I always knew I wanted to work in medicine, and I grew up having a dentist as a father, which gave me a lot of insight into the work-life balance. I wanted to be able to work with my hands, work with people, and the idea of having a desk job or sitting behind a computer all day sounded horrible. My decision was between medical and dental school, and I thought I would be able to make my decision by taking all of the required undergraduate classes. Unfortunately, the material didn’t help me make my decision, so I spent a lot of time shadowing dentists, dental specialists, medical doctors, specialty doctors, etc. to observe what they do and get advice. Surprisingly, most of the physicians I talked to advised me against going to medical school. My key takeaways for going to dental school were: the quality of life would be higher with the reduced hours (good for my mental health), the schooling is less unless you specialize, and the income would be about the same.
Once I decided that I wanted to go to dental school, I applied to a few different schools. Dental school is one of the most expensive advanced secondary programs you can attend, making sure you understand the costs before you apply. The majority of people take out federal student loans, and the cost of tuition can range from $300,000-$500,000, depending on what school you go to (not including undergrad). I got into both an in-state public school and an out-of-state private school, and my decision to attend the University of Minnesota probably saved me $100,000 over four years with the reduced in-state tuition. Teeth are teeth; they mostly teach the same thing everywhere. There are individual schools with better clinical experiences, which can give you a better hands-on experience, and that’s something to look for. There are 6-year programs that do a combined undergrad with the dental school, but you need to know pretty early on that you’re committed to this type of program. Traditional programs are four years long, and you need to take a dental admissions test (DAT). The test is full of a bunch of bullshit, which isn’t relevant, but you need a specific score to get into most schools. A lot of people take it multiple times, so you might want to plan for this.
For the first two years, you learn many broad concepts similar to what you would discover in medical school. Classes can include physiology, human anatomy, biochemistry, anatomy labs, etc. You might take 8-9 courses at a given time. It’s a lot of studying for the first couple of years, which can be the most challenging part for many people. In the 3rd year, you start to see real patients, but my understanding is this may be changing, and many schools are now introducing patients in the middle of the 2nd year. Whichever your school has, you can expect at least a couple of years of clinicals, working with patients, and a small number of classes specific to dentistry. The more advanced courses might include endodontics, periodontics, oral surgery rotations, other advanced specialty classes that didn’t use to exist. For a lot of this stuff, you may not see it again unless you decide to make it part of your practice. I try to incorporate as many specializations as possible, to increase my income and prepare myself if I choose to create a personal practice.
In my years’ dental school program, we had roughly 100 students, and many of these people have become some of my best friends. The entire time was a blast! I would do it all over again if I could. Once I graduated, I decided to move to Chicago, a network I was unfamiliar with, so there were some challenges. I’ve learned to try and make connections with private practices you like, immediately after graduation or during. If you find a place you like, a lot of time, they want you to have a couple of years of experience before they accept you. It’s not uncommon to work at a place you’re not crazy about for a couple of years (which is what I did) before you find a home you like.
I work in private practice as an associate and have a set number of scheduled patients. I perform procedures on each day. We have three dental hygienists performing cleanings on patients who aren’t on my schedule, so I have to run around quite a bit. On a typical day, I’ll complete 20-30 hygiene checks to determine whether patients’ mouths are in good health or if they need to return for additional work. Every day there’s an entirely different itinerary, which is great because it keeps you on your toes and makes the day go by quickly. For the specialty work, I use 3D Cone-Beam CT scans, which creates 3-dimensional guides and instructions on how to perform a specialized procedure. It’s cool because it removes all of the guesswork, and you know what you’re doing.
In my opinion, being a Dentist is a fantastic profession that is very fulfilling. It’s exciting to be on the cutting edge working on innovative procedures. You occasionally run into some patients who are assholes, but you’re also going to have a lot of patients who are incredibly grateful and kind. For select patients, it can be quite emotional, and your job is to stay calm, coach them through it, and help make a difference. I find certain cosmetic surgeries to be really gratifying, being able to see how happy clients are when the procedures complete is incredible. I never know what’s going to walk through the door on a given day, and I never get bored.
