How to become a dentist
Competition to study dentistry is fierce but it leads to a rewarding job where you could work for the NHS or own and run a dental practice
As a dentist you’ll prevent and treat problems affecting the mouth and teeth, deal with injuries and correct dental issues.
The most common role in dentistry is as a general dental practitioner (GDP). As a GDP, you’ll work as a self-employed contractor providing dental care to the general public in high street practices. It is also possible to work part time in hospitals. You might provide services under the NHS, privately or both.
You’ll typically lead a team of dental nurses, hygienists, therapists and technicians, and treat a range of patients, from children to the elderly.
Types of dentistry
You may choose to specialise in a different area of dentistry, such as:
- Community dental care – working in patients’ homes, nursing homes and community clinics, treating patients who have special requirements that mean they can’t attend a high street practice.
- Dental public health – carrying out non-clinical work, assessing the dental health needs of populations rather than individuals.
- Hospital dental care – dealing with cases of special difficulty and providing treatment to long-stay hospital patients, emergency treatment for short-stay patients or the general public for teaching purposes.
- Armed forces – providing a comprehensive range of dental services for armed forces personnel in the UK and abroad, operating as a military dental officer.
As a dentist, you’ll need to:
- educate patients on oral healthcare
- examine teeth, diagnosing dental conditions using tools such as x-rays
- assess treatment options and agree treatment plans with patients
- carry out agreed clinical treatments such as restoring teeth affected by decay and treating gum disease
- maintain patients’ dental records
- recruit, train and manage staff
- oversee budgets and maintain stocks of equipment
- market services to potential clients.
Some practices employ practice managers so that dentists can concentrate on clinical work.
- As a newly qualified dentist, if you want to work in the NHS you’ll have to complete one year of foundation training. During this time you’ll earn a salary of £32,050.
- Most dentists are self-employed contractors in general practice, mixing NHS with private work. Profits of dental practices varies greatly but in general you can earn around £50,000 to £110,000. Wholly private dentists can earn £140,000+.
- If you enter dental core training, instead of working in general practice, you will earn a salary of £37,935 to £48,075. There are also additional payments for night, weekend and on-call work.
- If you work as a salaried dentist employed by the NHS, mainly in community dental services, you’ll earn around £40,629 to £86,900.
- In NHS trust hospitals, consultants in dental specialties earn a basic salary of £79,860 to £107,668 depending on the amount of years spent in the consultant grade.
Other salaried posts exist in the armed forces and in corporate practices.
Income data from Health Careers. Figures are intended as a guide only
If you work as a GDP you’ll be self-employed and can arrange your own working hours, which may include weekend or evening sessions to suit patients. Career breaks and part-time work opportunities are possible.
Work within hospitals tends to be on short-term contracts and involves more irregular hours, with on-call responsibilities. Self-employment and freelance work in hospital dentistry are only possible for consultants.
What to expect
- Jobs are available throughout the country, in both urban and rural areas.
- When treating patients you’ll be required to wear a tunic, surgical gloves and safety glasses for protection and to reduce the risk of cross-infection.
- Eye strain and neck and back fatigue can be caused by the job. You may experience high stress levels when handling patients’ pain and anxiety or as a result of working within strict time schedules. However, the role can also be very rewarding when you see patient satisfaction.
- Travel within a working day and overnight absence from home are uncommon in general practice, but may occasionally be necessary for work in hospitals or the community.
- Opportunities for overseas travel may arise to attend international conferences.
You must have an approved degree in dentistry to practise as a dentist and courses take at least five years to complete. You’ll typically need high grades at A-level/Highers, with chemistry and biology being required subjects. Some dental schools offer a one-year pre-dental course for those who don’t have the required A-levels or equivalent.
If you’ve already completed a degree, achieved at least a 2:1 and the course had a large element of biology or chemistry, you may be able to do an accelerated four-year dental course.
