When would you guess it is that patients say “I should become a dentist!”? That’s right, when paying the bill. This is something the front-office staff hears every day. They’ve got a library of comebacks, too. “Oh, you like to torture people, too?”, and, “So they’ll make fun of you in sitcoms and movies?”. After all, the Hollywood dentist is not usually a heroic guy. He’s dull, wimpy. Maybe a little bit weird. Oh, and in Hollywood, the dentist character is almost always a guy. This, in spite of the fact that as of March 2019, one in three active dentists in America is a woman. Well, the joshing about becoming a dentist isn’t about that. The patients are saying “Must be great to make so much money for such a short bit of work”.
It’s not hard to see why patients could see things that way. After all, a few hours in the dentist’s chair can result in a charge in the thousands of dollars. Consider a root canal procedure for a molar. The total time in the chair is 1.5 -3.0 hours, the bill $1,000 – $2,000. To a patient, it looks like the dentist is earning between $333 to $1,333 per hour. Nice work, if you can get it, eh?
But that’s a very misleading way to look at it. First, that income gets slashed by the operating expenses of the dental office. Staff salaries, office rent, utilities, dental supplies, equipment – it really adds up. Most patients quickly understand this when it’s pointed out to them. It’s visible, it’s right there. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
BECOMING A DENTIST
What patients can’t see is the dentist’s years of training, of study. The critical milestones achieved. The weeding out, the classmates who didn’t make the cuts. Practicing dentists are a select elite. Only 2% of the applicants to dental school ever become dentists. You should have become a dentist? Let’s see what you think when you finish reading this post.
In order to become a dentist, you have to graduate from a dental school. But first, there’s the matter of getting into one. That’s not easy. In fact, about 94% of the applicants to dental schools are not accepted. That’s even more selective than medical school.
Who applies to dental school? College seniors. The first steps to a career as a dentist begin in college. A student’s college transcript is one of the keys that unlock the gates of dental schools. A winning transcript shows heavy emphasis on the sciences such as chemistry, biology, and physics. In fact, an aspiring dentist’s college transcript should be similar to that of a medical school hopeful. Needless to say, the grades need to be stellar. Dental school admissions officers are not easily impressed.
And it takes more than a golden transcript to impress them. There’s the matter of the Dental Admissions Test, the DAT. This grueling examination lasts 4 hours 15 minutes. It double-checks the student’s knowledge of the sciences, including organic chemistry, and of math to the calculus level. It tests English proficiency. In addition to raw knowledge, the DAT measures functional skills. Reading comprehension, perceptual abilities, and quantitative reasoning, for example. Dentists, after all, are going to spend their professional lives analyzing situations and developing solutions. Mostly on their own. A dentist must not only possess considerable knowledge but apply it in practice.
The level of competition for admission to dental schools has become so intense that many colleges now offer purpose-built pre-dental programs that begin in freshman year. The dentists of today are increasingly people who knew at 5-16 years old what they were determined to do in life.
DENTAL SCHOOL – PHASE ONE
So, of 100 college seniors applying to dental school, 6 get in. They’ve got it made in the shade, right? Far from it. The prize for their four years of competitive struggle in college is…four more years of unrelenting toil.
Dental school is no picnic. Everyone knows medical school is grueling. Coursework during the first two years of medical and dental schools are very similar. The main differences are in emphasis. Medical and dental students study the entire human body. Anatomy and physiology. How it’s built and how it works. Dental school, not surprisingly, focuses more on the parts above the neck.
Patient contact begins in Year 2 of dental school, while classroom and lab work continue unabated. This makes for very long hours, every day. Dental students’ first hands-on experience in the clinic is basic stuff. Cleaning teeth and taking impressions, all under the close supervision of faculty.
NATIONAL BOARD PART 1 EXAMINATIONS
The second year of dental school is the end of the road for about 1 in 10 aspiring dentists. In order to continue their dental training, students must pass the dreaded National Board Part 1 exams. That would be 8 hours 20 minutes of challenges to the student’s theoretical and problem-solving proficiency. All that he or she was struggling to develop over the previous two years. It’s intended to be difficult to pass. The National Boards are a part of the dental profession’s Quality Assurance mandate. They filter out students who don’t have what it takes to meet the profession’s standards.
Students who fail the National Boards Part 1 can try up to 4 more times, with minimum intervals of 90 days between tries. Obviously, retries are likely mean losing a calendar year of progress through dental school, in the best case of finally passing. The statistics, however, show that retries are seldom successful.
Passing the National Boards Part 1, in contrast, is a great reinforcer of dental students’ confidence, motivation, and resolve. They’re going to need these things, in spades.
DENTAL SCHOOL – PHASE 2
If you think about it, it’s not enough for a dentist to be an intellectual giant. Dentists, after all, work with their hands. Like surgeons do. The third and fourth years of dental school challenge students’ manual dexterity and eye-hand coordination. Without these functional skills at the highest level, one cannot be a good dentist. Some people quite simply, through no fault of their own, can’t use their eyes and hands with the skill the dental profession requires. These students identify themselves in the clinic, where third and fourth-year students spend a lot more time.
In the classroom, the third year of dental school teaches pharmacology, the study of medications. A practicing dentist has a prescription pad. Moreover, he or she will make routine use of local and general anesthetics and sedatives. Serious matters.
Meanwhile, in the clinic, thirds year dental students learn and master procedures of ever-increasing complexity. All under the supervision of professors. As the fourth year of dental school finishes up, students have become familiar with all of the procedures practicing dentists perform.
Now, they arrive at the point of maximum career risk. They’ve sunk eight grueling, bitterly competitive years into college and dental school. It can all go up In smoke in one day. The day they sit for the National Boards Part 2. This ordeal of 12 hours 30 minutes makes the Part 1 Boards seem like child’s play. About 11% of the students fail. Careers end after 8 years of schooling and training. It is a very, very big deal.
THE END IS THE BEGINNING
Dental students who get their diplomas and pass the National Boards Part 2 are qualified dentists. To practice, they need state licenses. They’re eligible, but have to apply. The license in hand, they’re ready to begin their lives as dentists in private practice. That, in fact, is what most do. After all, the great majority of dental school graduates carry hundreds of thousands of dollars in student debt. Some, however, have still not had enough. These take 2-5 more years of training in specialties such as pediatric dentistry and orthodontics. These folk don’t start their working lives until they’re around 30 years old. Student debt of up to $ 1 million is not unusual.
So, you still think you should have been a dentist? Maybe not. However, an understanding of what it takes to become one should help you appreciate your dentist more. His or her personal investment in training and knowledge, under the closest scrutiny, is of tremendous value to patients. At Anderson Dental we welcome any and all questions about our training and professional standards. You can have full confidence in the best of the best.