Should You Study Medicine Or Dentistry? (The Real Answer)

Updated on: December 3, 2023
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Written By Dr Ollie

Every article is fact-checked by a medical professional. However, inaccuracies may still persist.

Being a doctor myself, with a mum who’s a dentist, I feel well placed to help you out!

By the end of this article, you’ll hopefully have got to the bottom of whether you should study medicine or dentistry…

There is no definitively superior career choice when it comes to medicine and dentistry. They’re both highly respected professions that can offer incredibly rewarding careers. Which field a student should pursue will come down to individual preferences and personal aspirations.

Unfortunately with these things, there’s never going to be one easy answer that applies to everyone.

However, in this guide I’ve explored a number of different domains that should hopefully help you land on the career for you.

Is Medicine Or Dentistry A Better Career?

Let’s kick off by thinking about the big picture: which is a better career overall… medicine or dentistry?

This is such a tough question to answer and I really don’t think you can go far wrong with either.

To explain why it’s such a tough question, let’s first look at their similarities:

  • They’re both well paid, respected and rewarding professions
  • They both offer opportunities for life-long learning and career development
  • They both centre around helping others through application of your specialist knowledge

However, there are some significant differences between the two that might help make your mind up:

  • In medicine, there’s a vast array of specialities so you’re almost guaranteed to find an area that interests you
  • In a hospital, doctors can be part of a much larger team that all work together to look after patients
  • As a doctor, you can be privilege to some of the most intimate moments in people’s lives- while making a meaningful difference in them

All of this is not to say that dentistry doesn’t have its own unique and equally inviting draws:

  • Dentistry offers a lot more hands-on practical skills to help patients compared to medicine
  • Dental surgeries can cut through a lot of the bureaucracy associated with large hospitals
  • Dentists can have far more freedom in their working hours and pay compared to NHS doctors

Both professions can take their careers in directions that interest them; be that management, specialism, or part-time work.

I think what it comes down to is this: I’d recommend dentistry if being more practical, independent and entrepreneurial appeals to you and I’d recommend medicine if being a specialist, who works in a team, to make a positive impact on patients’ lives appeals to you.

Medicine Vs DentistryMedicineDentistry
The Better CareerTieTie
Easier To Get Into UniversityX
Easier To Complete CourseX
More KnowledgeableTieTie
Better RespectedX
Paid MoreX

Is It More Difficult To Get Into Medical Or Dental School?

In order to start down the road of either medicine or dentistry, you’ve first actually got to get into university!

So an important thing to think about is whether it’s more difficult to get into medical or dental school?

Statistically, it’s more difficult to get into dental school than medical school. There are 44 medical schools in the UK compared to only 16 dental schools. As a result of the fewer places on offer, dental applicants have to battle a 12:1 competition ratio compared to an average of 3:1 for medical school.

That’s quite a difference! And honestly, it’s a much larger disparity than I was expecting before researching these figures.

In 2021, medical schools across the UK received 28,690 applications- up 20.9% compared to 2020 (source). While the number of spots open for students to study medicine remained the same at roughly 10,000.

Everyone knows medicine is competitive and there’s the data to back it up. But if you think that’s bad, just wait for the dentistry stats:

In 2022, dental schools were only able to take in 1,109 students (source)- having to turn away 11.6 applicants for every place they had available (source).

So as much as it pains me to say as a doctor, I can’t argue with the figures that prove dental school is more difficult to get into.

Aside from statistics then, there’s not much in the way of application requirements that set medical and dental schools apart.

The majority of both will require you to sit the UCAT (an aptitude test that’s sort of used as an entrance exam), both broadly have the same grade requirements of triple-A at A-level and both will need you to have a decent set of GCSEs.

Hint: if academics aren’t your thing, then you may be interested in finding out how you can get into medical school with low grades.

Is It Harder To Become A Doctor Or Dentist?

So, if you’re lucky enough to get a spot at a university to study either medicine or dentistry, your next challenge is getting through the degree!

A hotly contested topic in universities across the UK is whether dental school or medical school is more difficult…

Medical school is generally considered more difficult than dental school; although their challenges do vary. Medical school covers a wider breadth and depth of knowledge, at a blistering pace, while dental school has a considerable focus on more practical skills.

I know, I know, you might be thinking that as a doctor my answer might be slightly biased… and it probably is to be fair but hear me out.

There’s no denying that to complete either medical or dental school is a considerable achievement.

In the early years, they’re also both pretty comparable: lots of theory regarding physiology, biochemistry and pharmacology. Both cover a wide range of material at a high pace with exams scattered throughout to keep you on your toes.

Slightly later on in the courses is where they diverge more. As a dentist, it’s imperative you have the practical skills necessary to carry out your work- be that fillings, extractions or root canals.

Therefore, dental school begins to lean more into this practical element- with more hands-on teaching and testing.

A dental student practising on a plaster model

Now this can be a real nightmare if you don’t have the dexterity necessary, but for the majority of students they’re able to learn the skills with a bit of practice.

Medical school on the other hand continues with their ferocious rate of theory while also adding in more clinical work- such as examinations and simple procedures.

It’s this combination of being tested on previous material while simultaneously having to take on tonnes of new content that can make medical school so challenging.

At the end of the day, it’s all going to be a matter of opinion.

The people we should really be asking are maxillofacial surgeons- people who’ve had to do both medical and dental school!

Do Dentists Know As Much As Doctors?

So I’ve just said that there’s more theoretical knowledge in a medical degree compared to a dental degree.

