Alternative Career Paths

Most dentists enter private practice. Of those, about 80 percent are general practitioners, while the other 20 percent practice in one of ten ADA-recognized dental specialties.There are many practice settings where you may choose to work, outside of a traditional private practice. According to a 2016 ADEA survey, 15% of new graduates choose to work in an alternative career path listed below.

Dental clinics
Dental clinics provide dental services targeted at low-income families, students and others who may not otherwise have access to good dental care. Clinics are owned and operated by the government, universities, hospitals, health care organizations and private companies.

State and county public health program
State programs hire dentists to provide dental services in one or more multi-county districts. The county programs typically are offered only in heavily populated counties. Both types of programs emphasize clinical services, often providing services to low-income families, sometimes in the clinics referred to above.

Hospital dentistry
Hospital dentistry typically involves treating patients who don’t receive their dental care through traditional channels, such as those who are medically or mentally compromised (e.g., patients with cancer, AIDS, heart disease and Alzheimer’s), patients with emergency needs and hospital employees.

Dental service organizations (DSO)
Dental service organizations (DSOs) contract with dental practices to provide administrative and operations management. In this model, a new dentist works as an employee and earns a salary, focusing exclusively on patient care. The DSO provides all nonclinical and administrative functions, such as accounting, marketing and billing. For those new dentists considering a solo practice, the advantages include no initial capital outlay necessary, income immediately available, the stresses of practice management eliminated, no need for patient recruitment and employee benefits. Both general dentists and specialists can work as DSO employees.

Consultation dentistry
Most dental insurance companies employ dentists as consultants. Dentists review and process dental claims, determine recipient eligibility and monitor dental claims for fraud and malpractice. These positions are mostly part-time, and salaries are frequently per diem and negotiated with the employing agency. For information regarding possible positions as a dental consultant, contact the insurance companies located within the region or state of your choice.

Academic dentistry
An academic career involves employment at one of the 66 U.S. dental schools. Preparations for a productive academic career require considerable research background and training. Participating in research while a student is a good start and is often followed by further training in a postgraduate specialty program, a postdoctoral fellowship or pursuit of an advanced degree. Dental school departments that represent one of the clinical specialties routinely require tenure-track faculty to complete a postgraduate training program in the respective specialty and be eligible to take the specialty board examination. For those interested in administration, a degree in public administration, an MBA or similar training is helpful. On a positive note, for those interested in teaching as a career, shortages exist. Read the blog post Five unexpected benefits of becoming a dental educator to learn more about a career in academia.

Dental associations
The various national, state and local dental associations hire dental professionals for administrative positions. Contact the association or go to for national and local listings.

The Army, Navy and Air Force offer dental positions at dental treatment facilities located in the United States and in other countries. In addition, a very limited number of positions are available at some treatment facilities for civilian dentists not enlisted in the military.

U.S. Public Health Service
The U.S. Public Health Service employs dentists in the public health field through numerous federal health care agencies within the Department of Health and Human Services, including the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Food and Drug Administration, Health Resources and Services Administration, National Institutes for Health and the Indian Health Service.

Private industry
Most private industry positions involve laboratory research, but a few involve clinical research. Options exist in both professional and consumer market-oriented companies. Many companies prefer individuals with research experience as well as another degree, usually an MPH or MBA. This is, however, not an absolute requirement, and some individuals enter this career directly out of dental school if they have a strong research background.

Government agencies and research institutes
Dentists will continue to be needed to conduct research at various institutions. Graduate training is a prerequisite, which means that the dental graduate would pursue an advanced degree (typically a Ph.D.), involving a significant amount of research training. An alternative route to a research career is a research-oriented Master in Science degree in a clinical specialty program. Since 1986, the Dentist Scientist Award and the Physician Scientist Award programs from the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research (NIDCR) have encouraged highly qualified students to apply for a combined specialty/Ph.D. degree program. Some graduate training is also supported by the NIDCR.