A year ago, dentistry took second place on US News & World Report’s annual list of the 100 Best Jobs. This year, it dropped to ninth place, though it also placed fifth in the subcategory of Best Healthcare Jobs, seventh in Best STEM Jobs, and eleventh in Best Paying Jobs.
Bruce Cassis, DDS, president of the Academy of General Dentistry, agrees with US News & World Report’s assessment.
“Indeed, dentistry is a top 10 job. There is no other profession that can assert as much control over a patient’s self-esteem or provide opportunities to change someone’s life by giving them a reason to smile,” Cassis said.
“Many people become dentists because they want to help people. Dentists understand that they are improving patients’ health by providing dental care,” added Dr. Linda C. Niessen, dean and professor of the Kansas City University College of Dental Medicine.
Other oral healthcare jobs fared very well in this year’s tabulation too. Orthodontists took eleventh place, oral and maxillofacial surgeons were eighteenth, dental hygienists were thirty-second, prosthodontists were thirty-fifth, and dental assistants were eighty-fourth.
US News & World Report started its list with the jobs that have the largest projected number and percentage of openings between 2019 and 2029 as determined by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). It then ranked these jobs based on criteria like 2019 median salary, employment rate, 10-year growth, future job prospects, stress level, and work-life balance.
Dentistry by the Numbers
Dentists saw an average salary of $178,260 and a median salary of $155,600 in 2019, which improves upon 2018’s $151,850 median figure. The BLS also noted a 0.2% unemployment rate and 2.8% employment growth through 2029, expecting 3,700 jobs to open up.
Dentists in Burlington, North Carolina, had the highest salaries at $278,360, followed by Burlington, Vermont, at $275,430. Dentists in Longview, Texas, were third at $272,440, with Olympia, Washington, and Sebring, Florida, rounding out the top five at $267,240 and $259,660, respectively.
Meanwhile, dentists in Delaware have the highest mean salary at $264,440. Rhode Island was next at $262,900. Vermont, Alaska, and North Dakota were third, fourth, and fifth at $261,790, $239,930, and $225,770.
Paychecks vary based on the setting. Dentists who practice in residential intellectual and developmental disability, mental health, and substance abuse facilities had the highest annual average salary at $197,370.
Dentists working in the offices of other health practitioners saw $195,850. Those in state government excluding schools and hospitals made $183,320. Dentists in dental offices made $180,660. And, dentists who work via employment services collected $165,330.
There’s more to dentistry than the salary. There also are the intangible rewards of serving your community.
“I am very optimistic about the future of the profession. The students who are applying to dentistry are incredibly community oriented and are entering the profession to help people,” said Niessen.
“The caring and community-oriented nature we are seeing in today’s applicants lead me to believe that future graduates will be dedicated to improving the oral health of their patients, their community and truly making the world a better place,” Niessen said.
But many of these students will be wrestling with huge student debt and few options to pay it off, said Michael W. Davis, DDS, a dentist in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
“Dentistry ranks number four for highest student debt to income ratio among all professions. This has numbers of potentially negative implications for a recent graduate,” Davis said.
“A challenged credit history may prolong a doctor’s ability to become a valid beneficial owner of a dental practice. Lenders look for a history of paying down debt and financial solvency. It could possibly influence a vulnerable dentist to buy a minority stake in a corporate practice in which they retain or accrue minimal real equity,” he continued.
“Substantial student debt load also may force a recent graduate into less than desirable employment as well as keep that doctor trapped in such a job just to make the monthly nut. All these situations may lead to high stress and early career burnout,” Davis said.
“A tremendous burden is lifted from doctors, who are out from under excessive student debt. Their employment options expand dramatically. Pressure of a mountain of monthly bills is reduced. Lowered stress may be reflected in enhanced family relationships, added time for recreation, time and mental space for spiritual pursuits, and openings for expanding one’s skills in dentistry,” he said.
Job satisfaction is vital too. US News & World Report found that dentists enjoy average upward mobility and stress levels as well as above average flexibility, including alternative working schedules and work-life balance.
“Dentistry enables you to choose your career path and provides flexibility in terms of how a dentist practices and where a dentist practices. These can lead to greater satisfaction for dentists. Dentists can own their own practice or work with a group of dentists. Dentists can work in various settings, like a private dental practice, a hospital, a public health department, a community health center, or a dental school, to name a few,” said Niessen.
“Dentistry is a fairly stable career that allows for intellectual growth as the technology continues to advance. It combines art and science—the science of understanding the human body and how it works, with the art of designing and creating smiles,” Niessen continued.
But even then, these factors don’t provide the whole picture.
“First and foremost, I love my job and would not want any other job out there. This is my passion. This is my calling,” said Maggie Augustyn, DDS, a practicing general dentist in the Chicago area who questioned the survey’s criteria.
“I know what wasn’t taken under consideration: the unending backaches and headaches that come with the physicality of our jobs, the likelihood of those within our profession to suffer with mood disorders, which is twice that of the general population,” she said.
