Dental Professions: Educational Overview of the Dentistry Professions

Oct 20, 2021

The educational requirements for a career in the field of dentistry range from a high school diploma to a doctoral degree. Dental assistants do not always need formal postsecondary training, although a certificate or diploma program can be a way to gain relevant skills and meet some states' credentialing requirements. Dental hygienists typically need an associate's degree, and dentists are required to graduate from dental school with a doctoral degree.

Essential Information

Individuals interested in promoting healthy teeth and gums may want to consider entering a dental profession. Dental professionals are usually required to hold some form of licensure or certification, which typically entails completion of an accredited educational program. Job requirements vary by position.

Career Dental Assistant Dental Hygienist Dentist
Required Education High school diploma, Accredited training program required in some states Associate's degree Doctoral degree
Other Requirements Certification and/or registration required in some states State licensure State licensure
Projected Job Growth (2019-2029)* 7% 6% 3%
Average Salary (2020)* $42,310 $78,050 $180,830

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Career Options

People in the dentistry profession typically work directly with patients in a dentist's office. They help keep patients' teeth and mouths healthy, and deal with related disease and injuries.

Dental Assistant

Dental assistants carry out a mixed assortment of patient care and clerical duties. They may sterilize dental instruments, prepare examination rooms, manage office inventory, schedule appointments and process payments. Assistants also collect patients' medical and dental histories before preparing them for exams and procedures. Dental assistants may work alongside dentists during procedures as well and hand them instruments as necessary. Depending on the scope of their duties, they might prepare X-rays, take dental impressions, apply topical anesthetics and place dental dams.

In May 2020, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported that dental assistants earned an average yearly salary of $42,310. Dental assistant positions should grow about 7% from 2019 to 2029, according to BLS predictions.

Education Requirements

There are no strict education requirements for dental assistants; however, many assistants complete 1-year diploma or certificate programs. Some 2-year colleges also offer associate's degree programs in dental assisting. Students generally gain practical skills for entry-level employment in the field. Courses may include dental radiography, infection control, chairside assisting, dental materials and oral anatomy. After completing training, obtaining licensure and finding employment, dental assistants typically undergo additional training on the job.

Dental Hygienist

Dental hygienists focus on providing preventative care. Along with taking X-rays, performing oral exams and cleaning teeth, these professionals educate patients about healthy dental practices. This might entail showing patients how to properly brush or floss their teeth. Other duties vary according to state regulations. In some states, for example, hygienists may administer local anesthetics, place fillings or even make diagnoses.

As noted by the BLS, jobs for dental hygienists were predicted to increase faster than average by 6% between 2019 and 2029, mainly due to the growing demand for preventative dental procedures. As of May 2020, dental hygienists made $78,050 a year, on average (BLS).

Education Requirements

Though some hygienists enter the field with certificates, dental hygienists usually hold associate's degrees in dental hygiene. Offered by community colleges and technical schools, these 2-year programs often include laboratory work and in-class lessons, as well as clinical practicums. Students typically study topics like:

  • Preventative dentistry
  • Radiology
  • Community dental health
  • Histology
  • Orofacial anatomy

Upon completion of college, dental hygienists must obtain state licensure to obtain employment in the field. Students might also choose to continue their educations by earning bachelor's or master's degrees to qualify for upper-level positions in teaching, research and clinics. These programs provide opportunities for students to learn in hands-on environments as well as in the classroom. They tend to focus more on dental hygiene theory and advanced clinical topics in the field. Graduate-level students may be required to complete thesis projects based on original research.


Dentists are medical professionals who specialize in diagnosing and treating oral diseases and infections. They fill cavities, extract and replace teeth, conduct root canals and perform other surgical procedures. Dentists also provide patients with preventative care by informing them of proper oral care practices. While most dentists are general practitioners, some specialize in branches of dentistry, such as orthodontics and oral surgery.

The BLS anticipated that employment of dentists would expand faster than the average by 6% during the 2019 to 2029 decade, due to older individuals requiring advanced dental procedures as well as the ongoing emphasis on the importance of oral health. Dentists brought home an average annual salary of $180,830 as of May 2020, according to the BLS.

Education Requirements

Dentists must complete an undergraduate degree and four years of an accredited dental school and obtain state licensure to practice in the profession. Dental students can choose from either Doctor of Dental Surgery (DDS) or Doctor of Dental Medicine (DMD) programs. These programs are generally divided into two years of dental and general science instruction and two years of dental rotation externships. The rotations offer students opportunities to gain hands-on experience treating patients in clinics. Courses commonly include:

  • Oral pathology
  • Anesthesia
  • Endodontics
  • Pediatric dentistry
  • Immunology

Postgraduate Education

Dental school graduates may continue their training by completing 2-4 years of postgraduate education. Postgraduate programs train students on chosen specialties of the dentistry field. Some dentists also go on to complete an additional 2-year residency program. After completing postgraduate education, dentists may obtain licensure in their specialties by passing state exams.

Individuals interested in the dental profession have a variety of career options, depending on how much education they're willing to pursue. Entry-level positions performing office tasks and assisting with preventative procedures as a dental assistant or hygienist are typically available to students who complete an undergraduate certificate or degree program. At least eight years of study are required to complete the bachelor's degree and doctoral programs required to perform surgical procedures as a licensed dentist.

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