If you’re interested in getting into the dental profession, I recommend you do a lot of shadowing (40+ hours) or even better, work as a dental assistant for a while. You need to make sure this is a career you would enjoy, and there are no surprises, schooling can be a significant investment ($300,000-$500,000). Also, please note, dental assistants are different from dental hygienists, being a direct aide to the dentist on all day-to-day activities, versus doing dental cleanings. You can go to school to get a dental assistant specialty, but you also don’t need to do that. Being a dental assistant is a more advanced way to shadow, in my opinion, and a lot of people do this while they’re in their undergraduate program. In my opinion, people who only complete one day of shadowing don’t have enough experience to make informed decisions.
Looking through a high powered microscope can be mentally taxing, and depending on the day, there can be a lot of stress if things don’t go according to plan. You need to determine if this aspect is something you can effectively manage and if you like problem-solving in these situations. Luckily, there’s a lot of schedule flexibility, and many dentists take Wednesday off to recover. Also, you need to LOVE teeth. If you’re grossed out by teeth or don’t like interacting with lots of different kinds of people, this profession will be challenging. The individuals who don’t like talking with people as much, often go into specialties.
I said this earlier, but I would advise against private schools unless someone else is paying. If you do decide to go private, talk to a local dentist who has experience going to a private school and inquire more about why they chose that route and how to manage your payments long-term successfully. The majority of dentists I speak with don’t worry about their loan payments; everything is on autopay, and incomes are high, so this can be an unnecessary worry and cause unwarranted stress while you’re in school.
100-300k as an associate (non-owner)
300K+ as an owner
All of this depends on what you're bringing to the table from a procedural standpoint, a marketing standpoint, and a personality standpoint. Location is also a big factor. Sky is the limit on earning potential if you want it to be.
Coming out of school, the best advice is to get your efficiency up. Some people get lucky and land a solid job in a solid practice; some people have to grind it out through a few practices before they find something more long term. Build your skills, be patient, and eventually, success will come.Pre-dental school, the advice is to shadow—A LOT. Make sure you like the profession. In undergrad, there are a lot of pre-dental groups at different universities. Look into that for a good starting point.
Attention to detail, intrinsic motivation, being Type A, and having people skills. You have to want to do well, I saw certain people try to skate through their training, and they ended up staying an extra year. My colleagues and I are total nerds when it comes to dental work, so it might be hard if you don’t see yourself in that way. I wouldn’t worry too much about motor skills; these are something you’ll develop throughout dental school. It’s natural to struggle the first couple of years working on fake patients, but your brain has a strange way of re-wiring, and the motor skills will become automatic. If you desire to do a specialty, you need to have excellent clinical reviews from your professors and get good grades. If you want to be a general dentist, grades aren’t as important, but it will limit your options if you change your mind.
Post-COVID, we’re required to take patients’ temperatures before performing any work, we wear personal protective equipment to protect ourselves, and conduct additional screening. I view a lot of these precautions as temporary, and things will most likely return to normal in a couple of years. Dentistry is never going to go away, the US population is aging, robots won’t be able to automate what we do, and if anything, technology will continue to enhance it and make performing complex procedures easier. I can envision the structure of how practices run changing. There might be fewer private practices and more group practices, containing all of the required specialties under one roof, saving overhead costs.
Becoming a dentist through a military agreement wasn’t something I was aware of, but it can be a great financial alternative because they are willing to pay for your school and provide spending money. The caveat is you have to serve a year of service for each year paid for. These spots are limited; generally, 5-6 for each program, and you need to apply far out in advance. It can be a great way to travel, save money, and it’s something I wish I applied retrospectively.
As an observer, I noticed many of my dental school peers were on their 2nd or 3rd career choice. They all switched to dentistry, hoping that this career would be exciting and something where they found gratification and meaning in helping people. To the best of my knowledge, none of those people have any regrets at all. If you like working with your hands, working as a team, and staying busy, you’ll love it. Don’t be intimated by the dental school process; it might seem hard while you’re in it, but if you just want to be a general dentist, you don’t have to kill yourself trying to be the best in your class. I work with some truly amazing people, and my decision to become a dentist was the best decision I ever made.
Thank you for the info! Would you recommend going through dental school as a military agreement to avoid debt? Or would my debt be paid off easily in a few years with my salary? Also, does my college major matter?
Most new grads are paying off their loans anywhere bw 5-15 years, can pay it off quicker or slower, depends on your circumstances. Understand the initial tuition (300-500k) and that most new grads will have a few lower paying years off the bat, unless you fall into a solid practice right away. The military route is an amazing way to go if you like to travel. They’ll pay all of your school, give you a salary stipend, so it’s a very good gig. Has to be right for you, though.