As a dentist you'll need to have excellent communication skills to offer a professional service to patients

Dentists prevent and treat problems affecting the mouth and teeth, including dental and oral disease. They also treat injuries and correct dental issues.

The most common role in dentistry is as a general dental practitioner (GDP). As a GDP you would work as a self-employed contractor providing dental care to the general public. You might provide services under the NHS, privately or both.

You would typically lead a team of dental nurses, hygienists, therapists and technicians, and would 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 or providing treatment to long-stay hospital in-patients and emergency treatment for short-stay patients. Treatment may be provided to the general public for teaching purposes;
  • armed forces: providing a comprehensive range of dental services for armed forces personnel in the UK and abroad.

Responsibilities

As a dentist, your work will include:

  • educating patients on oral healthcare;
  • examining teeth and diagnosing patients' dental conditions by using tools such as x-rays;
  • assessing treatment options and agreeing treatment plans with patients;
  • carrying out agreed clinical treatments such as restoring teeth affected by decay and treating gum disease;
  • maintaining patients' dental records;
  • recruiting, training and managing staff;
  • overseeing budgets and maintaining stocks of equipment;
  • marketing services to potential clients.

Some practices employ practice managers so that dentists can concentrate on clinical work.

Salary

  • Newly qualified dentists wanting to work in the NHS need to undertake dental foundation training for one year, during which a salary of £30,132 will be received.
  • Most dentists are self-employed contractors in general practice, mixing NHS with private work, and earn £50,000 to £110,000. Wholly private dentists can earn £140,000+.
  • Dentists employed by the NHS, working mainly in community dental services, earn a salary of £38,095 to £81,480.
  • In NHS trust hospitals, consultants in dental specialties earn £75,249 to £101,451 depending on how many years they've spent in the consultant grade.

Other salaried posts exist in the armed forces and in corporate practices.

Income figures are intended as a guide only.

Working hours

If you work as a GDP you will 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 available.

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 will 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.
  • Opportunities for overseas travel may arise to attend international conferences.

Qualifications

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 in chemistry, biology and physics or mathematics. 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. Competition for dental schools is fierce and some may require you to sit the UK Clinical Aptitude Test (UKCAT). Gather tips on preparing for the UKCAT.

A means-tested bursary may be available from the NHS during the final years of your course. Find out more at NHS Student Bursaries.

Once you've successfully completed your undergraduate degree you'll need to register with the GDC in order to practise as a qualified dentist.

Skills

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.

It is also important that you have good eyesight.

Work experience

It's not essential to have pre-entry dentistry experience, 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 receive access to a student magazine, free e-books, hefty discounts on books and access to networking events. Find out more at the British Dental Association (BDA) - Students.

Employers

There are a number of ways you can 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.
  • In an NHS hospital trust: as a salaried dentist specialising in a certain area such as paediatric dentistry, orthodontics or restorative dentistry.
  • In a community dental service: working in a variety of clinical settings as a salaried dentist, including health authority surgeries, mobile clinics and residential homes.
  • 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:

Get more tips on how to find a job, create a successful CV and cover letter, and prepare for interviews.

Professional development

After you've completed your dentistry degree, and before being able to practice as a dentist, you must register with the General Dental Council (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 that lasts for one year and must be completed by all dentists. You will be based in an approved dental practice with an experienced practitioner who will 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.

If you want to consider a career as a hospital consultant, you will need to undertake 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:

Career prospects

After you've completed your foundation training year, 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;
  • orthodontics;
  • 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.