Written by Alyssa Walker

From physician to technician, there are myriad options when it comes to healthcare careers. One that’s critically important to your health and well-being? The dentist. If you’ve ever had a toothache, a cavity, or any other dental calamity, then you know that a good dentist is not only key to your health, but your comfort and confidence, too.

The field has its roots in pre-historic medicine, going back about 25,000 years. In 5,000 BCE, the Sumerians reported “tooth worms” as the perpetrators of tooth decay, a theory not truly eradicated until the 18th century. When Hippocrates, the “father of Western medicine” established his ethic of “do no harm” in about 400 BCE he mentioned caring for teeth, but gave little direction. The field started to take hold in 1523, with the publication of “The Little Medicinal Book for All Kinds of Diseases and Infirmities of the Teeth.”

By 1700, dentistry was a profession unto itself. According to the American Dental Education Association, in 1723, Pierre Fauchard, a French surgeon and the Father of Modern Dentistry, published the anchor text, “The Surgeon Dentist, a Treatise on Teeth.” To him, we owe thanks for dental fillings and the notion of sugar as a culprit when it comes to tooth decay.

From there, dentistry rooted itself as a serious medical career. In 1840, the first dental college, the Baltimore College of Dental Surgery opened and Alabama took the stage by creating the first dental practice a year later. In 1860 the American Dental Association (ADA) formed and the first university-linked dental school, Harvard University Dental School, was founded in 1867.

Since then, dentistry has established a strong foothold in healthcare. This well-paying field offers you the chance to combine your love of medicine with your desire to help others.

Ready to improve someone’s smile and health? Here are six reasons to become a dentist...

1. You’ll help people

Dentists have some notoriety when it comes to pain and discomfort, but patients’ pain is not their goal unless they’re stars in everybody’s favorite 1986 hit musical, Little Shop of Horrors.

While dental pain is among some of the most excruciating out there, dentists aim to alleviate patients’ pain by fixing problems. The dental medicine of the 21st century has come a long way since the first 16th-century textbook.

To mitigate pain and suffering, dentists have taken a proactive and preventative approach with patients by recommending a minimum of two cleaning per year. They maintain that with proper dental care, most people can avoid the more painful dental issues that can arise without regular cleaning and check-ups.

By educating patients about dental care, dentists not only help them maintain dental health, but they also give them the confidence to smile more.

Smiling in and of itself promotes your health and wellness. Science suggests that smiling boosts your immunity by sending signals to your brain that you’re happy--even if you’re not. Even faking a smile is good for your health!

Dentists play a key role in making you healthier not just by maintaining your teeth and gums but also by giving you the confidence to flash your pearly whites!

2. You’ll combine your creative and scientific skills

Dentistry requires a mastery of science and technical skill, as well as the ability to think creatively. You’re not just limited to fixing teeth and filling cavities. You’re working with people so that they develop a positive mindset about their dental health.  

Remember: no two patients are alike, so that a problem in one person’s mouth looks different in another patient, even though it might be the same problem. This means that you need to think outside the box. While one patient might require a root canal, another might need an extraction and a bridge.

When it comes to working with kids, creativity is even more important. First, you’re trying to encourage kids to have positive associations with going to the dentist. You may be the most-skilled dentist, but if your approach doesn’t mesh well with kids’ needs, then you might not be their dentist for long.

What does it take to be creative with kids? Make it as fun as possible. Chocolate toothpaste, a treasure chest, and mutli-colored elastics will still allow you to work at your highest technical level while embracing out-of-the-box thinking with children. Adults like chocolate toothpaste, too!

3. You’ll earn a good salary

Dentists are in short supply and their salaries reflect the need. What accounts for this demand? There’s a growing aging population worldwide, with growing demands for dental care.

Although you shouldn’t do it just for the money, a dental career is lucrative anywhere in the world and you’ll be able to earn a great salary. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, dentists in the US earned a median salary of $158,000 per year, or about $76 per hour. The outlook is good, too. Between 2016 and 2026, the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects a 19 percent growth in the need for dentists.

Dental salaries offer a comfortable standard of living across the world, too.   In most countries, salaries for dentists are well above the average, and dentists can, in some cases, choose where they will live and work. While dentistry is one of the best-paid careers in many countries, some dentists choose to migrate to countries with even higher salaries. For example, Ireland offers higher dentist salaries than its neighboring UK and some UK-qualified dentists choose to work in Ireland. Dentists in Spain also earn significantly more than those in other European countries, making it a popular base for qualified dentists. Prospective dentists who want to live and work outside of their own country need to look at the language and licensing requirements of different countries before planning to migrate.

Dentistry is also a good career for those who want more freedom or flexibility in working hours. In many countries, dentists work forty hours or less, allowing some practices to implement 4-day workweeks. While larger clinics may be open for five days, most dentists work only four days. At smaller practices, four-day workweeks are not uncommon.  Even when the work full time, dentists often have shorter hours than other workers. In Australia, dentists work an average of 42.5 hours per week and earn an hourly wage two and a half times more than the average.

4.  You’ll have an independent career

If being your own boss has ever appealed to you and you want to work in a medical profession, dentistry offers many flexible options.  When you graduate dental school, you have a choice in where you work. You can opt to join a practice or you can fire up your entrepreneurial spirit and open your own clinic.

In countries where dental care is subsidized or included in national health services, dentists can choose to work in either private practices, that cater to people with personal health coverage, or public practices that are funded or subsidized by the government.

5. You can specialize if you choose

General dentists are like general practitioners. They offer standard dental procedures like cleanings, x-rays, and fillings.

If you’re more interested in other aspects of dentistry, you have the option to specialize. Orthodontists straighten teeth with braces and other devices. Periodontists focus on treating gums and tooth-supporting bone. Endodontists do some of the deeper work than general dentists can also do, like root canals. They specialize in saving teeth. There are other specialists who focus on replacing teeth with implants and other technologies. For more of a medical speciality, some dentists opt to study oral pathology, or the diagnosis of oral diseases and mouth cancers.  

Students interested in dentistry might also consider careers in the non-medical aspects of dentistry like dental ceramists (who make dental implants and prosthetics) or office managers (who organize the business side of a dentist’s practice).

6. You’ll meet interesting people

You don’t work solo in a dental office and your patients come from all walks of life. That’s a recipe for interacting with all different kinds of people!

In your office, you might work with another dentist, any number of hygienists and specialists, assistants, and administrative folks. You’ll also interact with your patients, all of whom are in your office for preventative care or more specific treatment.

What does it take to become a dentist? You’ll need a bachelor’s degree first. While you don’t need to enroll in a pre-dental program, you’ll need coursework in physics, biology, and chemistry before you can take the Dental Admissions Test, or DAT. Most dental schools require this exam or its equivalent before applying to dental school.

Dental school typically takes four years to complete and results in a Doctor of Dental Surgery, DDS, or a Doctor of Dental Medicine (DMD) degree. Much like medical school, dental school’s first two years focus on classroom and laboratory studies in health and dental science. In the last two years, students work in clinics under the direction and supervision of dental instructors.

After dental school, students must earn licensure, as physicians do. Specializations typically require another two to four years of study.

Dentistry is a rewarding, lucrative career path for students interested in pursuing a health degree that will allow them to make a lasting positive impact in others’ lives.

Alyssa Walker is a freelance writer, educator, and nonprofit consultant. She lives in the White Mountains of New Hampshire with her family.
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