Dentistry has long been amongst the highest-paying professions in the United States and worldwide. But as is the case in other high-paying careers, a dentist starting salary can vary a great deal. Primarily, your salary as a dentist depends on your experience in dentistry, as well as where you live.
Dentist Starting Salary
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median wage for all dentists in the U.S. was $156,240 as of May 2018.
Dentists straight out of dental school won’t be making this amount right away, but they can still earn a relatively high salary at about $120,000 per year (PayScale). Your salary as a dentist will vary based on where you live and where you choose to work, but it will always be lower than a tenured or high-level dentist position.
PayScale is a site that operates a real-time, large-scale salary survey for nearly every career path. The site’s salary reports come from real-life dentists who are currently earning salaries, rather than from open job listings.
Based on 1,802 anonymous users, PayScale reports that entry-level dentists with less than five years of experience earn an average salary of $120,00 per year, as of the writing of this article.
Highest and Lowest Dentist Salaries
The BLS report tells us that the median salary for all dentists is $156,240. The report also lists the highest and lowest salaries of dentists, which are as follows:
- The lowest 10% of dentists earned less than $72,840 per year, and
- The highest 10% of dentists earned more than $208,000.
As an entry-level dentist, working for a typical dentist’s office, you’re more likely to fall into, or nearer to, that lower 10% category. However, if you have a specialist degree or live in a popular and high-paying area, you will earn more.
Average Dentist Salary by State
Keeping in mind that your starting salary will likely be much lower than your tenured salary as a dentist, it’s also important to consider your location when calculating potential earnings.
Since states have different costs of living, they also have different wages and salaries for nearly every career. Dentistry is no different, with wages varying between every state and municipality. As a general rule, you’ll earn more as a dentist in larger cities with higher populations. But keep in mind that in these locations, you’ll usually have to pay more for housing and other living expenses, too. The boost in salary doesn’t always mean an increase in spending money.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics lists the following as the highest-paying states for dentists:
- North Dakota
- North Carolina
- New Hampshire
And the top-paying metropolitan areas for dentists are as follows:
- Longview, TX
- Peabody-Salem-Beverly, MA
- Fort Wayne, IN
- Sebring, FL
- Bloomington, IN
Dentist Salary and Specialty and Industry
As a dental professional, you have several options when it comes to your field specialty and your industry. You can choose to be a general dentist as part of a dental practice, or you may want to develop your career as a maxillofacial surgeon, among many other options.
The BLS lists the following dentist specialties and their respective median salaries as of May 2018:
- Oral and maxillofacial surgeon – $208,000+
- Orthodontist – $208,000+
- Prosthodontists – $176,540
- Dentists, general – $151,850
- Dentists, all other specialties – $146,970
The industry or setting in which you work also plays a role in your salary. Here are the top industries for dentists and their respective median salaries as of May 2018:
- Offices of dentists – $161,610
- Outpatient care centers – $146,540
- Offices of physicians – $146,110
- Government – $129,590
Dentistry as a Business
As a dentist, you also have the opportunity to go into business for yourself or with business partners. This can mean more work for you, but also more potential earnings as a business owner and practitioner simultaneously.
If you own all or part of a dental practice, you may eventually have the opportunity to sell the business or your stock in the business when you retire.
An American Dental Association report (2017) lists the average gross billings per private dental practice owner as follows:
- $718,790 gross billings per general practice dentist/owner
- $1,058,630 gross billings per specialist dentist/owner
The median net income for these two categories is:
- $190,000 median net income for general practice dentist/owner
- $300,000 median net income for specialist dentist/owner
As a type of business, the income from a private dental practice can vary a great deal. That means that if you own and run a successful dental practice as a general dentist or specialist, you could potentially earn much more than the above median net incomes. However, as with any other type of business, it also means that the practice could fail and leave you in the red.
Paying off Dental School
One of the biggest reasons people second-guess themselves when they’re considering becoming a dentist is the expense and debt of dental school. But if you budget well and strategize for a successful career, you could still end up well in the black as a starting dentist, even with a substantial debt to pay off.
