Career as a Dentist

What Does a Dentist Do?

Patients may still be wary of going to the dentist's office, but students are still coming in droves. The number of predoctoral dental school students has increased by 2.6% annually over the last decade, according to the American Dental Association.

With more students, comes more professionals working in one of nine ADA-recognized specialties. But we'll get to all that. For now, let's ask one simple question: What does a dentist actually do? Those of us who only have the perspective of a patient might find some of the answers to be surprising.

Salary of a Dentist, More Stats

  • 18%

    Anticipated Job Growth between 2014 and 2024

  • 26,700

    New Jobs over that Span

  • 65

    Accredited Dental Schools in the U.S.

  • 10

    Accredited Dental Schools in Canada

  • 23,589

    Students Enrolled during 2014-2015 Academic Year in the U.S.

  • 12%

    The Amount of those Students Who Were Categorized as Racial Minorities

  • 1st

    Best Job, According to U.S. News & World Report

What Does a Dentist Do?

A day in the life of a dentist can vary widely, depending on exactly what kind of dentistry they practice in what in what kind of environment. As for the former, here are the nine ADA-recognized specialties.

Generally speaking, here are common work activities that most dentists -- no matter their title or environs -- take on during an average day at the office, according to O Net Online.

Diagnose and treat dental problems or diseases.
Prescribe medications.
Operate diagnostic, imaging and therapeutic medical instruments or equipment.
Examine mouth, teeth, gums, or related facial structures.
Develop medical treatment plans.
Protect patients or staff members using safety equipment.
Analyze patient data to determine patient needs or treatment goals.
Design or fabricate medical devices or appliances
Administer anesthetics or sedatives to control pain.
Advise patients on preventive care techniques.
Design public or employee health programs.
Supervise patient care personnel.

Tools of the Trade

How do you know if you're right for a job? More to the point: Does your mind work the way a dentist's should? To find out, see which mental skills are integral to their common work activities, at least according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

CommunicationRelate effectively with patients, dental hygienists, dental assistants and receptionists.
Attention to detailAdminister appropriate treatments and medications; Mmtch the shape and color of teeth and to the space between them.
DexterityWork with hands, tools in a small area.
LeadershipManage and lead a staff.
OrganizationalKeep accurate records of patient care.
PatienceWork for long periods of time with patients who need special attention or who have a fear of dental work.
StaminaPerform physical tasks, such as bending over patients for long periods.
Problem-solvingEvaluate patients’ symptoms and choose appropriate treatments.

"Someone who has a caring nature and really wants to help people will enjoy this profession. Caring for people’s oral health care, and providing that all-important healthy smile really impacts the lives of our patients. The first year can be especially challenging as the curriculum involves all of the basic sciences that our medical colleagues also study, as well as the addition of dental studies. The first-year student learns about teeth, the oral cavity and begins to learn the techniques needed to help our patients take care of their teeth and restore the ones that are damaged through trauma or decay. This involves long hours in the dental lab working on manikin teeth."

Rhea Haugseth, DMD (University of Louisville)

Day in a Dentist's Life

The best way to learn about a profession is to shadow a professional for a day, even a week. To save you some time for now, here is a snapshot of the days of four working dentists.

Joshua Perlman (DMD) works in New York, N.Y.
Routine"My work days are pretty consistent. I'm usually in my office at 7:30 a.m. answering patient emails to start the day. I see patients from 8 o'clock in the morning to 6 o'clock at night. I book out about an hour per appointment. The procedures I do vary from day to day. Sometimes it's fillings, crowns, surgeries or cosmetics. I'm also responsible for checking on our hygienist and her patients. I'm constantly on the move. A lot of what I do is explaining to patients what their dental needs are and how we can get them to complete oral health."
John W. Yang (DMD) works in Chicago, Ill.
Routine"My average workday as a dentist starts with a short huddle with the staff to plan for the patients that may require special attention. This helps us stay on schedule as well as prepare for any potential problems that might arise, such as a picky patient that is impossible to please; a tooth extraction that turns surgical when the root fractures; or simply when a patient won’t get numb. The morning patients are typically seen every 45 minutes to an hour with each appointment consisting of a mix of procedures from a few fillings, a simple extraction, a root canal, to a couple of crowns or a bridge. Dentures, partials, implant restorations, bone grafts, and orthodontics are also often scheduled on any given day. Hygiene exams must also be performed throughout the day. I take a one-hour lunch and try to decompress from the morning procedures. The physical fatigue and stress is often underestimated. A productive workday often means a mentally and physically taxing day that can become cumulative leading to chronic back pain, carpal tunnel or generalized stress. However, I get myself ready for another four hours of procedures in the afternoon."
Loren Anderson (DDS) works in Kennewick, Wash.
Routine"I arrive about 45 minutes prior to the first patient to prepare for the day. I review the schedule from the previous day, then today's. I see patients from 8 a.m. until 5 p.m., with an hour in between for lunch. I usually have one or two big cases in the mornings and then another large case in the afternoon. During the whole day, I see six or seven patients in for checkups and a patient or two with urgent needs. Overall, I treat about 15 to 25 patients each day."
Eli Thornock (DDS) works in Bainbridge Island, Wash.
Routine"An average day lasts about 10 hours for me; luckily, we don’t work five days a week. Maybe 70 to 80% of this time is spent with patients, doing exams, cleanings, teaching patients about their mouth and teeth, fillings, crowns, teeth extractions and a number of other dental procedures. The other two to three hours are spent writing chart notes, dealing with billing issues or other office work, or helping staff. Most dentists own all or part of their own practice, though this is changing to more corporate and group-type practices, so they have to deal with a number of other business issues."

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