What do Dentistry Degrees Cover?
When it comes to our oral health, dentists are the number-one healthcare professionals whose knowledge and assistance we seek. They play a vital role in helping us to maintain our oral hygiene, prevent gum disease, and acquire a healthy and radiant smile.
As is the case with other roles in the medical sector, dentists are increasingly in demand. Whether you’re looking to become a hygienist, an oral surgeon or an orthodontist, chances are you’ll be required to complete an undergraduate degree in dentistry and/or a doctoral degree to set a platform on which to build the knowledge and skills required for a career in this field.
Designed to provide students with a foundation in dental science, undergraduate dental degrees are also vocational, meaning they’ll train and prepare students for positions as dentists towards the end of their course. Most bachelor’s dental degrees will comprise of modules in anatomy, physiology, biology, patient care, and pharmacology, combining both theoretical and practical forms of study.
Typically, an undergraduate dental degree will take five years to complete, though this will very much depend on where in the world you choose to study; for example, in the US, dental school usually takes four years to complete at full-time status, meaning a total of eight years for those who complete a regular undergraduate degree first; this also means you won’t be required to complete a bachelor’s degree to become a dentist, and can take up a combined bachelor’s and doctoral degree program instead (which may also take less time to finish).
The course structure for most dental programs tends to vary depending on your study location, although typically, students can expect to acquire a basic knowledge and understanding in topics such as biology, physics, chemistry, and biochemistry throughout their first year, eventually combining these with practical training on different kinds of patients during the later years of their course. If you opt to study in the US, you will receive training in graduate school (i.e., Doctor of Dental Surgery (DDS) or Doctor of Dental Medicine (DMD) program), whereas in the UK, clinical work – under supervision – typically begins in the second year, with students working in teaching hospitals and community dental practices. Additionally, UK-based students are provided with the option to undertake modules which enhance their specialist knowledge in fields such as pediatric dentistry, dental prosthetics, and dental radiography and radiology.
Overall, dentistry is a rigorous and academically demanding course, and applicants must demonstrate a wide range of capabilities – both theoretic and practical. However, entry requirements to dental degrees will vary depending on the institution and a range of other factors. To be considered for dental school in the US, applicants must have high grades in prerequisite science courses, as well as high scores on the Dental Admissions Test. In the UK, applicants to dental degrees are often required to hold A-levels in biology and physics, with selective universities making additional requirements on good grades in AS and GCSEs. Because of the technical nature of dental professions, some institutions will even make relatively unusual requests for a scientific-oriented degree, including asking applicants to demonstrate their skills of dexterity through a musical or artistic hobby.
Although all dental degrees revolve around the same points of academic focus – with most student dentists entering general dental practice after one or two years of vocational training – there are several varying topics of study within dentistry to choose from. Not all student dentists are studying towards a conventional career in dentistry, with a small minority of individuals going on to pursue roles in sectors such as academic dentistry or dentistry work in the armed forces. Of course, many end up specializing in more common areas such as orthodontics and oral surgery. Here’s a brief look at some of them:
Oral & maxillofacial surgery
Oral and maxillofacial surgery deals with treating diseases, defects and injuries in the head, neck, face, jaws, and the hard and soft tissues of the oral and maxillofacial region. Because a career in this field will involve carrying out intricate, potentially risky or complicated surgical procedures, it’s essential that dentistry graduates are able to demonstrate a good level of medical knowledge and a range of technical and behavioral skills and abilities.
Orthodontics is a speciality of dentistry that focuses on diagnosing, preventing and correcting teeth and jaw misalignment. Its combination of both health and cosmetic elements means that student orthodontists are trained to utilize wide ranging dental knowledge and orthodontic tools.
To study this specialization, you’ll typically need to complete a bachelor’s degree in dentistry before furthering your studies in this area, with orthodontic training schemes in the UK lasting three years and combining both academic and clinical training.
Like oral and maxillofacial surgery, endodontics involves performing surgical procedures to prevent and treat oral diseases, however, it differs in that it solely deals with dental pulp and soft tissues surrounding the tooth. Endodontists are responsible for treating conditions such as dental trauma and cracked teeth, and carrying out procedures like root canal therapy.
