Practicing Dentistry | American Dental Association

Exploring a dental career

Just getting started? Here is a helpful overview of general dentistry, complete with tools, tips and perspectives to help you learn more about dentistry as a career. The American Dental Education Association may also provide helpful information.
What does the practice of dentistry involve?

Dentistry is the evaluation, diagnosis, prevention and treatment of diseases, disorders and conditions of the oral cavity, the craniomaxillofacial area and the adjacent structures and their impact on the human body. This care is provided by dentists within the scope of their education, training and experience in accordance with the ethics of the profession and applicable law.

What does a dentist do?

Diagnose and treat diseases, injuries and malformations of
the teeth and mouth.

Improve a patient’s appearance.

Perform surgical procedures such as implants, tissue grafts
and extractions.

Educate patients on how to better care for their teeth and
prevent oral disease.

Teach future dentists and dental hygienists.

Perform research directed to improving oral health and
developing new treatment methods.

What are the benefits of becoming a dentist?

Service to others: As a dentist, you will help people maintain and improve their oral health, quality of life and appearance.

Positive lifestyle: Dentistry offers you the chance to create a professional and personal life that is balanced and satisfying.

Patient empowerment: You can give patients smiles they are proud to wear. You will also have the chance to teach them skills that support good oral health at all stages of life.

Prevention: In oral exams, you may detect issues that go beyond tooth decay and gum disease. These may include oral cancer or cardiovascular problems that, if left untreated, can have devastating effects on patient health.

Creativity: You will have the opportunity to use your artistic and scientific talents in many ways, seeking innovative solutions for patient needs.

Research and technology: Many dentists play an active role in the scientific advancement of dentistry. This may involve taking part in research studies or fulfilling a role on scientific councils.

Leadership: You will earn respect from your family, friends and community and have the opportunity to help other dentists advance their careers.

Financial success: As the population ages and greater numbers of people enjoy improved access to care, demand for general dentists grows. You can enjoy a good income while meeting the public’s need for quality oral care.

Self-employment: You may choose to launch or buy a dental practice, giving you the chance to be your own boss.

What education requirements must dentists meet?

Generally, three to four years of undergraduate education plus four years of dental school are required to graduate and become a dentist. Dental schools may choose to award a doctorate of dental surgery (DDS) or a doctorate of dental medicine (DMD). Dentists holding DDS or DMD degrees have fulfilled the same educational requirements set by the Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA). State licensing boards accept both degrees as equivalent, allowing licensed individuals to practice the same scope of general dentistry. Additional post-graduate training is required to become a dental specialist such as an orthodontist, periodontist or oral and maxillofacial surgeon.

Search a current list of accredited dental education programs and schools and view resources to help you finance your dental education here.

How does licensure work?

All dentists must go through the licensure process at least once during their professional careers. If you are considering moving to a new state, you may need to repeat the process to meet different requirements.

Your state dental board can provide specific information about licensure requirements, the dental practice laws that apply in your state and other licensure-related information. The ADA maintains a Dental Licensure Map that can help you find basic licensure information by state.

What is an interest area in general dentistry?
An interest area in general dentistry is a well-defined body of evidence-based scientific and clinical knowledge underlying general dentistry, but is a more focused, complex and distinct field identified by advanced knowledge, techniques and procedures.

Today’s rapidly emerging technologies and science are providing more sophisticated and complex solutions to problems encountered in general dentistry.

The advances are changing and enhancing the dental practice environment. Interest areas in general dentistry must meet the specified Criteria for Recognition of Interest Areas in General Dentistry (PDF) in order to be formally recognized by the American Dental Association.

Operative Dentistry, Cariology and Biomaterials has met the Criteria and is formally recognized by the American Dental Association. Operative Dentistry, Cariology and Biomaterials is that branch of general dentistry concerned with the advanced knowledge, expertise and clinical skills in operative dentistry, restorative dental materials, educational theory, techniques, and teaching skills. It includes scientific research and knowledge in the areas of cariology and advanced scientific clinical training in restorative materials and biomaterials.

