dentists have their own business and work alone or with a small staff. Other dentists have partners in their practice. Still others work as associate dentists for established dental practices.
Dentists wear masks, gloves, and safety glasses to protect themselves and their patients from infectious diseases.
Dentists’ work schedules vary. Some work evenings and weekends to meet their patients’ needs. Many dentists work less than 40 hours a week, although some work considerably more.
How to Become a Dentist
Dentists must be licensed in the state in which they work. Licensure requirements vary by state, although candidates usually must have a Doctor of Dental Surgery (DDS) or Doctor of Medicine in Dentistry/Doctor of Dental Medicine (DMD) degree from an accredited dental program and pass written and clinical exams. Dentists who practice in a specialty area must complete postdoctoral training.
Dentists typically need a DDS or DMD degree from a dental program that has been accredited by the Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA). Most programs require that applicants have at least a bachelor’s degree and have completed certain science courses, such as biology or chemistry. Although no specific undergraduate major is required, programs may prefer applicants who have a bachelor's degree in a science, such as biology.
Applicants to dental schools usually take the Dental Admission Test (DAT). Dental schools use this test along with other factors, such as grade point average, interviews, and recommendations, to admit students into their programs.
Dental school programs typically include coursework in subjects such as local anesthesia, anatomy, periodontics (the study of oral disease and health), and radiology. All programs at dental schools include clinical experience in which students work directly with patients under the supervision of a licensed dentist.
As early as high school, students interested in becoming dentists can take courses in subjects such as biology, chemistry, and math.
All dental specialties require dentists to complete additional training before practicing that specialty. This training is usually a 2- to 4-year residency in a CODA-accredited program related to the specialty, which often culminates in a postdoctoral certificate or master’s degree. Oral and maxillofacial surgery programs typically take 4 to 6 years and may result in candidates earning a joint Medical Doctor (M.D.) degree.
General dentists do not need additional training after dental school.
Dentists who want to teach or do research full time may need advanced dental training, such as in a postdoctoral program in general dentistry.
Licenses, Certifications, and Registrations
Dentists must be licensed in the state in which they work. All states require dentists to be licensed; requirements vary by state. Most states require a dentist to have a DDS or DMD degree from an accredited dental program, pass the written National Board Dental Examination, and pass a state or regional clinical examination.
In addition, a dentist who wants to practice in a dental specialty must have a license in that specialty. Licensure requires the completion of a residency after dental school and, in some cases, the completion of a special state exam.
Overall employment of dentists is projected to grow 4 percent from 2022 to 2032, about as fast as the average for all occupations.
About 5,100 openings for dentists are projected each year, on average, over the decade. Many of those openings are expected to result from the need to replace workers who transfer to different occupations or exit the labor force, such as to retire.
Demand for dentists is expected to increase as larger numbers of older people require dental services. Because each generation is more likely to keep their teeth than the previous generation, more dental care is expected to be needed in the years to come. In addition, dentists will be needed to treat dentofacial injuries and other conditions as well as to perform restorative procedures to treat complications from oral disease, such as gum disease and oral cancer. The growing popularity of cosmetic dentistry also is expected to support demand for dentists.
Contacts for More Information
For more information about dentists, including information on accredited dental schools and state boards of dental examiners, visit
For information about admission to dental schools, visit
For more information about general dentistry or on a specific dental specialty, visit
This table shows a list of occupations with job duties that are similar to those of dentists.
|Occupation||Job Duties||Entry-Level Education||Median Annual Pay, May 2022|
Chiropractors evaluate and treat patients' neuromusculoskeletal system, which includes nerves, bones, muscles, ligaments, and tendons.
|Doctoral or professional degree||$75,380|
|Dental and Ophthalmic Laboratory Technicians and Medical Appliance Technicians||
Dental and ophthalmic laboratory technicians and medical appliance technicians make or repair dentures, eyeglasses, prosthetics, and related products.
|High school diploma or equivalent||$41,180|
Dental assistants provide patient care, take x rays, keep records, and schedule appointments.
|Postsecondary nondegree award||$44,820|
Dental hygienists examine patients for signs of oral diseases, such as gingivitis, and provide preventive care, including oral hygiene.
Medical scientists conduct research aimed at improving overall human health.
|Doctoral or professional degree||$99,930|
Optometrists diagnose, manage, and treat conditions and diseases of the human eye and visual system, including examining eyes and prescribing corrective lenses.
|Doctoral or professional degree||$125,590|
|Physicians and Surgeons||
Physicians and surgeons diagnose and treat injuries or illnesses and address health maintenance.
|Doctoral or professional degree||$229,300|
Podiatrists provide medical and surgical care for people with foot, ankle, and lower leg problems.
|Doctoral or professional degree||$148,720|
Veterinarians care for the health of animals and work to protect public health.
|Doctoral or professional degree||$103,260|