A popular question from prospective UCAS applicants each year is deciding whether to apply for medicine or dentistry.

Not surprisingly, these subjects overlap in terms of their content, and both require a solid grounding in science, patient communication and regular use of problem solving skills. This means it can be difficult for some individuals to choose which one to apply for.

To help you make an informed decision, let’s define exactly what these two roles are.

Dentist

A dentist’s role is to:

  • Prevent and treat dental and oral diseases
  • Correct dental irregularities
  • Treat dental and facial injuries
  • Give patients dental advice
  • Carry out technically difficult surgical and dental procedures

Most dentists are general practitioners that work with patients in their local community. They also work in:

  • Community dental care
  • Dental public health
  • Hospital dental care
  • Armed forces

Working hours are normally between 8am and 5pm, with salaries for newly qualified dentists working in the NHS starting at £30,732.

To work as a dentist, you will need to complete a dentistry degree approved by the General Dental Council (GDC), which takes five years.

To apply for a dentistry degree programme through UCAS, you will usually be required to have:

  • At least five GCSE passes (grades A-C), including English, Maths and Science
  • At least three A levels, including chemistry and biology, with grade ranges between AAA to ABB.

If you’re studying for qualifications other than A levels, check the individual university entry requirements, as many will accept other courses with certain grades too. If you don’t have any science A levels, some university dental schools offer a one year pre-dental course.

When you apply for a degree in dentistry, you will be asked to complete the UK Clinical Aptitude Test (UKCAT). This admissions test is designed to find out which applicants have the right personal qualities, and skills such as problem solving and decision making, that are needed for this career.

Again, check each university’s website to see if you are required to take this test (many of them do).

As well as a dentistry degree, the following skills and qualities are also required to become a dentist:

  • Good communication skills for dealing with anxious patients and explaining procedures to them
  • Ability to carry out sensitive work in a precise manner
  • Able to concentrate for long periods of time
  • Efficient management skills to lead a dental team
  • Business acumen for running a dental practice
  • Good eyesight and colour vision
  • A strong commitment to the field.

Upon graduating, you must register with the GDC, after which you will undertake a 12 month vocational training placement (known as dental foundation training).

This involves working under supervision at an approved dental practice, and continuing your education by attending lectures and demonstrations at hospital dental departments.

When you have successfully completed this training period, you will work as either a self-employed dentist in a practice owned by another dental professional. From here onwards you will be expected to accumulate at least 250 hours of professional development every five years to remain registered with the GDC.

If you would prefer to work in a hospital setting, you can choose to specialise and elect for further training so you can practice orthodontics or dental medicine.

Doctor

The role of a doctor usually involves:

  • Ensuring the care of a patient is their primary concern.
  • Providing the highest standards of practice and care
  • Giving advice to patients
  • Carrying out minor surgery
  • Diagnosing patients
  • Recommending treatments
  • Prescribing medicine
  • Referring patients to specialist consultants.


Doctors work in both the public and private sectors, either on wards or outpatient clinics.

Your hours will depend on whether you become a GP or a hospital doctor, although basic starting salaries are usually around £27,000, increasing to £30,000 in the second year of foundation training, and then to £37,000 when specialist training commences.

To work as a doctor, you will need to complete a five year medicine degree, a two year foundation programme of general training and then specialist training in your chosen area of medicine.

Entry requirements for medicine degrees vary between universities, but you will usually be required to have at least:

  • Five GCSEs at grades A* or A, including English and mathematics, and at least a grade B in Science
  • Three A levels at grades AAA or AAB in chemistry and either biology, physics, mathematics and another academic subject such as English literature or economics.

Check each university’s website for individual entry requirements, as other qualifications apart from A levels are often accepted. If you don’t happen to hold any science qualifications, you may be able to apply for a six year medicine programme that includes a foundation year.

When you apply for a medicine degree, you will normally be asked to take the UK Clinical Aptitude Test (UKCAT) or the Biomedical Admissions Test (BMAT). These tests are used to check the suitability of applicants for a medical career, by testing mental abilities and personality traits. For further details on these test, please visit the UKCAT and BMAT websites.

As well as a degree in medicine, you will also need the following skills and qualities to become a doctor:

  • A caring personality and a dedication to looking after and helping others
  • Be able to work in a pressured environment and make decisions confidently and quickly
  • Good practical skills for assessing patients, making a diagnosis and performing procedures
  • A passion for science, physiology and anatomy
  • Good communication skills for explaining things to patients, putting them at ease and gaining their trust
  • The ability to lead and manage a team
  • Work to high standards and a commitment to your chosen field

Once you have graduated, further vocational training is required to become a senior doctor or consultant in your field. This includes:

  • A two year foundation programme, where you will work in a clinical environments such as mental health, nutrition and acute illnesses.
  • A two year core medical training – based on your previous two year foundation programme, what you will learn will depend on what field you have chosen to practice medicine in.
  • Specialist training – this stage rests on the area you have chosen to specialise in, but usually takes between four and six years to complete. If you choose to become a General Practitioner (GP), this will take three years.

So what’s the difference between Dentistry and Medicine?

If you are currently facing the dilemma of whether to choose dentistry or medicine, here are the main aspects of dentistry that set it apart from medicine:

1. Manual dexterity skills – these are demanded from all dentistry candidates, as you will always be performing some type of treatment on patients. These can be developed over time, but it’s important you enjoy hands-on work, otherwise you may find that dentistry is not the right career for you. However, by choosing medicine you will have the opportunity to specialise in areas that do not require manual dexterity skills.