For more information about interest areas in general dentistry, contact the ADA Council on Dental Education and Licensure at 312.440.2698 or
What are the recognized specialties within dentistry?

The ADA believes that the public is best served when dentists focus on the general practice of dentistry. However, the recognition of specialties within dentistry offers benefits for patients and professionals alike. Accordingly, there are 12 recognized dental specialties within the dental profession.

The National Commission on Recognition of Dental Specialties and their certifying boards are the official body that reviews and formally recognizes dental specialties.

How can I start or buy a dental practice of my own?
If ownership is on your mind, you’re not alone: 86% of graduating dental students report that they want to own a private practice within ten years of graduation. But how do you get there?

The ADA has tools to help you establish a new practice or buy an existing one. Our resources will give you confidence and help you avoid common mistakes along the way. Check out our Starting a Practice Guide, or explore the ADA Practice TransitionsTM blog for resources to help you find the right practice for you.
Can I work for more than one dental practice?
Yes, absolutely. Many dentists work for more than one practice, especially early in their careers. Be sure to carefully review your contracts, especially any non-compete clauses, before agreeing to do so.
Using your degree in different ways can offer fresh challenges and rewards.
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Looking for your next opportunity? Visit the ADA job board.
Are you a high-school or college student hoping to become a dentist? Find resources here.
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ADA Practice Transitions (ADAPT): Graphic of dentist at desk with ADAPT logo
ADA Practice Transitions (ADAPT)

ADA Practice Transitions (ADAPT): Buying or selling a practice? Looking for new associates — or a new role for yourself? Get step-by-step guidance.

Getting hired

Starting a new job search? Here are tools and perspectives to help you succeed.
What do hiring organizations look for in a new associate?

Every associateship and every dental practice is different. But generally, hiring organizations are looking for:

  • Dentists whose philosophy is similar to theirs
  • A strong resume detailing experience and accomplishments
  • Interest in getting involved with the community, which helps build the practice
  • A willingness to take on duties such as emergency coverage, paperwork, practice management and the like
  • A good listener who will tune into what patients and colleagues are saying
  • Someone who is enthusiastic about joining the practice
  • Good references —both professional and personal
  • An interview that affirms the candidate’s qualifications, skills and value to the team
Can I work for more than one dental practice?

Yes, absolutely. Many dentists work for more than one practice, especially early in their careers. Be sure to carefully review your contracts, especially any non-compete clauses, before agreeing to do so.

What is it like to work for a large group practice or dental support organization (DSO)?
Large group practices, including DSOs, vary in size and corporate structure. A large group practice can employ dozens or even hundreds of dental professionals. Practices of this kind may have locations in one state or multiple locations across the country. DSOs provide critical business management and support for dental practices, including non-clinical operations. Recent figures show that more than 10% of all dentists currently work for DSOs. Nearly 20% of new dental school graduates plan to join DSOs. If you are a dental school student or a recent graduate, you may wonder how this career option compares with joining, launching or buying a private dental practice. Advantages of working for a DSO may include:
  • Freedom to focus on your patients, since billing, administration, marketing and other tasks are handled by the organization
  • Salary and benefit packages that may help newer dentists make a strong start
  • Access to cutting-edge dental technology and tools
  • Mentoring programs to accelerate your career
  • Reduced financial risks (as compared with starting or buying your own practice)
Possible drawbacks of working for a DSO may include:
  • Demanding work schedules, especially for newer dentists
  • Less creativity and narrower choice in determining how to treat patients
  • Contractual agreements that can limit future options

The ADA offers resources for dentists interested in working for large group practices, including:

Where can I find current job opportunities?
Check out the ADA job board for openings across the country or check out ADA Practice Transitions for step-by-step guidance to find the right practice for your goals.