Have you ever wondered if you would make a good dentist? If you have an aptitude for science, the physical ability to work with your hands on a daily basis, good communication skills and the ability to organize and run a business, you just might be ready for a career in dentistry. Although it typically takes eight years of schooling to make it into the dentist occupation, many students decide that the payoff – like a six-figure annual salary – is worth the investment in education.
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What to Know About Majors for Dentists
Whatever major you choose as an undergraduate student, it won’t qualify you for a career in dental practice. Your bachelor’s degree is only the first step toward a career in dentistry, and it’s the subject of your doctoral coursework that equips you with the skills and knowledge needed to become a licensed dentist. The major you choose to earn a bachelor’s degree isn’t as important for succeeding in your career dreams as you might think.
That said, you need a bachelor’s degree to get started on the path to becoming a dentist. You need to take coursework that will meet dental school prerequisites and give you the foundation of knowledge – particularly in the sciences – that you will need to be able to understand the advanced coursework in a doctoral program for dentistry. You need to be a competitive candidate for dental school admissions exams, which means earning an impressive score on standardized tests and keeping your grade point average up throughout your undergraduate coursework.
It’s not that your undergraduate studies don’t matter for becoming a dentist – they absolutely do! However, many diverse programs of study could lead you to a dental career, so what matters is less which major you choose and more the effort you put into it and the learning outcomes of your studies.
What Major Is Dentistry?
Dentistry isn’t so much a major, at least not at the undergraduate level, as it is a long-term goal. Dentists need a doctoral degree like the Doctor of Dental Surgery (DDS) or Doctor of Dental Medicine (DMD), so they will be spending considerably more time in school beyond the bachelor’s degree level. Most of their dentistry studies will be part of their doctoral program curriculum rather than any undergraduate major they may choose.
That said, some colleges and universities do offer a pre-dentistry track. This academic track may not be a formal major, often existing as a sort of specialization or concentration within an established major like biological sciences, chemistry, biochemistry, biomedical science, biomedical engineering or physiological sciences. The purpose of a pre-dentistry track is to help aspiring dentists make sure that they meet the most common coursework required for entrance into a dental school program.
Some universities that have their own dental school, like Marquette University, do offer accelerated dual degree programs that begin with a bachelor’s degree and culminate in a dental school degree. These work-intensive programs can cut a year off of the time it takes to become a dentist.
The Process of Becoming a Dentist
If you want to be a dentist, you should start as early as high school. Taking high school coursework in biology, chemistry, physics, math and health provides a strong foundation for college-level studies and, ultimately, doctoral coursework that builds upon these subjects.
A bachelor’s degree is a requirement for pursuing doctoral study. Whether you start out at a four-year school or spend your first two years of undergraduate study earning an associate’s degree at a community college, your next steps should be working toward your baccalaureate degree. Choose a reputable college or university – ideally, one with regional accreditation from a Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA)-recognized accrediting body – to make sure that your undergraduate background will meet the requirements when applying for dental school.
The next step after receiving your bachelor’s degree is to take and pass the Dental Admissions Test, or DAT. This test is used for admissions into dental school programs that are accredited by the American Dental Association’s Commission on Dental Accreditation. The other criteria on which dental school applications are commonly judged include undergraduate grades, recommendations from former professors, personal statements, involvement in research and extracurricular activities and performance in admissions interviews.
Once you’re off to dental school, you’re in for four years of preparation for this career. During the first two years of dental school – as with medical school – students take doctoral-level classroom and laboratory coursework. The classes you take during these preclinical years include both classroom and laboratory work in basic science subjects like biochemistry, physiology, microbiology, anatomy and pharmacology. These early years of dental school also encompass specialized coursework in dental-oriented sciences like oral anatomy, oral histology and oral pathology, according to the American Dental Education Association.
During the final two years of dental school, the dental student will work under the supervision of an accredited dentist to give the student actual experience working with patients. Because these later years of a dental school program typically emphasize clinical practice and providing direct patient care, they are commonly referred to as the clinical years of study.
At the end of this difficult doctoral degree program, the dental student will graduate with their DDS or DMD degree. Despite the differences in degree titles, accredited DDS and DMD programs must meet the same curriculum standards and are considered equivalent degrees. This is different from medical school, in which students in Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (DO) programs approach the field from different types of medical training, complete a different curriculum and take different licensing exams compared to Doctor of Medicine (MD) students.
One more step is needed before obtaining the license to allow the graduate to practice in his or her state. Most states require anyone applying for a license to practice dentistry to pass practical tests as well as the written National Board Dental Examinations. Each state has its own requirements for licensure, so aspiring dentists should explore the latest licensing requirements and processes in their state as early as possible so that they are fully prepared to attain their dental licenses.
