Dentistry Degrees: Overview of Types of Dental Degree Programs

Oct 20, 2021

Essential Information

An associate's degree program in dental assisting includes classroom, clinical and laboratory training and prepares students to work as dental assistants. Students gain a background in dental science, do an internship or externship and acquire the skills needed to take the Certified Dental Assistant (CDA) certification exam. A bachelor's degree program in dental hygiene also includes clinical training and prepares students to work as dental hygienists. After they graduate, they need to meet state requirements to get licensed as a dental hygienist.

A doctoral program in dentistry leads to a career as a dentist or dental specialist, such as an oral surgeon or orthodontist. Some competitive doctoral programs will require students to take the Dental Admissions Test to determine acceptance. Once in the program, students learn how to diagnose oral problems, do comprehensive examinations and perform dental procedures. They get hands-on practice performing these tasks and participate in clinical rotations and internships. Upon graduation, students must take licensing exams.

Associate's Degree in Dental Assisting

While studying to earn an associate's degree in dental assisting, students learn the necessary skills to provide patient care such as collecting patient medical history, assisting during various procedures and managing office tasks. Students take business courses, participate in laboratory and clinical training and receive classroom instruction regarding dentistry. At the end of the program, students are ready to take the Dental Assisting National Board (DANB) examination to become certified. Community colleges, private schools, vocational schools and technology institutes offer dental assistant associate's degrees, usually as an Associate of Applied Science or Associate of Science.

Students take courses that teach them basic administrative functions, computer skills and dental science while receiving hands-on training. Internships or externships are often required, which provide students with professional experience in dentist offices. Some common classes include:

  • Dental materials
  • Pharmacology and clinical procedures
  • Dental specialties and science
  • Chair-side assisting
  • Dental radiography
  • Business skills

Bachelor's Degree in Dental Hygiene

Earning a bachelor's degree in dental hygiene prepares students for dental hygiene careers in which they teach people proper oral care, examine patients' teeth and gums, identify diseases or other conditions, work with various dental tools, materials and equipment and perform other dental procedures under the supervision of a licensed dentist. Many private and public colleges and universities offer bachelor's degree programs in dental hygiene as a Bachelor of Science.

Dental hygiene students take classes in dental science along with other sciences and receive laboratory and clinical training. Some programs require students to take foundational courses before beginning the major's core curriculum, like anatomy and physiology. Some common classes include:

  • Periodontology
  • Pharmacology
  • Oral radiology
  • Local anesthesia
  • Dental morphology and dental specialties

Doctoral Degree in Dentistry

Students earning a Doctor of Dental Surgery (D.D.S) or Doctor of Dental Medicine (D.D.M.) degree learn about providing dental care to diverse populations, diagnosing and treating oral conditions and mastering dental treatment procedures by practicing on models and patients. They also learn restorative dentistry, periodontics, oral surgery, pediatric dentistry and other dental specialties. Dental school typically takes four years of full-time study beyond the baccalaureate level to complete.

Students take various clinical and biological science classes. During the final years, students participate in clinical rotations through which they work with patients under the supervision of clinical instructors. Off-campus experience is often received through internships. Some common courses include:

  • Dentistry biostatistics
  • Molecular biology and oral microbiology
  • Periodontics
  • Head and neck anatomy
  • Dental radiography occlusion
  • Operative dentistry

Employment Outlook and Salary

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported that it expected dental assisting jobs to increase 7% between 2019 and 2029 ( Some of the factors leading to this above-average increase are a growing population, the younger population receiving better preventative dental care and more dentists hiring assistants to help decrease their work load. As of May 2019, dental assistants earned an annual median income of $40,080, according to the BLS.

Dental hygienist jobs are expected to grow 6% during 2019-2029, according to the BLS. As the aging population receives better dental care, they are able to retain more teeth. This factor, along with a booming population and more people placing priority on dental care, leads to the high demand of dental hygienists. Dental hygienists salaries range according to region, setting and experience. The BLS reported an annual median income of $76,220 for dental hygienists as of May 2019.

During the 2019-2029 decade, dentist jobs should increase 3% according to the BLS. An increasing population and aging community contribute to this increase. Better insurance coverage of dental services also leads to more people receiving oral care. Dentists earned an annual median salary of $155,600 as of May 2019.

Licensure and Certification

The BLS stated that most states put limitations on which duties dental assistants could perform while other states give the dentist full jurisdiction. Obtaining licensure varies from state to state and may include passing an exam after completing state-approved dental assisting training.

The DANB awards qualified candidates with the Certified Dental Assistant (CDA) certification. Candidates must pass education and/or experience requirements to become eligible for the CDA certification. The DANB also offers other voluntary certifications to validate competency in dental assistant abilities in areas like infection control, sealants, coronal polish and topical fluoride.

All states mandate that dental hygienists receive licensure from the state where they practice. Each state sets its own licensing requirements, but they usually involve graduating from an approved school and passing a written and practical exam.

Before they can begin practicing, all dentists must obtain licensure from the state where they intend to work. Licensing standards vary for each state, but normally include candidates passing a written and clinical exam and earning a degree from an approved dental school. Dentists with a D.D.S. or D.D.M. also might consider gaining a dentistry specialty. Residency programs are available in areas such as endodontics, oral pathology, orthodontics and pediatric dentistry.

Lucrative careers in the dentistry field can be obtained by those who pursue either an associate's, bachelor's, or doctoral degree in dentistry. Obtaining an associate's degree will prepare the student as a dental assistant or dental hygienist, while going the bachelor's to doctoral degree route prepares students for a career as a dentist.

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