What does a dentist do?

You might think you know the answer to this question if you’ve sat in the chair many times, but the fact is that dentistry is a more varied and multi-skilled profession than many people realise. Working as a dentist, you will treat and prevent a wide range of problems which affect the mouth and teeth, as well as promoting excellent oral health and helping patients to maintain theirs. 

Senior dentists lead a team of dental nurses, hygienists, technicians and therapists, working with patients of all ages. A typical day as a dentist may consist of:

  • Performing general check-ups on routine patients and assessing their oral health
  • Completing dental treatments such as fillings, extractions and fitting dentures
  • Taking x-rays and providing local anaesthetics
  • Referring patients to dental hygienists or other specialised therapists
  • Teeth whitening

Are there different types of dentists?

Most dentists work as a general dental practitioner (GDP), providing dental care on a self-employed basis in high street practices. Some dentists provide services under the NHS while others work with private patients.

There are some areas in which you may choose to specialise, such as:

  • Community dental care which involves working with patients at home and in care homes, where they have a requirement that means they cannot attend a practice
  • Dental public health which involves working non-clinically to assess the general dental health of populations and promote better dental care
  • Hospital dental care which provides dental services within hospitals to long-term patients or emergency treatments for short-term patients
  • Specialised dental care in areas such as the armed forces


What skills do I need to be a dentist?

You’ll need excellent interpersonal and communication skills, and the ability to offer a highly professional service to a wide range of people while explaining clearly what you are doing. Your manner needs to put patients at ease in an environment which can often make people nervous.

As well as excellent scientific knowledge and an understanding of the latest developments in your field, you will need to be good with your hands, with great hand-eye coordination and attention to detail.

What qualifications do I need to be a dentist?

Generally, people go into dentistry through a university course, for which you will need three A Levels including in chemistry and biology.

The degree course lasts for five years and is provided by a huge number of universities in the UK. It needs to be a degree course which is accredited by the General Dental Council, and it is followed by up to two years of postgraduate training. These courses are often very competitive.

If you already have a degree in biology, chemistry or other relevant subject it is sometimes possible to take a four-year dentistry course instead.

You may be asked to take an aptitude test when you apply for a degree course in dentistry. This will ascertain whether you have the necessary skills for the course, including problem solving, critical thinking, data analysis, communication and scientific knowledge.

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What career progression can I expect as a dentist?

While many GDPs work in a self-employed capacity, once they have attained the right level of experience and reputation many set up their own practices. This brings the chance not only to earn more money but to work in a managerial capacity as well as being a practitioner.

You can also move into more specialised areas of dentistry such as:

  • Oral surgery
  • Restorative dentistry
  • Orthodontics
  • Paediatric dentistry

What can I earn as a dentist?

Newly qualified dentists in the NHS earn an annual salary of around £32,000 during their foundation training year. This tends to increase to:

  • Between £50,000 to £110,000 per year working in a general practice where NHS work is mixed with private work
  • Between £40,000 and £80,000 per year for community dentists
  • Up to £110,000 per year for specialist dental consultants
  • Over £140,000 per year for exclusively private dentists

Related careers

If you’ve got plenty of the attributes listed above but you’re looking for something slightly different, you might be interested in becoming a:

  • Dental therapist
  • Surgeon
  • Anaesthitist
  • Pathologist
  • Dermatologist