Average Debt of Dental School
Dental school is one of the most expensive programs you can choose, along with medical school and law school. Over 80% of dental school students in 2016 left school with over $100,000 in debt, and 30% graduated with over $300,000 in debt.
According to the American Student Dental Association, the average dental school debt in 2017 was $287,221.
In addition to this debt, you also have lost earnings while you’re in dental school. If you go into the career market with a Bachelor of Science degree in chemistry, your average expected salary is $71,000 per year (PayScale).
Extrapolating for four years of dental school, that’s a total of $284,000 total lost in lifetime earnings.
Is Dental School Worth It?
With any degree, you have to take a look at how much student debt is too much. With all that debt and lost earning potential, is a dental degree even worth it? The answer is likely yes, based on your high earning potential as a dental school graduate. But the answer also depends on several factors, including where you go to school.
As with any other degree, the amount of debt you take on in earning your dental degree depends on whether you attend a private school or public school. Public schools are cheaper, on average, than private, and they can allow you to take on much less debt while earning your degree.
- The average dental school debt at a private dental school in 2016 was $291,668.
- The average dental school debt at a public dental school in 2016 was $239,895.
If you’re still applying to dental colleges, take some time to decide which type of school is best for you. Whether or not you need to attend a pricier private college will depend on which specialty you choose and where you want to work after graduation.
You can learn more about the cost of dental school here.
How Long Does it Take to Pay Off Dental School?
If you take the average debt of dental school graduates–$287,221—and compare it with the average starting rate of an entry-level dentist, you can calculate approximately how long it will take to pay off your debt from dental school.
Based on your debt load and starting salary, you will need to adjust these figures. You’ll also need to adjust depending on how much other debt you have, and how much you can afford to repay per month.
First, you need to consider student loan repayment programs. If you enroll in the PAYE (pay as you earn) program for federal student loan debt, you can pay an amount based on your salary for 20 years. After 20 years paying 10% of your salary towards student loans, you can have your debt forgiven.
The caveat is that you’ll have to pay tax on the amount you have forgiven.
Here is an example of paying off student loans with the PAYE program:
You owe $300,000 in student debt from dental school. As a new dentist, you’re earning $90,000 per year.
You enroll in the PAYE program right out of school and start paying 10% of your income as soon as you’re employed. This comes out to $9,000 per year or $750 per month.
You pay this amount for five years, after which you earn a promotion and start making $120,000 per year. Your monthly payment on your student loan increases to $12,000 per year or $1,000 per month.
You earn this amount for the next 15 years.
For five years, you paid $9,000, totaling $45,000. Then, for 15 years, you paid $12,000 per year, totaling $180,000. You’ve paid off $225,000 of your $300,000 debt and can have the last $75,000 forgiven.
In its place, you’ll need to add that $75,000 to your year’s total taxable income and have it taxed according to your tax bracket. In this instance, at $120,000 a year, you would be taxed 24% or $18,000 for the forgiven amount alone.
Paying Back Dental School
There are more methods to pay back dental school than the one listed above. Every individual will have to analyze his or her financial situation to determine whether dental school debt is worth the burden and stress.
While your counterparts are potentially earning $71,000 per year with just a bachelor’s degree in chemistry, you’re still in school earning a degree and going into debt along the way.
However, if you play your cards right and go into a successful dental practice, you can quickly earn back those lost earnings and get your loan paid off, too.
Dentist Starting Salary Bottom Line
If you’re considering becoming a dentist, or you already are one, chances are you like helping people and making them feel better. While the starting salary of a dentist is vital in choosing your career path, what’s more important is that you enjoy what you do and will continue to enjoy your work for years to come.
Many dentists and other highly-paid professionals fall into the trap of going into a specialty or industry they don’t love, only for the fact that it pays higher. A higher starting salary can be helpful, of course. But by planning strategically, you can go into the practice you’re passionate about and still earn an impressive living as a dentist.
The average dentist starting salary is among the highest of all professions in the United States, including lawyers. As long as you manage your debt and living expenses, as well as put away money for retirement along the way, you can enjoy one of the most lucrative careers in the country.