How to become a dentist and your job options
To become a dentist in the UK you need to complete a bachelor of dental surgery (BDS) degree, which normally takes five years, followed by further on-the-job training. Training to be a dentist can be hard work but it’s a career that gives you the opportunity to help people every day, solve a wide variety of problems and specialise in the areas that most interest you.
Entry requirements for dentistry degrees
Dentistry courses tend to be very competitive to get onto and require high grades (typically AAA at A level). Most require you to have studied both biology and chemistry at A level or in your Highers or International Baccalaureate. However, some universities are slightly more flexible about the subjects they want you to have studied. These include:
- the University of Dundee (chemistry and another science; biology is recommended)
- the University of Bristol (chemistry and either biology, physics or maths)
- Plymouth University (biology and one further science from chemistry, physics, maths and psychology).
In addition to these academic requirements, some dentistry courses require applicants to sit the UK Clinical Aptitude Test (UKCAT) or Biomedical Admissions Test (BMAT), which assess your reasoning and decision-making skills. Other requirements may include a DBS check, immunisations, a health questionnaire and testing for blood-borne viruses.
Some universities like you to have undertaken work shadowing (spending time in a dentist’s surgery to try to understand what their role involves) before you apply, while others don’t mention it as a requirement. For example, the University of Dundee states, ‘You need to have carefully investigated dentistry as a career and have undertaken some work shadowing with a general dental practitioner or community dentist. There is no prescribed length of time for this, but you should be able to tell us about your experiences in your personal statement.’ Even if work experience isn’t explicitly asked for, you’ll need to demonstrate your commitment to dentistry in your personal statement and work shadowing is a good way to do this.
All BDS dentistry degrees are five years long, with the following exceptions:
- Some universities offer a pre-dental year for students with proven academic ability but not the necessary science qualifications (typically AAA in non-science subjects or with just one science subject), making it a six-year course. Examples include the University of Manchester, the University of Dundee and Cardiff University.
- Less commonly, a pre-dental year with lower entry requirements is available for students who have not met the grade requirements. The University of Bristol offers this exclusively for students at specific schools and colleges as a ‘widening participation initiative’ and the University of Dundee offers it for students whose academic attainment has been limited by adverse circumstances.
- People with a 2.1 degree in a science or biomedical subject can sometimes apply to join the second year of a dentistry degree, making it a four-year course. This is because they will have already covered the required content for the first year. Universities offering this option include the University of Aberdeen, the University of Liverpool and King’s College London.
There’s no apprenticeship route to becoming a dentist because a BDS degree is essential to qualify. However, if you don’t want to go to university you might want to consider the following dentistry-related careers, which all have school-leaver options in addition to a degree route:
- dental technician – can do a BTEC national diploma or SQA higher national certificate in dental technology after GCSEs
- dental hygienist – can study for a two-year diploma in dental hygiene
- dental nurse – can start working as a trainee and study towards the national certificate in dental nursing or the level 3 diploma in dental nursing while working
- dental therapist – can do a diploma in dental therapy after A levels.
What dentistry degrees involve
All dental schools in the UK are regulated by the General Dental Council (GDC), giving them a similar structure and content. There are lots of lectures and exams to cover the theoretical side of the course; there is also a lot of practical learning – either on-the-job in a dental surgery or in a simulated environment on campus.
- All modules are compulsory (you don’t get a choice of topics to study each year) because all the content your course covers will be useful in your career as a dentist. However, some courses offer an elective module in the fourth year. This could be either academic (a research project, for example) or a practical placement of your choice, either in the UK or abroad. Universities offering this include the University of Birmingham, the University of Dundee, Newcastle University, the University of Glasgow and the University of Bristol. The possibilities are endless, but the University of Glasgow suggests ‘veterinary dentistry or learning a foreign language within a clinical environment’ or ‘a healthcare project in a remote or low-income country’ as examples of what you might choose to do.
- You’ll usually start to have contact with patients in your first year, though this varies between universities. You’ll begin by observing treatment rather than doing anything yourself straight away. In your second year you’ll typically start to treat patients with minor problems, and your level of responsibility will continue to increase as you go through the course (for example, students at the University of Glasgow carry out their first tooth extraction in their third year). The proportion of time you spend with patients will also increase each year (at Plymouth University, for example, students spend two days a week in clinical settings in their third year, and three days a week in fourth year).
- Some universities allow you to take an ‘intercalated’ year studying a different science subject between the second and third year of your dentistry degree, essentially joining the third year of that other degree course. This allows you to gain broader knowledge that you’ll be able to draw upon during your dentistry career. Universities offering this include the University of Liverpool, King’s College London, the University of Birmingham, Plymouth University, Queen’s University Belfast, the University of Bristol, the University of Glasgow, Queen Mary University London, the University of Manchester and the University of Sheffield. The range of subjects to choose from varies between universities, and there’s sometimes the option to study at a different university if a subject isn’t offered at yours.
Dentist training and paperwork after graduating
Even after you’ve graduated from your BDS degree, there are some other steps to follow before you can start working as a dentist.
- You must register with the GDC before you can practise as a dentist or dental care professional in the UK (this involves an online application form, along with ID and proof of your qualification). There’s an annual fee to remain on the register and you also need to undertake continuing professional development throughout your career.
- To work in the NHS, you need to follow your degree with at least one year of on-the-job training (more if you want to specialise in a particular area), supervised by an experienced dentist.
Dentistry career options
Most dentists work as general dental practitioners providing dental care to the public, and are self-employed associates within a dental practice (making regular payments to the owner of the practice in exchange for use of the premises, equipment and materials). After gaining experience you can become a partner in the practice (taking some responsibility for managing the practice) or set up your own practice. There are options to work either for the NHS or privately – some general dental practitioners do both.
Other career options include:
- hospital dentist – this could include carrying out oral surgery, orthodontics and restorative dentistry, or giving dental treatment to long-stay hospital patients
- armed forces dentist – providing dental treatment to members of the armed forces, either in the UK or abroad
- community dental care – treating patients who aren’t able to attend a dental practice, such as the elderly and people with special needs
- dental public health – finding ways to improve the dental health of a whole population in a particular area, rather than treating individuals.
General dental practitioners usually work a standard nine-to-five week, with occasional evening or weekend work, whereas working in a hospital may require more irregular hours such as night shifts.
Postgraduate study in dentistry
If you want to specialise further in a particular area of dentistry, you can study for a postgraduate degree. Some postgraduate dentistry degrees require you to have two years’ clinical experience after graduating from your first degree. Some courses only accept dental graduates, some accept dental and medical graduates and some also accept other relevant first degrees (such as social science for dental public health).
Some examples of postgraduate courses include:
- oral surgery
- dental public health
- forensic dentistry (applying your knowledge of dentistry to the criminal justice system: for example, identifying human remains or examining evidence such as bite marks)
- paediatric dentistry (working with children and young people).