2. Carrying out patient treatment while studying – during your dentistry degree, you will gain a lot of practical experience by treating patients for various dental diseases. Initially this will be done using a dummy head, but eventually be able to move on to working with real patients.

3. Length of training – as outlined earlier in this post, both medicine and dentistry require a lot of training, although becoming a doctor generally takes at least 10 years, with a five year medical degree, two foundation years and specialty training that can take between three and eight years. In comparison, becoming a dentist only takes five years (providing you hold the correct A-levels or other appropriate qualifications). If you already have a degree, you may be able to apply for an accelerated dentistry degree, which takes four years instead of five.

4. Specialising – once you have completed your dental foundation training year after your degree, you can go straight into working as a general dentist practitioner if you wish, and therefore not specialise in a particular area. However, there is the opportunity to specialise by undertaking further training if you would prefer.

5. Job options – unlike medicine, there is the chance to open your own dental practice. So if you have an interest in business and/or entrepreneurial mind set, then dentistry might be the better choice for you.

6. Work experience – if you’re still struggling to decide which subject to apply for, try to get some work experience placements in both fields. It’s also a good idea to look at the different roles available in dentistry and what’s involved in each one. These include dental hygienist, dental nurse, dental technician and dental therapist. You may discover at least one or two of these are appealing. Visit the NHS Dental Team Careers website to find out more about these roles.  

While these are main differences between the two subjects worth considering when making your decision, there are several other factors that should be noted about the dentistry and medicine industries.

For both fields, a majority of practice takes place within the NHS, although the proportion of private practice is growing due to the increase in popularity of private medical insurance, which can include dental cover.

For dentists, many are choosing to move into private practice, or at least operate privately on a part-time basis, due to the rigid pay scale set by the NHS. Dental work at an NHS dentist is only subsidised, and the work done on a patient will either cost £18.80, £51.30 or £222.50.

This means the pay received by an NHS dentist is the same if they carry out just one filling or multiple fillings. Any follow up work within two months is covered by the same bill, too.

Many dentists now feel the rules set by the NHS are actually harming the treatment provided, and are generally not beneficial to the industry.

Unfortunately, similar problems are also being seen in medicine, where more patients are asking about private options, due to cuts in the NHS, long waiting lists and limited numbers of treatment options.

The NHS also has a threshold where certain treatments are deemed necessary, meaning patients have to fund operations themselves because they are not considered severe enough to warrant NHS treatment.

From the horse’s mouth

Medicine and dentistry students choose their courses for different reasons, so we decided to speak to some students currently studying these subjects to find out more.

Gemma Redway, a third year dentistry student at the University of Aberdeen says:

“I decided to study dentistry because of the wide range of medical job options available in various settings. This really appealed to me, as did the chance to help people aesthetically and give them back their confidence.”

“The course here at Aberdeen is great – I’ve met loads of interesting people over the past few years, and have got lots of practical experience under my belt. I like talking to patients and find treating them very rewarding”.

Alex Hill is a fourth year dentistry student at the University of Birmingham. He says:

“I’ve always been a very practical person, but I knew studying a pure science degree to work in a lab, or other type of degree that involved practical work wouldn’t satisfy me as much as something like dentistry. I wanted to pursue a hand-on career where my work would have a direct and positive impact on other people’s lives. For example, relieving their pain or making them able to chew food comfortably again”.
“It’s also a plus that all human’s mouths function in the same way, so I can choose to work as a dentist abroad in any country I like when I graduate, and experience a different culture while doing a job I really enjoy”.

Jonathan Oakley is a second year medicine student at the University of Nottingham, and says:

“My decision to study medicine was fuelled by my passion for science. I took Biology and Chemistry at A level, and knew I wanted a stimulating and rewarding career based on science. Taking a medicine degree was a no-brainer, despite the years of studying and training I knew would be involved.”

“As well as the science, I also love meeting new people and helping them out. I knew a career as a doctor would satisfy my thirst for knowledge, and make me feel I was making a positive contribution to society”.

Mia Atwell is a first year medicine student at the University of Glasgow. Her reasons for choosing to become a doctor stem from childhood experiences:

“My Grandmother had a stroke when I was 10, and watching my parents call for an ambulance is something that has always stayed with me. The experience made me want to enter a caring profession where I could help families avoid going through a similar scenario. I felt I could really make a difference to the community by using my medical knowledge to save lives and improve patient’s quality of life.”

“Studying for a medicine degree was a choice also influenced by my fascination with the human body and how it works. It’s great that being a doctor involves lifelong learning about something I love, as well as bringing new challenges every day and a high rate of job satisfaction”.

So whatever your reasons are for choosing either medicine or dentistry, make sure it’s the right one for you, as dropping out of a degree is costly in terms of both time and money.

Making a final decision

Like everything in life, both medicine and dentistry each come with their drawbacks, but they also carry great job satisfaction and other rewards that you could expect from a demanding profession that has taken years of training.

You will also be paid well for both jobs, so it really depends on what you’re looking for in a career.

Some might say that being a doctor is a better path in terms of how rewarding it is, but it is a role that involves long hours, a heavy workload, significant responsibilities and can be fairly stressful at times.

Therefore, if you value your spare time, then dentistry is probably a better option as it offers more of a work-life balance.

Whichever you choose, best of luck with your medicine or dentistry UCAS application!

Further information

If you’re still uncertain about which degree to choose, or just want to carry out some more research before making a final decision, check out the websites below for more details on the medicine and dental industries:

If you have any comments, suggestions or feedback on my post, please leave them below.