Ever wonder what kind of person thinks of becoming a dentist? Hollywood seems to think it knows. The stereotype dentist in movies and TV shows is generally not a very admirable character. He – and it almost always is a “he” on the screen – is the butt of jokes, a mundane weakling, a dope, or a drill-happy sadist. There’s a concern in the profession that these negative stereotypes have a very real effect on patients. No one would be encouraged by them to make and keep appointments.
The American Dental Education Association (ADEA) was concerned enough to publish a list of the positive personality traits common to dentists. The list is topped by “comfortable with close personal interaction” and includes the virtues of “trustworthy” and “caring and concerned about how the patient feels during procedures”. By the way, there’s another way the Hollywood stereotype goes wrong. As a matter of fact, as of 2018 the American Dental Association (ADA) reported that nearly 1 in 3 working dentists in the USA are women.
WHO BECOMES A DENTIST?
Well, not many people make the cut. American-trained dentists, in fact, are a cognitive elite. Whereas there are now 6 lawyers and 5 medical doctors for every dentist in the USA. Only 2% of those who apply to dental school become practicing dentists. By comparison, 1.5% of the applicants to Navy SEAL training complete it. The road is long and tough. Nearly all who start it fall by the wayside.
IN THE BEGINNING
The dentist’s career path begins with college and ambition. Four years of college. The student’s objectives in college are twofold. First, to gain the knowledge and study skills he or she will need to thrive in dental school. Secondly, to prepare a transcript that will impress a dental school’s admissions officers.
College prep for dental school is similar to pre-med. A competitive student takes heavy concentrations in the sciences such as biology and chemistry. Some colleges offer structured pre-dental programs. These are designed to position the students for admission to dental schools.
Admission to dental school is extremely competitive. In fact, the overall acceptance rate to dental schools is about 6%. In contrast, 41% of medical school applicants matriculate. Besides top-of-the-class grades, dental school applicants need high scores on the Dental Admission Test. The DAT covers knowledge in biology, chemistry, physics, calculus, English, and organic chemistry. Moreover, it tests perceptual ability, quantitative reasoning, and reading comprehension. Overall, it’s like the college SATs on steroids.
DENTAL SCHOOL: YEARS 1-2
The few, the proud who make it to dental school have earned four more years of blood, sweat, and tears. It’s challenging, to say the least. It’s difficult.
Medical and dental students do similar coursework during their first two years. There’s grounding in the basic anatomy and physiology of the human body. All of it. Dental students focus more on dental anatomy, to be sure, but learn all about everything below the chin, too.
Dental students get into the clinic and patient contact during their second year. Coursework continues. Under the watchful eye of professors, students begin to learn the basic procedures like cleaning teeth and taking impressions. Between academics and clinic, they put in very long hours, day after day.
At the end of Year 2, dental students come to a critical fork in the road. In order to advance to the third year, they have to pass the National Board Part I examinations. 11% fail on their first try. Not hard to understand. The exam lasts 8 hours 30 minutes. It is meant to be difficult to pass. It’s professional quality control. Students who have not developed the theoretical and problem-solving skills taught during the previous two years are screened out. Students are permitted five attempts to pass the National Board Part I exams. At least 90 days must pass between attempts. The statistics indicate trying again generally is not successful.
DENTAL SCHOOL: YEARS 3-4
Those who clear the hurdle of the National Boards Part I find themselves spending a lot more time in the clinic during Year 3. It is in the clinic that students have to show they’ve got more than just intellectual bona fides. It’s not enough to be smart. A dentist, obviously, has to be good with his or her hands. Superb manual dexterity and hand-eye coordination are musts. Some students, even those with top grades and test scores, simply cannot measure up in these skills. Years 3-4 screen these out.
Third-year academic studies include pharmacology. Dentists have prescription pads, after all.
The clinic is where fourth-year dental students spend most of their time. They work more and more independently. They learn and master more complex procedures. By the end of Year 4, they’ve seen and done all a practicing dentist does. But they’re not dentists yet. There’s one more hurdle.
The National Boards Part II exams make Part I seem like a walk in the park. Part II lasts 12 hours and 30 minutes. Consequently, about 11% of the students fail.
BECOMING A DENTIST
Having graduated from dental school and passed the National Board Part II exams, a student is eligible for state licensing. He or she is ready to go into private practice, which is what most dentists do. Some go on to specialize in areas like orthodontics and pediatric dentistry. That’s 2-5 years of additional training.
An appreciation of the talents, efforts, and determine a student needs to become a dentist ought to inspire confidence in patients. Those comic stereotypes can be amusing, in context. That said, no one should take them seriously. Everyone should know that a visit to your Orlando dentist is an encounter with a superbly trained, carefully screened professional. A professional who’s shown extraordinary dedication to providing the best possible care. We can all count on that.