If you’re interested in a dental job as well as working with children, then pediatric dentistry is for you. Pediatric dentists are dedicated to the oral health of young patients between the ages of infancy and adolescence.
Because a career in pediatric dentistry revolves around working with children, you’ll need to be able to demonstrate compassionate yet effective communication, not only with your young patients, but also – and possibly even more importantly – with their parents, in order to establish and maintain a crucial level of trust and understanding.
Since dentistry degrees are vocational, it’s very likely that you’re looking to pursue a career as a dentist once you’ve completed your studies. However, as mentioned before, a small proportion of dentistry graduates occasionally go on to become academics in the dental sector (i.e., medical researchers or university lecturers), and even secure roles in fields such as medical instrument design. Again, it’s also useful to bear in mind that not all dentists work in dental practices or hospitals; some may go on to work for universities or in places like the armed forces. Here’s an overview of dental jobs you might consider:
General dental practitioner
General dental practitioners are usually the first dental experts we turn to when we have oral or dental concerns, and account for the majority of dental graduates around the world. They perform periodic dental check-ups, provide patients with guidance and advice on oral care, and refer patients to other dental experts when necessary – to name a few procedures and responsibilities. General dentists often deal with patients of all ages and needs, and work closely with other dental health professionals such as dental hygienists, orthodontists, and oral surgeons.
To become a general dental practitioner, you’ll need to hold an approved degree in dentistry as well as a minimum of five years of clinical training, followed by one or two years of supervised practice.
A dental hygienist is responsible for making sure patients receive and maintain the best possible oral hygiene, and performs procedures (at times under general anesthetic) such as carrying out various oral assessments, polishing teeth and removing dental plaque and stains, and performing nonsurgical periodontal therapy, among many things.
Most licensed hygienists work in private dental offices and hospitals (general and specialized practices), though others may practice in other settings, such as dental schools and hygiene education programs, private/public centers for special needs patients (i.e., nursing homes), and private businesses/industries.
Before you can work as a dental hygienist, you must take an approved undergraduate course which specializes in oral health science or dental hygiene/dental therapy, followed by further postgraduate study, and/or two to four years of practical training.
Orthodontists specialize in correcting and maintaining the alignment of the teeth and jaw. They examine patients’ overall dental health, carry out and analyze x-rays, fit dental appliances such as braces, Invisalign and various types of retainers, and conduct regular assessments of their patients throughout their orthodontic treatment.
Becoming an orthodontist may require longer periods of study and training, with science or dentistry graduates usually needing to complete a further four years of postgraduate study, followed by an addition of two to three years of specialized clinical and academic training before qualifying for a recognized, independent practice.
Oral and maxillofacial surgeon
Since this is a career in dentistry that will require you to carry out a range of oral and maxillofacial surgical procedures, the path to becoming fully qualified is very lengthy, and certainly the most challenging of all dental jobs in pretty much all parts of the world. In the US, you’d be required to undertake a four-year dentistry undergraduate degree, followed by an additional four years of dental school, and another four to six years of clinical and academic training at an oral and maxillofacial surgery residency – that’s a total of 12 to 14 years of dedicated studying and preparation. If you’re in the UK, there are variations including accelerated dental degrees (three years) which are open to those with a medical degree, as well as three-year intensive graduate courses in medicine (open to those with an approved dental degree). The majority of oral surgeons, however, typically train as a dentist first before going on to train as a doctor, as it’s crucial they hold both qualifications.
Other dental jobs
If you complete a dentistry degree, only to find out that a career as a dentist isn’t for you, there are many alternative career options from you to choose from, including becoming a university lecturer or medical researcher in your field of study or even a writer or journalist specializing in dental health. If you find you may not be able to handle the full responsibilities and leadership of being a qualified dentist but would still like to continue clinical work, you could apply for dental assistant roles. And if you have a heightened interest in medical instruments and dental tools, you may even look for jobs as a dental technician, which will allow you to design, create and repair dental appliances.