Dentistry Professions: Career Education Overview

Oct 20, 2021

Dental professions include dentists, dental assistants and dental hygienists. A dental assistant can complete a diploma or certificate in one year, while dental hygienists may need to complete two to four years of postsecondary training to prepare for their career. Dentists must obtain a Doctor of Dental Medicine or Doctor of Dental Surgery degree and complete a residency.

Essential Information

To practice in their professions, dental assistants, dental hygienists and dentists are typically required to complete a postsecondary program accredited by the American Dental Association's Commission on Dental Accreditation. These programs range in scope and duration depending on the line of work. After graduating, dental professionals usually must obtain licensure from the states in which they practice.

Career Dental Assistant Dental Hygienist Dentist
Education Requirements High school diploma or equivalent Associate's degree Bachelor's degree
Other Requirements Dental assisting certificate State licensure Dental school and State licensure
Job Growth (2019-2029)* 7% 6% 3%
Median Annual Salary (2020)* $41,180 $77,090 $158,940

*U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Career Options

Dental Assistant

Dental assistants complete many tasks in the dental office. They welcome patients and discuss oral care with them, prepare the treatment room and take x-rays. Dental assistants also perform management tasks such as scheduling appointments and communicating with vendors. Many vocational schools and community colleges offer diploma, certificate and associate degree programs in dental assisting. While diploma and certificate programs often take one year to complete, associate degree programs in dental assisting can typically be finished in two years.

Dental assistants earned a median annual income of $41,180 as of May 2020, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). The highest-paid 10% of dental assistants earned an average annual salary of $58,390, while the lowest-paid 10% made about $28,940 per year (BLS). Jobs for dental assistants are expected to increase 7% from 2019 to 2029, per BLS reports.

Dental Hygienist

Dental hygienists advise patients on proper gum and dental care, screen patients for their dental histories and assist in treating patients' oral issues. Dental hygienists use different power tools to complete their tasks such as automatic toothbrushes and air polishing devices. Similar to dental assisting programs, dental hygiene education can include certificate, undergraduate degree and graduate degree programs. These programs typically take 2-4 years to complete and are comprised of hands-on, clinical instruction as well as classroom learning. Dental hygienists must also receive state licensure before they can work in a dental office.

According to BLS, employment of dental hygienists was predicted to grow faster than average by 6% from 2019 to 2029, mainly due to the increased demand for preventative dental care. As of May 2020, dental hygienists earned a median annual salary of $77,090, per the BLS.


Dentists diagnose oral issues and prepare treatment plans for patients. They also repair and remove teeth, administer anesthetics, write prescriptions for oral medications and examine x-rays. To become a dentist, an individual must complete four years of dental school after earning a bachelor's degree. There are two types of degree programs offered by most dental colleges. The most common degree is a Doctor of Dental Surgery (DDS), and the other is a Doctor of Dental Medicine (DMD). These programs include two years of classroom education and lab work followed by two years of clinical rotations, in which students learn to diagnose and treat patients under the supervision of dentists.

After graduating from dental school, some dentists go on to complete 2-6 years of residency training. Residencies provide dentists with practical instruction in specialized branches of the field, such as pediatric dentistry, orthodontics or prosthodontics. Upon completion, dentists may qualify for board certification in their specialties.

Dentists were predicted to see about as fast as the average increase of 3% in employment during the 2019 to 2029 decade, according to the BLS. A growing population of older individuals and an increased overall demand for dental work will spur this job growth. In May 2020, the BLS noted that dentists in general earned a median income of $158,940 annually.

Dental assistants may perform tasks as varied as scheduling appointments, taking x-rays and informing patients about dental care. Dental hygienists provide more specialized information to patients and may assist dentists during the treatment process. Dentists diagnose and treat patients by removing teeth, writing prescriptions and repairing teeth when necessary.

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