After obtaining a license, the dental graduate is ready to set up his or her practice to provide a valuable service to the community. Keeping abreast of new methods and procedures in dentistry is one way the dentist can continue to grow.
Although obtaining a dental license takes many years of hard work, the outcome is very rewarding. Dentistry is an essential profession that is necessary for achieving proper oral health, and its importance within the community is immeasurable.
What Major Do You Need to Be a Dentist?
An overview of the process of preparing to be a dentist may help prospective students better understand what to expect from dental school, but they still have to make the more immediate decision of what their major should be. So, what do dentists major in?
An undergraduate major in science is the norm for applying for dental school. The most popular dental majors in college are natural and physical sciences like biology and chemistry, according to the American Dental Education Association. Other STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) programs of study, such as math and engineering, may also provide the basis for dental career preparation.
An important point to know is that your completion of prerequisites is what matters more than a specific degree program name. While dental schools tend to expect candidates to have a background in biology, chemistry or another STEM subject, having chosen a less pertinent major won’t disqualify an applicant for consideration. However, prospective dental school students do need to meet all prerequisites for doctoral coursework. These prerequisites generally include sequences of studies in biology, chemistry and physics, so meeting these criteria probably won’t be a problem for science majors – but it might be for students who majored in other areas.
Biology is the study of life and living organisms. Of course, the human body – including the mouth, teeth, gums and tongue – is one of these living organisms. So are the types of bacteria that can cause or contribute to dental issues such as oral infections.
The field of biology also encompasses subfields like genetics. Genetics is a particularly useful area of study for dentists, because many dental and oral conditions have a genetic component.
Pre-dental and pre-health tracks are often offered as part of biology degree programs, although these programs may be available to students in any major. From a purely practical viewpoint, completing extensive biology coursework at the undergraduate level provides a strong foundation for the advanced biology coursework dental students encounter at the doctoral level of study.
The undergraduate curriculum for biology majors typically includes studies in cell and developmental biology, evolutionary biology, Molecular Biology, Biochemistry, Genetics and Genomics, ecology and anatomy and physiology. Coursework in general chemistry, organic chemistry, inorganic chemistry, physics, calculus and statistics are also common requirements for biology majors, as well as for admission to dental school programs.
Another popular major for aspiring dentists is chemistry, the scientific study of the properties that make up matter and the behaviors and reactions of chemical substances. Chemistry is a common prerequisite for dental school, and the reason for this requirement is the influence of chemistry in making many modern advances in dental and oral care possible, according to the Royal Society of Chemistry. Chemistry majors should be prepared to study the field from many different angles, taking coursework in general chemistry, physical chemistry and organic and inorganic chemistry, among other relevant classes.
Dentists don’t sit around doing math problems all day, but prospective dental school students should have a decent aptitude for math because mathematics is part of the sciences whose underlying concepts make the clinical practice of dentistry possible. If you enjoy the study of math, consider majoring in this subject as an undergraduate. Not only will you have a strong background for the calculations involved in your science coursework at both the undergraduate and doctoral levels, but you will also have the opportunity to develop practical skills in analysis, problem-solving and logic and reasoning. If you do major in math, though, be prepared to take plenty of challenging coursework in the mathematical sciences, including a full sequence of calculus courses, linear and abstract algebra, differential equations, geometry, numerical analysis, probability and statistics, topology and data analysis.
Dentists apply the concepts of science to the clinical practice of dentistry. Engineers apply the concepts of science to the work of designing solutions to problems. Given the similarities between the careers, it makes sense why an undergraduate major in engineering might appeal to an aspiring dentist.
One particular area of engineering that is most likely to intrigue prospective dental school students is biomedical engineering. Biomedical engineering is the interdisciplinary branch of engineering that relates to the design of devices, processes and chemical substances used in the healthcare field.
An undergraduate curriculum in biomedical engineering should cover the electrical, biological, mechanical, material and chemical foundations of biomedical engineering. Students majoring in biomedical engineering will take basic science courses in general chemistry and physics, but they will also study the electronics of medical devices, the principles of medical imaging, medical instrumentation and engineering models of physiological systems.
Art, the Liberal Arts, and More
You can major in a non-science area of study and still become a dentist, but you will have to take the science courses required for dental school admission, regardless of whether they’re required courses for your major. However, your freedom to take more courses from the liberal arts and humanities will help you develop a more well-rounded base of college-level knowledge, as well as cultivating new non-technical skills and getting exposed to new perspectives. If your passions besides dentistry lie in one of these areas, just make sure that you plan your course schedule to include sufficient science and math coursework.
Choosing a major can be stressful, but dentists majors in college aren’t limited to one opportunity to pick the “right” major. Not only can many different majors get you into dental school, but if a potential dentist doesn’t meet the prerequisites to get into a dental school program, taking the missing science courses later can bridge that gap.