What Are the Working Conditions for a Dentist?

Dentists must wear protective goggles, masks and gloves.
i Keith Brofsky/Photodisc/Getty Images
Dentists must wear protective goggles, masks and gloves.

If you're intrigued by the idea of a career field that's in the midst of evolving, check out dentistry. A doctor who only fills cavities and pulls teeth is becoming an old stereotype. Today's dentists also check necks and heads for signs of diseases related in someway to oral health. If you're looking for a high-paying, well-respected profession that provides mostly regular, self-determined hours -- a boost for family life -- dentistry might be for you.

Approximately 80 percent of dentists are general practitioners, according to the American Dental Education Association. After completing the four years of dentistry school, the rest extend their education to specialize in areas such as pediatrics, orthodontics and surgery. Nearly all dentists -- 90 percent -- work in private practices, either solo or with a small staff or in partnerships with other dentists, the ExploreHealthCareers.org website reports. Established dentists engaged full-time in treating patients spend approximately 36 hours per week in their offices, with 33 of those hours spent seeing patients, and determine their own schedules. Ten percent of dentists teach, conduct research, and/or treat patients for entities such as the Armed Forces, the Indian Health Service or in other clinical settings.

Work Settings

A dentist's working conditions, like those of any occupation, are composed of various aspects, such as interpersonal relationships, physical environment and basic work performance. As for interpersonal relationships, dentists should feel comfortable with high levels of social contact, because they are constantly in contact with patients and coworkers. Dentists communicate mostly in person and by telephone. They hold significant responsibility for the health and safety of people -- some of whom may be rude or unpleasant as patients. In their physical environment, dentists normally work indoors, while wearing a lab jacket or coat, and protective gloves, masks and safety glasses. These prevent the spread of infectious diseases, which dentists are exposed to daily, particularly as they work close up to patients. Dentists can also be exposed to radiation from patient X-rays.

Work Performance

In their work performance, dentists might not have as much variety as other professionals, as they repeat the same physical and mental activities daily. Although they see a lot of people, dentists must be capable of making almost all their decisions alone, and be self-starters who set and complete goals without requiring the feedback of someone else.

Practice Types

Recently graduated dentists typically work for more established dentists as associate dentists until they can afford their own practice. Associateships allow new dentists to polish their clinical skills, soak up wisdom about running a practice from an experienced dentist, and earn a steady paycheck and possibly benefits, as they are treated as regular employees. Some associateships come with practice equity, where associates invest in and have a stake in the business, are treated as a partner in the practice and have some say in its management. These provide a smaller financial risk than running a solo practice might, but require some financial risk.

Business Skills Needed

Eventually, associates move on to solo or group practices, which, as the American Dental Association points out, require that dentists have well-developed business skills, along with dentistry skills. Although having her own practice requires a dentist to make large capital expenditures to build it, the practice will become a significant asset overtime.


The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that as of May 2011, the median annual wage of dentists was $161,750. Individual dentist salaries vary depending on experience, location, hours worked and specialty. The BLS expects employment opportunities for dentists to increase 21 percent from 2010 to 2020, faster than the average for all occupations, due to aging baby boomer demand for services and increasing studies that link overall health to good oral health.

2016 Salary Information for Dentists

Dentists earned a median annual salary of $158,390 in 2016, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. On the low end, dentists earned a 25th percentile salary of $110,030, meaning 75 percent earned more than this amount. The 75th percentile salary is $201,830, meaning 25 percent earn more. In 2016, 153,500 people were employed in the U.S. as dentists.

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