Dentists of Tomorrow 2020:  An Analysis of the Results of the 2020 ADEA Survey of U.S. Dental School Seniors Summary Report

ADEA Education Research Series | Issue 1 | March 2021

Emilia C. Istrate,
Ph.D., M.A.I.S., Franc J. Slapar, M.A., Monisha Mallarapu, M.S., Denice C.L. Stewart, D.D.S., M.H.S.A., Karen P. West, D.M.D., M.P.H.

 In This Issue:    Finding 1  |  Finding 2  |  Finding 3  |  Finding 4  |  Finding 5ADEA Dashboard

This report summarizes the key findings of the Journal of Dental Education article “Dentists of Tomorrow 2020,” an analysis of the results of the American Dental Education Association (ADEA) Survey of Dental School Seniors, Class of 2020 (henceforth called “the ADEA 2020 survey”).

This study examines the journey of U.S. dental schools’ predoctoral senior class of 2020, from influences on and their motivations to pursue careers in dentistry, aspects of their dental school experiences, to plans upon graduation and the investment in their careers. Whenever feasible, the answers of the 2020 survey respondents were compared with their 2015 counterparts. Further, this research attempts to better understand the journey of the historically underrepresented and marginalized (HURM) predoctoral senior students, by comparing the responses of the overall response sample with the responses of the HURM students.

Download the summary report in PDF format. PDF

For the full analysis and methodology, visit the Journal of Dental Education.

To access the aggregate data resulting from this analysis, visit the ADEA Senior Student Dashboard.

Download the aggregate data resulting from Analysis of 2020 ADEA Survey of U.S. Dental School Seniors. XLS


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Key findings of the study include:

Finding 1: Decisions Before Dental School

Timing of Decision to Pursue a Career in Dentistry, Total and Historically Underrepresented and Marginalized (HURM) Students Percent of Respondents, 2015 and 2020. XLS

More senior students responding to the ADEA 2020 survey decided to go into dentistry before college than while in college. Almost half of the 2020 respondents (46%) decided to become a dentist before going to college (Figure 1). During college was decision time for a future career in dentistry for 42% of respondents, with the peak of decision-making in the first two years of college. The majority (51%) of HURM respondents to the ADEA 2020 survey indicated they decided to pursue a career in dentistry before college, a higher percentage than the overall response group.

2020 Senior Report Image1

Location was the most frequently cited selection criterion for attending the dental school from which the respondents were graduating in 2020. Either being close to family and friends (42%) or in a place with good weather, good transit, and cultural/recreational opportunities (30%), dental school location featured prominently among the top three reasons for choosing a specific institution. For HURM respondents, recruitment efforts, such as participation in summer/post-baccalaureate educational programs, mattered much more for following a career into dentistry.

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Finding 2: Dental School Experience

Preparedness to Practice, Percent of Respondents Expressing Agreement With Statements Reflecting Preparedness to Practice, 2020. XLS

The respondents to the 2020 ADEA survey indicated a high level of readiness to go into the profession. The ADEA 2020 survey asked participants to estimate the adequacy of clinical experience gained across 14 different areas of education. For 13 of the 14 categories, the majority of respondents reported receiving appropriate/excessive levels of clinical experience during dental school (visit the ADEA Senior Student Dashboard for the full list and data). Direct restorations, extraction, and geriatric dentistry were the top three clinical areas in terms of percentage of survey respondents indicating they had acquired an adequate level of clinical experience.

2020 Senior Report Image2

Most of the senior students responding to the ADEA 2020 survey stated high levels of confidence in their skills across the 15 clinical areas mentioned in the survey (visit the ADEA Senior Student Dashboard for the full list and data). On average, 83% of survey respondents were moderately or highly confident in their abilities gained across the 15 clinical areas included in the survey. The 2020 ADEA survey asked respondents’ level of agreement to 11 different statements that reflected a variety of abilities needed to enter dental practice. On average, 92% of respondents agreed and strongly agreed with the preparedness to practice statements in the survey (Figure 2).

