Answering the question “How much does a dentist earn?” is a little tricky. Not only do dentist salaries vary by state, specialization and years of experience, but the salary data itself changes from year to year.
Still, given all that variation, it makes the most sense to present dentist salary information as a range of the most likely salaries. Roughly half of all dentists will make between $104,000 and $208,000 a year. The average median income is somewhere between $141,896 a year and $156,240 a year.
To get a sense of the true range, it helps to look at both the lowest- and highest- paid dentists. The lowest-paid 10 percent of dentists earned less than $72,840, and the highest-paid 10 percent earned more than $208,000. Much of the variation reported there seems to depend on specialty and where a dentist works (for example, government position versus private practice).
To give some idea of how dentists’ salaries compare to other fields, it helps to look to the U.S. News & World Report listing of “Best Jobs” rankings. In 2018, they ranked dentistry #10 on their list of best-paying jobs, and #2 on their list of best jobs in healthcare generally. (These rankings were based on 2017 statistics, note.)
Is This Good News For Would-Be Dentists?
For the most part, yes: The most recent data indicates that dentists salaries are on an upward trend.
Furthermore, dental professions appear to be a growth industry, with experts predicting a 19% growth in the number of dental jobs nationwide between 2016 and 2026. This makes dentistry a much faster growing field than average, likely due to a population that is both growing and living longer, as well as better overall education about the importance of oral health.
Again, keep in mind that the outlook for dentists, like salary itself, varies by state and area of specialization.
Variance By State
Another source of salary information for dentists is ZipRecruiter. ZipRecruiter is an online job-posting and job-search app, and as such has unique access to data on job salaries from companies that are actually currently hiring. What’s most useful is that ZipRecruiter breaks down their salary information by state, which tends to be more informative if you want a dental job that is close by. Averaging across states, we get a median income for dentists of roughly $141,896.
It’s worth checking out the complete state-by-state list, but here are the top five and bottom five states, to give some idea of the range:
Variance By Specialization
Here are some of the median salaries for various sub-specialties within the field of dentistry, as reported by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics:
|Oral and maxillofacial surgeons
|$208,000 or more
|$208,000 or more
|Dentists, all other specialists
Note, however, that having a specialty, complete with separate training, is not necessary to realize a higher income. Many dentists practice orthodontics, endodontics and more in a single office, and are thus better able to serve their community while realizing a higher income potential. These numbers do not necessarily represent dentists who take that approach.
Earning Potential For Dentists vs. Job Satisfaction
Expected salary is one thing, quality of life quite another. It doesn’t help to ask “how much does a dentist earn” if a high salary comes with long, stressful hours and little job satisfaction. Work-life balance matters.
Most dentists work full-time schedules during business hours, but this will vary from practice to practice. Some open early, stay open late, or open on weekends. This can create a very flexible or a very demanding schedule, depending on the volume of patients seen. The good news is that a higher volume of patients seen during a week directly translates into a more lucrative practice overall. Also good news: The hours are usually very predictable and stable.
A research brief by the University of Illinois at Chicago and the ADA Health Policy Institute (HPI) found that job satisfaction among dentists depends, in part, on whether a dentist works in a dentist-owned-and-operated practice, or is affiliated with a dental support organization (DSO, also sometimes known as a dental management organization). For example, dentists affiliated with DSO appreciate some of the unique aspects of their job, such as weekends off and fewer hours spent on non-clinical tasks. It should also be noted that many dental support organizations provide mentorship opportunities and a strong support network.
Generally, dentists seem to be more satisfied with their work, and achieve a better earning potential, when they can offer more services to their patients—particularly when it comes to cosmetic dentistry. Helping people feel better about themselves and their smiles seems to make everyone feel better!
Dental Office Support
In private practice, incomes tend to be all over the map, because dentistry is not just a healthcare profession but also a business. Many dental students are surprised at the number of hours they must spend building and maintaining their business versus actually practicing dentistry.
Thus, working for a larger DSO has some benefits. There’s less risk, a more stable schedule, and more time spent helping patients. You won’t be expected to be webmaster, social media expert, software engineer, and sales guru on top of being a dental professional. The time not spent learning these other skills needs to factor into salary decision, too.
Is A Dental Career Worth It?
The overall pros and cons of pursuing a dental career are beyond this post. But it’s critical to address the elephant in the room: Given the long education (7-8 years) and high student debt of the average dentist, will the salary make it all worthwhile in the long run?
According to data from the website Student Loan Hero, dentists can expect to invest an average of $570,000 into their training. This includes principal and interest on student loans, plus about $220,000 in lost income potential (that is, money that could be made post-graduate instead of attending dental school). They also estimate that most dentists will make back that investment in about 8 years.
This is great news, as it means that, in the long run, all that education and training is worth it. And the benefits accrue even after all loans are paid, with dentists making $90,000 more than they would with only a bachelor's degree.
Depending on where a dentist works, there can also be many benefits that do not show up as salary, but that are important for the future. For example, stock options and benefits are sometimes offered over and above a competitive base salary, especially for dentists supported by a DSO (like Heartland Dental.)
There is also a good deal of evidence that dentists are happier when they can put their education to good use helping patients, rather than managing things like appointment setting, billing, marketing, and so on. Again, dentists who choose DSO support often report liking a more predictable schedule, time for family, and fewer hours spent on non-clinical tasks
If you have more questions about dental careers, or about partnering with a dental support organization, you can check out our other articles on dental jobs, or even better, feel free to reach out to us.
Looking for a dental job? Check out our jobs board here.
Salary data for this article came primarily from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, which keeps employment statistics for most occupations, updated annually. The source data is from their May 2018 report. We also looked at data provided by ZipRecruiter.