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How to Become a Dentist in Tennessee

Dentists play a crucial role in healthcare in the U.S. Dentists work with patients to help them prevent dental disease and cavities. They fix and fill cavities, prescribe medications and diagnose and treat oral health diseases and conditions.

To become a dentist, you must be accepted to and complete a dental degree program. These programs are limited—Tennessee only has three—and admissions are competitive. Prepare to be admitted by taking science classes in high school, getting the best grades you can and shadowing a dentist or working in a dental office.

Tennessee Requirements for Dentists

To work in any state, you must be licensed as a dentist. The Tennessee Board of Dentistry is responsible for issuing licenses in the state.

To qualify for a license, you must complete an accredited dental program and submit an application with the following requirements fulfilled or attached:

  • Transcripts from your dental program
  • CPR certification
  • Two letters of recommendation signed by licensed dental professionals in good standing
  • Proof of U.S. citizenship or legal residency
  • The results of a criminal background check

Once licensed, you will need to renew the license through the Board every two years. During the two-year period, you must complete 40 continuing education credits, including two credits in controlled substances.

Board Exams

Unless you have a reciprocal license in another state, you will need to complete board exams to become licensed in Tennessee. Tennessee accepts exam scores through several testing agencies:

  • Central Regional Dental Testing Services
  • Commission on Dental Competency Assessments
  • Council of Interstate Testing Agencies
  • Southern Regional Testing Agency
  • Western Regional Examining Board

Tennessee Dental Programs

Three schools in Tennessee are approved to offer Doctor of Dental Surgery (D.D.S.) or Doctor of Dental Medicine (D.M.D.) degrees. These schools also offer postgraduate programs and continuing education in various areas of dental specialization.

University of Tennessee, Memphis

UT’s College of Dentistry is one of the oldest professional dental schools in the U.S. It has trained and educated dentists since 1878. The D.D.S. program is four years, with the first two years primarily dedicated to classwork and a significant portion of the last two years spent on clinical work.

To apply to the D.D.S program, students must have 97 credit hours with certain specific courses completed. A bachelor’s degree is not required but is strongly recommended. The minimum required GPA is 2.75, but the school suggests applicants aim for 3.5 to be competitive. Other requirements include the Dental Admissions Test (DAT) and a personal interview.

Dentists can continue their education here with several postgraduate programs:

  • Advanced Education in General Dentistry
  • Endodontics
  • Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery
  • Orthodontics
  • Pediatric Dentistry
  • Periodontics
  • Prosthodontics

Depending on the program, some students must apply for the Master of Dental Science program and complete a residency.

Meharry Medical College, Nashville

Meharry Medical College in Nashville is an HBCU (historically black colleges and universities) in Nashville. It founded its dental program in 1886 to add a dental curriculum to the medical program for more well-rounded graduates.

The School of Dentistry today is highly selective in admissions. The School receives about 3,000 applications annually but only admits 75 plus approximately ten international students. Requirements for admissions include specific college courses, DAT scores and a personal interview. Students are strongly recommended to have a bachelor’s degree before applying.

D.D.S. students at Meharry can also choose to complete a Ph.D. This adds three or four years to the completion of the program and prepares graduates for research and advanced clinical work.

Meharry has two other postgraduate programs. Students can advance their dental careers by selecting the oral maxillofacial postgraduate program or the general practice residency.

Lincoln Memorial University, Knoxville

The College of Dental Medicine at LMU is new for 2022 but is already accredited and approved. It offers a D.M.D. degree for aspiring dentists at its Knoxville campus. The first class will begin in fall 2022. The program includes coursework in basic and medical science, oral health, clinical science, behavioral science and interprofessional healthcare.

During the third and fourth years of the program, students take more advanced dentistry courses. They also complete several months of clinical experience and participate in dental seminars.

Admissions to the D.M.D. program require specific college courses, a GPA of 3.3 or higher, a DAT score of 19 or higher, career shadowing hours, a personal essay and reference letters. Just 80 students are accepted each year.

LMU also has a unique program that few other dental schools offer. Students can earn an M.S. in forensic dentistry or complete a forensic dentistry fellowship. Forensic dentistry is the application of dentistry principles and knowledge to legal and criminal situations. 

Opportunities for Dentists in Tennessee

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), dentistry is a growing career across the country. On average, across all states, jobs for general dentists are increasing by 6%. This is as fast as average job growth and represents thousands of open positions for licensed, qualified dentists.

Tennessee, according to Projections Central, has even more substantial growth. The number of jobs for dentists is expected to grow by 11.6% from 2020 to 2030.

Salaries are also very promising for dentists. Nationwide, the median salary is $163,220 annually, but dentists earn as much as $208,000 and more, depending on specialty areas. Oral and maxillofacial surgeons earn the most. In Tennessee, the median salary is $130,600 per year.

Dentists primarily work in private practices and dental offices. About 13% of dentists are self-employed and small business owners. Some dentists work in hospitals and other types of medical centers. About 3% of dentists work for government agencies.

Everywhere people live, dentists are in demand, so you should be able to find a position anywhere in Tennessee. Of course, you will find more opportunities in larger population centers, including Nashville, Memphis, Knoxville and Chattanooga.

The path to becoming a dentist is at least four years long, but it has a great return on investment. Dentists earn a good income, are in demand and enjoy job security, and make a real, positive difference in the lives of their patients. 

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