This might have left you wondering if dentists know as much as doctors..?

Dentists and doctors are both extremely knowledgeable about their respective fields- although the nature of their knowledge may differ. A doctor may have far more specialised knowledge regarding only one particular area of medicine, whereas a dentist will often retain a broader skillset as part of their practice.

As difficult as it is to quantify, I think on the whole it would be fair to say doctors and dentists are both equally knowledgable about their respective fields.

But as I said, it’s that nature of their knowledge that’s different.

Unless you become a general practitioner (a.k.a. GP), as you advance through your medical training as a doctor you progressively get more and more specialised.

When you first graduate from medical school you can work literally anywhere. Subsequently, it becomes only either medicine or surgery, with the final result being you’re an expert in only one field of either medicine or surgery e.g. endocrinologist, cardiothoracic surgeon or emergency physician.

You’re an expert in your field, but you’ll lose a lot of knowledge about things that aren’t a part of your specialty along the way.

Dentists on the other hand generally retain a wider scope of practice throughout their careers.

Now don’t get me wrong, you can still specialise as a dentist. However, a general dentist can broadly perform the same procedures as a specialist- they just won’t have the same expertise in them.

Therefore, compared to doctors, dentists often actually retain a broader knowledge base. Doctors on the other hand more frequently become super specialised in one particular area to the detriment of their more general medical knowledge.

Even with GPs it can be argued they become specialists in general medical problems… but that’s a topic for discussion for another day!

Are Dentists As Respected As Doctors?

Although it might not be your number one criteria, if you’re trying to choose between jobs it would be nice to have one that’s respected by the general public.

So, who’s respected more, dentists or doctors?

Doctors are often more respected than dentists. The reason for this lies in the public’s perception of dentists: as people who carry out painful procedures and are only motivated by money. Doctors on the other hand are seen as caring professionals who aim to improve the lives of their patients.

Now I’ll be the first to say that I don’t think this is fair. But it’s the reality.

Every dentist I’ve ever met has been an incredibly professional, knowledgable and kind person. But that’s not always the way Joe Bloggs sees it.

A dentist looking in a little girl’s mouth

Part of it has to do with the difference in how dental and medical care is delivered in the UK. A doctor in the NHS never has to ask a patient to cough up Β£500 for the chest infection treatment they’ve just prescribed.

After your trip to the dentist, however, you’ll often have to foot the hefty bill for the pleasure of someone poking about in your mouth.

I think doctors also benefit greatly from patients’ rose-tinted glasses.

One of my favourite quotes is this:

β€œThe art of medicine consists of amusing the patient while nature cures the disease.”

Voltaire

For minor illnesses, patients will often get better with just a bit of time. But if they were given some treatment by a doctor while unwell, then the doctor gets all the credit.

With something like toothache on the other hand, it’s often just going to get worse and worse until you get that filling you need.

Which can be weeks if you’re trying to find an NHS dental appointment that’s available near you.

By the time patients get in to see the dentist, they can be so sick of waiting in pain that they don’t give much credit to the dentist that’s just fixed their problem.

Don’t get me wrong, as professions go, dentistry is still an incredibly desirable and respected career.

But I think doctors benefit from just a bit of psychology that elevates them in the view of the general public.

Do Doctors Or Dentists Make More Money?

You should absolutely never say in either your medical or dental school interviews that you’re only doing it for the salary.

However, it’s natural to be curious as to who makes more money: doctors or dentists?

On average, dentists make more money than doctors. Although their incomes are comparable as consultants, dentists make considerably more money throughout their training. Dentists also more frequently move into practice management which can be extremely lucrative if done well.

I’m not going to lie, this one hurts. A dentist at my level of training will have a significantly larger take-home salary.

Although it’s incredibly difficult to pin down average salaries for every level of a doctor’s or dentist’s training, we can use the NHS’s basic pay scales as a starting point. (If you want a more in-depth look at doctor’s earnings then check out this article.)

Immediately after graduating, a dentist’s salary in their first year of work will be Β£33,720.

My first year’s salary as a foundation year one doctor was much closer to Β£28,000. Which I calculate to be a Β£5,720 difference!

However, the real money to be made in dentistry is arguably in practice management. This is when you, as a dentist, actually own the dental surgery as your business.

There is a parallel to be drawn between this and GPs who are partners in their surgery, but because of the fact that dental surgeries can only treat private patients, they can be a lot more lucrative.

Very successful dentists can actually build up chains of dental surgeries that they own. Each one being a private business that’s bringing them in revenue.

Now, this is all a lot easier said than done of course. There’s a huge amount of management and business acumen that goes into enterprises like this.

However, the truth stands that if you want to base your career choice just on which is more likely to land you with a cherry-red Ferrari, then dentistry is your best bet.

Final Thoughts

My mum would have been absolutely thrilled if I’d gone off and studied dentistry, so naturally, I went and studied medicine instead.

For some reason, I think I’m always going to find mouths grosser than the body parts we have to deal with as doctors.

But there we go.

If you’re trying to decide which you should study at university, then I do think it’s a win-win scenario for you.

I’m confident you’d have a great time studying medicine and a great time studying dentistry.

But if you want my entirely unbiased and truthful opinion that has nothing to do with me being a doctor… then I’d say study medicine!

About the author
After studying medicine at the University of Leicester, Dr Ollie now works as a junior doctor in London. His interests include medical education and expedition medicine, as well as having a strong belief in the importance of widening access to medicine.