Augustyn also noted the “ever so common reminder that we are the bad guys, the ones holding the needle, drilling into tooth nerves, and making high-pitched sounds with our instruments. How many of our interactions are fraught with ‘No offense, doc, but I hate the dentist,’” she said.
And despite her own passion for the profession, she said, “I would not want my daughter following in my footsteps.”
Results in the Specialties
Oral and maxillofacial surgeons saw an average salary of $237,570 and a median salary of $208,000, placing them third in the Best Paying Jobs subcategory. By city and state, they made the most in Chicago at $273,730 and in Florida at $282,650.
The BLS notes a 0.3% unemployment rate and a hundred new jobs through 2029 as well. However, job satisfaction is mixed, with average upward mobility, above average stress levels, and below average flexibility.
Prosthodontists saw an average salary of $220,840 and a median salary of $208,000, placing sixth in the Best Paying Jobs subcategory. They made the most in Miami at $221,580 and in Florida at $263,580.
Also, prosthodontists enjoy a 0.2% unemployment rate. The BLS does not expect any new jobs to open up through 2029, though. Job satisfaction is mixed as well, with average upward mobility, above average stress levels, and below average flexibility.
Orthodontists saw an average salary of $230,830 and a median salary of $208,000, placing fifth in the Best Paying Jobs subcategory. Boston orthodontists made the most at $277,770, as did orthodontists in Washington at $285,780.
According to the BLS, orthodontists have a 0.2% unemployment rate and can expect 200 new job openings through 2029. They also experience mixed job satisfaction, with average upward mobility, below average stress levels, and above average flexibility.
Dental hygienists have an average salary of $77,230 and a median salary of $76,220, placing fifth among the Best Health Care Support Jobs subcategory. They made the most in Santa Maria, California, at $140,150 and in Alaska at $114,790.
The BLS says that dental hygienists have a 0.5% unemployment rate and can expect 13,300 new jobs through 2029. In terms of job satisfaction, upward mobility and stress levels are average, but flexibility is high.
Dental assistants have an average salary of $41,170 and a median of $40,080, placing fifteenth in the Best Health Care Support Jobs subcategory. They make the most in Santa Rosa, California, at $56,010 and in Minnesota at $52,220.
Also, dental assistants have a 2.4% unemployment rate, the BLS said, and can expect 23,400 new job openings through 2029. They experience average upward mobility and stress levels in terms of job satisfaction and above average flexibility.
The Big Picture
Niessen sees a bright future ahead for dentistry.
“Technology is changing how dentistry is practiced and making it a very high-tech profession. Scientific advances have changed dental procedures and created new procedures to help patients. Intraoral scanning and in-dental office milling as a result of computer aided design (CAD) and computer aided manufacturer (CAM) are changing how dentists make crowns or implant placement and restorations,” she said.
“The digital revolution is truly changing how dentists practice. Dental x-rays are now digital. What we’re seeing in orthodontics is incredible. Dentistry now has invisible clear aligners to move teeth in addition to the brackets of the past. And the COVID-19 pandemic saw teledentistry become more widely used by dentists,” she continued.
“Over the past 20 years, research has demonstrated the relationship between your overall health and your oral health. Many patients don’t realize that oral infections cause inflammation which can affect other organs, like your heart. One recent study even showed that the bacteria that cause gum disease was found in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients. The mouth is clearly connected to the rest of the body. And by going to the dentist, you can improve not you’re your oral health but your overall health, too,” she said.
Cassis also is more optimistic about the state of the profession.
“Even though 2020 didn’t provide any of us many reasons to smile, I was encouraged even in the midst of the pandemic by patients who needed emergency treatment and who greatly appreciated my services,” he said.
“Dentistry is a satisfying career for me in terms of the fact that I always knew I wanted to be a dentist. Early in age, I had family members who practiced dentistry, and after spending time with them and working within their office doing menial tasks, I knew I wanted behind that drill,” Cassis said.
“Patients all have a different dental IQ. The fact that no two patients are the same in their oral health needs and that everyone has a limited budget for paying for necessary treatment, every day can be a challenge, and communication is the primary skill exercised,” he said.
“I think we are all highly optimistic about the future. COVID-19 has presented challenges in the dental community. However, if anyone was ready for these changes, it was dentistry. In terms of infection control and assessment of health, we were well ahead of the curve,” he said.
“Personally, I have seen my schedule rebound to at least 80% of my pre-COVID numbers. Obviously, there are still concerns with reference to the virus. But with the vaccinations, expanded infection control, and continued distancing protocols, I feel comfortable treating patients and team and feel we can all manage safely,” Cassis said.
“On behalf of my colleagues, I and others look forward to being able to help by expanding the services we offer to include COVID-19 testing and immunizations in an effort to improve the access to care,” he said.
“We have lots to offer and look forward to being able to contribute to the total health of our patients. Many see us more than their medical providers. It is up to us to take advantage of opportunities to coach them on their overall health and encourage them to practice health habits regardless of oral or medical health,” Cassis said.