Nearly all of the 155,000 dentists, including 18,100 specialists, in the United States are in private practice. Of the remainder, about half work in research or teaching, or hold administrative positions in dental schools. Other opportunities for dentists can be found in the armed forces, public health services, hospitals, and clinics.
The expense of pursuing an education in dentistry and setting up a practice is significant, but the rewards can be great. According to the ADA, as of 2009 (the most recent data available) approximately 59 percent of private practitioners worked as solo dentists with the balance working together with one or more dentists.
Once a dentist has graduated from an approved dental school and passed a state licensing examination, there are three common avenues of entry into private practice. A dentist may open a new office, purchase an established practice, or join another dentist or group of dentists to gain further experience. There are, however, other choices for licensed dentists. They may enter the armed forces as commissioned officers (visit https://www.todaysmilitary.com/careers-benefits/careers/dentists for information on a career in the armed forces), or, through civil service procedures, become eligible for work in the U.S. Public Health Service. They may also choose to work in hospitals, clinics, or schools. For some, work in a dental laboratory or teaching dentistry will provide a satisfying career.
Advancement for the newly licensed dentist in private practice depends on his or her personal skill in handling patients as well as dental work. Through the years, the successful dentist builds a reputation and thus advances with a growing clientele. The quality of the work depends in part on an ability to keep up with developments in the field. For salaried dentists in the various areas of employment, advancement will also depend on the quality and skill of their work. Advancement may take the form of a step from general practitioner to specialist, a step requiring further study and generally providing higher income. Teachers may look forward to administrative positions or to appointments as professors.
Success may also depend on the location of the practice; people in higher-income areas are more likely to request dental care. In small towns and sparsely populated areas, a great need exists for dentists, and competition is slight. In cities where there are many dentists, it may be more difficult to establish a practice despite the larger pool of possible patients.
Tips for Entry
Observe a dentist or dental specialist at work through job shadowing, or request an information interview with a dentist to learn more about the job.
While in high school take classes in biology, chemistry, physics, health, and mathematics. English and foreign language courses are also important for meeting college entrance requirements and developing good communications skills.
Participate in extracurricular activities that will provide opportunities to interact with many different people and develop interpersonal skills, such as volunteering at a public health clinic that offers dental services.
Schedule an appointment to have your teeth cleaned and checked. This will not only take care of your teeth, but also allow you to see your dentist and staff at work.