Becoming a Dental Specialist

becoming a dental specialist

By Elizabeth LaScala, PhD

After graduating from a four-year dental program with your degree and obtaining licensure, you will be qualified for general dentistry practice. You may also want to consider an advanced dental education program, which would allow you to specialize in a field that aligns with your interests and career goals. The American Dental Association (ADA) recognizes 12 specialties, which I outline below.

Oral and Maxillofacial Pathology

This is one of three specialties that deal with diseases or conditions in the oral and maxillofacial region (mouth, jaw, and face). Pathology specialists study, research, identify and manage diseases that originate in this region. Program length: 37 months (average).

Oral and Maxillofacial Radiologists

In this technology-heavy specialty, radiologists use their understanding of radiation physics and biology to take and interpret a range of images and scans that are used to diagnose and/or treat diseases and conditions in the oral and maxillofacial region. Program length: 24 to 36 months.

Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery

Oral and maxillofacial surgeons can diagnose and surgically treat diseases and conditions of the face, including cleft palate, cancers, and facial injuries. This is also a pathway for those interested in plastic surgery. Program length(s): four to six years; may include an integrated M.D. degree.

Dental Anesthesiology

A dentist anesthesiologist (DA) helps patients undergo dental and oral surgery by providing advanced sedation and general anesthesia. DAs may provide anesthesia services for other dentists in their practice or they may work in surgery centers, hospitals, and educational institutions. Program length: 36 months.


Endodontists focus on procedures that help patients retain their natural teeth, with the most common procedure being a root canal. Program length: 26 months (average).


Periodontists treat the gums, tissue and underlying bones that help support the teeth. They may also place and repair dental implants. Program length: 35 months (average).


Prosthodontists work with “prosthetics” of the mouth, like dentures, crowns, bridges, and dental implants. This is one of the highest paid specialties in dentistry. Program length: 36 months (average).

Oral Medicine

One of the newest disciplines in dentistry, this specialty serves medically complex patients with conditions that are usually managed through topical and/or systemic medications. Some programs require a one-year general practice residency in addition to a DDS or DMD. Program length: 24 to 36 months.

Orofacial Pain

This specialty encompasses the diagnosis, management, prevention and treatment of pain disorders in the orofacial region. This region includes the jaw, mouth, face, head and neck, and common disorders include temporomandibular muscle and joint (TMJ) disorders, headaches, and sleep disorders. Program length(s): 12 to 36 months for a range of programs.

Pediatric Dentistry

Pediatric dentists specialize in the care of children. This includes treatment of a range of conditions and diseases and also emphasizes educating children and their caregivers on the importance and maintenance of good oral hygiene. Program length: 24 to 36 months.

Orthodontics and Dentofacial Orthopedics

Orthodontists correct irregular dental development (braces anyone?) and also treat and prevent issues caused by missing teeth or other abnormalities. Program length: 24 to 36 months.

Dental Public Health

Medical and dental professionals alike have been known to develop a passion for public health during their studies. As a dental public health professional, you will develop policies and programs, including health care reforms, that will affect the broader community. Pathways towards public health include certificate, master’s, and doctoral programs. Program length: 14 months (varies by pathway).

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