2020 Senior Report Image3

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Finding 3: The COVID-19 Pandemic and Immediate Plans Upon Graduation

Plans Upon Graduation and any Stated Changes to Professional Plans due to the COVID-19 Pandemic, Percent of Respondents, 2020. XLS

The COVID-19 pandemic did not change the professional plans of most 2020 ADEA survey respondents. More than three-quarters (77%) of the 2020 survey participants reported that the COVID-19 pandemic did not affect their plans after graduation. The respondents who reported changes were more likely to mention planning to go into dental practice, and especially into private practice (Figure 3). For those that indicated changes, most of their expressed concerns related to difficulties around finding jobs or retaining previous offers, licensure exams, and starting residency programs. Students’ perceptions were likely impacted by the timing of the ADEA survey, as the data were collected between April 15 and June 30, 2020.

2020 Senior Report Image4

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Finding 4: Decisions after Dental School Graduation

Immediate Professional Plans Upon Graduation, Percent of Respondents, 2015 and 2020. XLS

Senior predoctoral students responding to the ADEA survey increasingly planned to attend advanced dental education programs upon graduation in 2020. Between 2015 and 2020, the share of survey respondents who expressed plans to enter advanced education immediately after graduation increased from 35% to 40%. In 2020, half of all HURM respondents indicated plans to enroll in advanced education, up from 40% five years earlier. Respondents planning to pursue graduate dental programs were increasingly more interested in general dentistry programs (GPR and AEGD) than specialties.

2020 Senior Report Image5

Entering private practice remained the favorite professional choice for senior predoctoral students responding in 2020 to the ADEA survey. Almost half of 2020 respondents (49%) planned to work in a private practice upon graduation. Only 37% of 2020 HURM survey participants stated they planned to join a private practice upon graduation. Almost a third of the 2020 overall respondents who planned to go into private practice immediately upon graduation intended to join a Dental Service Organization (30%).

2020 Senior Report Image6

Meanwhile, the percentage of survey respondents intending to practice dentistry in federal government service almost halved, largely due to a decline in plans to join the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps and the military. A small percentage of respondents (2%) planned for other career opportunities, such as practicing in a not-for-profit clinic (0.8%), a state or local government clinic (0.3%), teaching in a dental program (0.3%), other positions in dentistry (0.3%) or a position not related to dentistry (0.3%).

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Finding 5: Investment in a Career in Dentistry

Sources of Funding of Dental Doctoral Education, Average of the Percentage of Each Funding Source as Stated by Respondents, 2015 and 2020XLS

Grants and scholarships were a larger source of funding for dental doctoral degrees in 2020 than five years ago. On average, ADEA 2020 survey respondents financed more than half of their dental education through loans (58%), the rest covered to a large degree by a combination of scholarships (18%) and financial support from close ones (15%) (Figure 5). Respondents to the 2015 ADEA survey reported a higher proportion of loans (68%) and less grants and scholarships (9%) than their 2020 counterparts. Federal loans persisted as the top source of debt financing for dental school education.

2020 Senior Report Image7

The average educational debt (dental school and predental educational debt) for the senior students with debt recorded an upward trend over the past five years. Between 2015 and 2020, the average educational debt for those with debt rose by 3.4%, more for the respondents attending public schools (4.3%), and less for survey participants attending private and private state-related schools (2.9%).

2020 was a difficult year for everyone in the United States and abroad. In these uncertain times, a new generation of dentists graduated from the 66 accredited U.S. dental schools in the 2019-2020 academic year. 

2020 Senior Report Image8

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The aggregate data resulting from this analysis is available through the ADEA Senior Student Dashboard.

Download the Aggregate Data Resulting from Analysis of 2020 ADEA Survey of U.S. Dental School Seniors. XLS

For more information contact:

Emilia C. Istrate, Ph.D, MAIS.
Senior Vice President of Policy and Education Research

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