How to make a career shift to dentistry?

Are you thinking about switching careers and going into dentistry? First of all, congratulations! You’re making a great choice. Dentistry is a fulfilling career and a growing field. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment opportunities for dentists are supposed to increase by 16% from 2012-2022. This is faster than the normal projected average for all occupations.

Becoming a dentist is not an overnight thing, however. You’ll invest a lot of time and, yes, money into your new career, so we’ve put together a brief guide on what to expect when you make a shift like this.

If you’re a dental hygienist thinking about transitioning into dentistry, we’ve also included tips especially for you.

Make some decisions

One of the main decisions to make is whether or not you’ll be working as you’re preparing for dental school. On one hand, if you go to school full-time, you’ll be able to complete pre-requisite courses more quickly, and you won’t be distracted by outside work. On the other hand, going to school full-time may make not work with your budget. It’s important to have a plan that’s comfortable for you and lets you focus on your studies.

Get some experience

There’s another way to see if dentistry is a good fit: spend time at a dentist’s office shadowing, interning, or volunteering. See what a normal day is like for a dentist and what challenges they may face. Decide whether or not you enjoy the work and if you’re up to these challenges.

The American Student Dental Association has a guide available for download that walks you through the shadowing process.

Dental hygienists: You have an advantage here: you’re already working in the field and you have a great idea of what life is like for dentists. It might be helpful, though, to schedule an informational interview with a dentist or ask for mentorship. There may be things that you don’t know about, so it’s important to get as full a picture as possible.

Take pre-requisite courses

Pre-requisites vary depending on the dental schools you’re applying to, so always check to see what you need to take. According to the American Dental Association, a typical course load looks something like this:

  • 8 hours biology with lab
  • 8 hours physics
  • 8 hours English
  • 8 hours general chemistry with lab
  • 8 hours organic chemistry with lab

If you’re enrolled as a full-time student, you should be able to finish this work in 1-2 years. If you’re working full- or part-time, it will obviously take longer to complete these courses.

Dental hygienists: If you’re a hygienist with a two-year associate’s degree, you likely have already taken most, if not all, of the necessary pre-requisites. We recommend that you speak to someone at the dental school you’re interested in and see what they advise.

Take the DAT

The Dental Admission Test, or DAT, is a standardized test that measures your academic and perceptual abilities, as well as your scientific comprehension skills. Before you take the DAT you’re expected to have taken your pre-requisites in biology, general chemistry, and organic chemistry. It can take several months of studying to prepare for the DAT. The American Dental Association suggests that you take the test at least a year before you plan to enter dental school.

For more information on the DAT, see You can also become a member of the American Student Dental Association. They offer a free guide for predental students: it walks you through preparing for the DAT and applying to dental schools.


Apply to schools

You should apply for dental schools at least a year before your planned enrollment date. While the application process varies from school to school, most programs will look at your academic record, DAT results, GPA, letters of recommendation, and any dental office shadowing information. They’ll also usually require personal interviews, and these will count as part of your application as well.

During interviews, schools are trying to assess how well you get along with others, how you handle challenges, how confident you are, what you’re passionate about, and so on. You’ll also be able to learn more about the school and get answers to any questions you might have.

Dental hygienists: Ask for letters of recommendation from your professors as well as the dentist you work for. Your letters should emphasize your drive to become a dentist, as well as your existing knowledge and enthusiasm for the field.

And during your interviews, be prepared to speak about your career up to this point! Your hygiene background sets you apart from other applicants, so let your experiences speak loud and clear.

Go to dental school

You did it – you got in to dental school! You’ve done a lot of great work, but there’s still a long road ahead of you. To get your DDS (Doctor of Dental Surgery) or DMD (Doctor of Dental Medicine) degree, you’ll complete four years of coursework in anatomy, biochemistry, physiology, and more.

Get licensed

Here it is – the last step. Once you finish dental school and have your degree, you’ll have to get licensed in the state where you want to practice. Depending on where you live, you’ll likely have to take a written and practical exam. Contact your state’s dental board for more information.

To learn more about switching careers and becoming a dentist, check out the sources listed below. Good luck!



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