The range of compensation in the dental field is enormous. So how do you know what to expect? Especially in evaluating career opportunities, having a pay benchmark is critical for making a good decision. The median pay for dental practitioners nationwide is $190,462, but that median disguises a lot of variation between specialties and different cities.
WHAT AFFECTS DENTAL PAY?
The ongoing absorption of private practices into dental service organizations (DSOs) has had a large effect on compensation. The single-office private practitioner model is still alive and well, but the percentages are declining, while the number of dental professionals working for multi-office and corporate practices continues to climb.
We looked at dental compensation by specialty and by specific metro areas. One effect that may be related to DSOs is the surprising homegeneity of median pay across most specialties and most metros. But, while median pay (the point at which half of compensation packages are higher and half are lower) is pretty consistent, the variations at both ends is huge. On the upside, it seems reasonable that the very highest compensation is going to private practitioners who own larger practices, including multi-office practices. Average high-end pay above $500,000 annually can be seen across metros and across specialties.
On the opposite end of the scale, average low-end pay remains quite modest, with some pricey metros paying beginning dentists less than the average plumber.
Of the seven specialties we looked at, oral surgeons unsurprisingly had the highest median compensation regardless of metro area. There was less variation among the other areas of practice, though general dentists and orthodontists lag behind endodontists, periodontists and prosthodontists. That pattern held true in the 10 metros we studied.
While where you choose to live may not have a large effect on your level of pay, it will have a large effect on how well you can live on that pay. The largest metros were not necessarily the best places for practitioners at the bottom to median parts of the compensation range. When you factor in the cost of living (see Chart 12: Median Dental Pay by City), it’s clear that the big talent magnets like Seattle, Los Angeles and New York offer huge upsides, especially for those who intend to operate their own practices. However, when you factor in the higher cost of living, it turns out the purchasing power of the median dental compensation in those areasis actually below the national average. One takeaway is that, especially for early career practitioners, looking at DSOs in second-tier cities may afford the best lifestyle while also allowing them to pay down educational debt. Think Orlando, Dallas and St. Louis. The skills and experience they acquire can later be parlayed into an opportunity in a larger market more to their liking with entry at a higher level of pay.
While it’s not possible to tease out the effects of all of the things that influence dental compensation, the degree of penetration of DSOs in a market and the demand for services versus number of practitioners stand out as potential factors. The presence of dental schools in an area — and their steady supply of young professionals — may also affect pay.
In the following charts, we used three numbers to sum up the pay scale in each specialty for each of 10 metro areas: Low-average: This is the average compensation of the bottom 25% of earners. Many early career dentists fall into this catgory. Median: This is the median compensation for all dentists in each market, the point at which half earn more, and half earn less. High-average: This is the average compensation of the top earners in each specialty in each metro.