All dental schools in the UK are regulated by the General Dental Council (GDC) and a list of available courses can be found at GDC Dentistry Programmes and Qualifications. Competition for dental schools is fierce and many require you to sit the University Clinical Aptitude Test (UCAT) or BioMedical Admissions Test (BMAT).
Once you’ve successfully completed your undergraduate degree you’ll need to register with the GDC in order to practise as a qualified dentist.
You will need to show:
- manual dexterity and technical dental skills, plus the ability to maintain intense concentration for prolonged periods
- the ability to build relationships with patients and colleagues
- high level communication and interpersonal skills, for interaction with patients of all ages and backgrounds
- an interest in the welfare of others and a sympathetic manner, particularly to deal with patients’ fears
- good administrative and managerial abilities to run a dental practice
- information technology skills, due to the increasing use of computers for keeping records and accounts, and for digital imaging of radiographs and intra-oral photography.
Pre-entry dentistry experience isn’t essential, but a few weeks of related work experience and work shadowing will indicate your motivation for the work.
It’s also a good idea to become a student member of the British Dental Association (BDA). You’ll get access to its journal and student magazine as well as its dental library and e-books. It also provides a support service and careers and interview advice. Find out more at BDA – Students.
You could be employed as a dentist in a:
- Dental practice – you’ll either be employed as an assistant or will work as a self-employed associate, providing NHS and/or private dental services. Dental practices vary in size from single practitioner, part-time surgeries to multiple-site partnerships with several associates.
- NHS hospital trust – as a salaried dentist specialising in a certain area such as paediatric dentistry, orthodontics or restorative dentistry.
- Community dental service – working in a variety of clinical settings as a salaried dentist within the NHS, including health authority surgeries, mobile clinics and residential homes.
- Role in the armed forces – at locations in the UK and overseas with the Royal Air Force, Royal Army and Royal Navy.
Corporate practices and regional dental access centres also employ dentists and are becoming more common.
Universities with dental schools and teaching hospitals offer the option of combining academic teaching with research to pursue special interests in depth.
Look for job vacancies at:
After you’ve completed your dentistry degree, and before being able to practice as a dentist, you must register with the GDC. To maintain registration throughout your career, you’ll need to follow a professional code of ethics and complete continuing professional development (CPD).
Once you’re registered with the GDC, you can begin your dental foundation training. This is a period of work-based training, which lasts for one year that that must be completed by all dentists. You’ll be based in an approved dental practice with an experienced practitioner who’ll be your trainer. As well as receiving weekly tutorials in the practice, you’ll attend a day-release course of lectures and demonstrations, usually held in dental departments of hospitals.
Following successful completion of this course, you may enter a practice as either a self-employed associate or an assistant employed on a salary basis. Alternatively, you could enter dental core training (DCT) for a period of up to three years. It is popular for graduates to undertake one year of DCT training to increase their skills and experience in an area such as oral and maxillofacial surgery, which they then take back to working in a practice.
If you want to consider a career as a hospital consultant, you’ll need to take further specialist training in a hospital setting. Courses for specialist qualifications in areas such as orthodontics, implant dentistry and aesthetic dentistry are available. For details, consult the:
After you’ve completed your foundation training, progression is possible to the role of associate or partner in a general practice. Many dentists eventually go on to own and run a practice. You’ll need to take responsibility for the management of staff, budgets, tax, equipment and premises but will have the freedom to arrange your own working hours and specialist area.
If you go into hospital dentistry, you’ll follow a defined career structure and training pathway and will have to obtain recognised postgraduate qualifications in order to progress to senior posts. The four main specialisms in the hospital dental service are:
- oral and maxillofacial surgery
- paediatric dentistry
- restorative dentistry.
Within community dental services, experience is gained as a community clinical dental officer and you’ll have the chance to gain postgraduate qualifications through part-time study. You could progress to a senior dental officer role, with a special responsibility in areas such as epidemiology or treating patients with special needs.
If you carry out work in universities with dental schools and teaching hospitals you can, with relevant postgraduate qualifications, progress to a senior lectureship or professorial post.
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