Short Answer: Sometimes they do, but usually they don’t.
Long Answer: When you go to a dentist in the USA, you may see many things in front of or after their name. There are differences, but for general dentists, the differences don’t add up to very much. We will assume that we are only talking about dentists who are legally licensed to practice and not some horror show dentist that pretends to be one even though they are not:
Unfortunately, there are many examples of things like this. But if they are legitimate, here are some of the things you will see and what they mean to you:
Dr. Bob Smith = All dentists are doctors, you may see them addressed this way by their staff and peers. It doesn’t really indicate anything other than that they achieved a doctoral degree somewhere at some time. My dad has a PhD degree (a doctor of philosophy degree) in engineering. He is not a medical doctor by any stretch, but on his letterhead, he lists his name as Dr. Barniv just like me! People who are unlicensed medical doctors that received their degree in another country could still refer to themselves as “Dr. Smith”. The designation doesn’t really tell you anything.
Bob Smith, D.D.S. = This is a ‘doctor of dental surgery’ and most dentists that obtained their degree on the West Coast have a DDS degree. There are differences, in my opinion, between west coast and east coast dental schools and their corresponding education, but we will leave that to another discussion.
Bob Smith, D.M.D. = This is a ‘doctor of medical dentistry’ and most dentists that obtained their degree on the East Coast have a DMD degree. There is no difference between a DDS and DMD in the eyes of the law. There is essentially no difference between the two degrees for you, the patient.
Bob Smith, D.D.S., FAGD = A dentist with a DDS degree who went on to become a ‘fellow in the Academy of General Dentistry’. This means he pursued extra education in various topics and the AGD (Academy of General Dentistry) recognizes him as achieving a certain level of knowledge. Usually a required amount of continuing education is completed and then tests are administered. A dentist with a FAGD is usually someone who puts priority on their level of education, but it does not necessarily mean they are a better dentist or have special skills. You may also see MAGD at the end of their name which is one step further up the AGD ladder.
You may see many different letters after the DDS besides FAGD which means they are a fellow of some other organization (i.e. they did a lot of studying and took tests in that particular area of dentistry). The designations almost always start with ‘F‘. For example FAACD = Fellow of the American Academy of Cosmetic Dentistry. FAAID = Fellow of the Academy of Implant Dentistry. These designations certainly show that dentist’s dedication to that particular field of study. They are not considered specialists in that field, but you can bet they probably know more about it than the average dentist.
Bob Smith, D.D.S., PC = The ‘PC’ at the end doesn’t mean they are politically correct dentists 🙂 . It means they have registered their name as a “professional corporation”. It is essentially meaningless to you, the patient. If a dental office is listed as an ‘LLC (limited liability corporation)’, ‘Inc. (incorporated)’ or similar, it is also pretty meaningless. It is just another way to list a practice. Most practices limit their liability this way and it has essentially no effect on you.
Bob Smith, D.D.S., MSD = This means they are dentists that have received a ‘Masters of Science in Dentistry’. This dentist has pursued more education at an accredited university and it typically goes along with dentists who are also specialists like orthodontists. You may also see an MS degree which is a ‘Masters of Science’.
Bob Smith, D.D.S., MD = This is a dentist that also has a ‘Medical Doctor’ degree. That is the same degree your family physician has and it is usually awarded to dentists that completed training in oral surgery (oral surgeons).
Unfortunately for you, this list is not exhaustive. There are so many different designations for dentists that even I don’t know what they all mean. The internet is your friend. If in doubt, look it up. Sometimes the letters mean something and sometimes they don’t. I have seen dentists try to make themselves look better by adding more letters that really don’t mean much. For example, you need a bachelor’s degree (BS or BA) in order to get into dental school in the USA. This means you did 4 years of college. A dentist with a DDS degree is assumed to have a BA or BS. But some dentists will write their name Bob Smith, B.S., D.D.S. to make themselves look smarter than they are. I would be weary of someone who writes their name this way. If they wrote their name as Dr. Bob Smith, B.S., D.D.S., then they might have some kind of inferiority complex…
So as always, be alert and look it up if you aren’t sure!