If your career longings are targeted toward the medical field, you may be wavering between becoming a dentist and becoming a doctor. It can be a tough choice. Although dentists and physicians are both called “doctor,” there can be significant differences as well as similarities in their education, daily practice, opportunities for specialization and salaries. Both professions, however, offer many opportunities.
Whether you head for dentistry or medicine, be prepared to buckle down to the books. Medical schools are highly competitive. Plan on getting a bachelor's degree to start. Although not all dental schools require a baccalaureate, it will increase your chance of admission, and it’s mandatory for medical school. Expect to spend another four years in medical or dental school, with a residency program afterwards. Doctors spend about three years in residency and can spend up to seven for specialties; dentists usually spend at least two years in residency and will need extra time for a specialty. Dentists and doctors must also be licensed and may be board-certified.
If you thought being a dentist was just about filing cavities, think again. General dentists also apply sealants to prevent decay, repair broken teeth, make dentures or dental appliances, whiten teeth and apply inlays or caps. Dentists may also specialize. In addition to the orthodontist who was responsible for straightening your pearly whites as a teenager, some dentists practice exclusively with children, while others perform surgeries, such as root canals. Oral/maxillofacial surgeons are dentists who confine their surgical practice to the mouth, jaws, teeth, neck and head. They might repair a cleft palate or remove impacted wisdom teeth.
Physicians generally work in one of four main branches: diagnostics, medicine, surgery or psychiatry. Diagnostic physicians include radiologists and pathologists. Medicine includes specialties such as internal medicine, family practice, pediatrics, neurology (care of the brain and nervous system), and nephrology (care of the kidneys and urinary tract). Surgeons may be generalists or may specialize in areas such as gynecology, cardiovascular surgery or plastic surgery.
Psychiatrists deal with mental health issues. In some specialties, there is both a surgical and medical option. Oncologists, for example, may be surgical specialists, radiation oncologists or hematologist-oncologists who manage chemotherapy.
Work Settings and Hours
Most dentists work in an office, although some, such as oral/maxillofacial surgeons, may divide their time between an office and the hospital. Doctors may work exclusively in hospitals -- think anesthesiologists – or exclusively in a private office, which is common for many psychiatrists. Many doctors split their time between the office and a hospital or some sort of outpatient care center, such as an outpatient surgery facility. Both doctors and dentists may practice independently as solo practitioners, join a group practice or work for a hospital, insurance company or managed care organization. Dentists are more likely to work regular hours Monday through Friday, while physicians may work long hours, work holidays, night shifts and weekends, as well as be on call for emergencies.
One benefit of choosing either dentistry or medicine is you will have some disposable income. General dentists earned an average annual salary of $161,750 in 2011, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Specialists, such as orthodontists, earned $204,670, while oral/maxillofacial surgeons took home an average of $217,380. Pediatricians and family practitioners were on the low end of the medical scale with salaries of $168,650 and $177,330 respectively. Psychiatrists earned $174,170 and surgeons earned $231,550 in 2011. Anesthesiologists topped all others in the medical field, according to the BLS, with an average annual salary of $234,950 in 2011.
Beth Greenwood is an RN and has been a writer since 2010. She specializes in medical and health topics, as well as career articles about health care professions. Greenwood holds an Associate of Science in nursing from Shasta College.