A £10,000 debt is the norm for dental school graduates and it could hit recruitment in hospitals and community dental services, says the British Dental Association.
The BDA says dental graduates are being forced into general practice rather than pursuing specialisms or community work because of the need to pay off debts and reluctance to increase debt by further study.
It fears that areas where there are staff shortages could have even greater problems recruiting in future.
The BDA surveyed students who graduated in dentistry this summer.
The average debt was found to be £10,200, a 9.7 per cent rise on the previous year. It is predicting a rise of more than 10 per cent next year.
But the students surveyed have not had to pay fees because they started their degrees before fees were introduced in 1998. The BDA expects a "huge rise" in debt in 2003, when the first fee-payers graduate.
Len D'Cruz, chair of the BDA's student committee, said: "A third of students say that their career choice would be influenced by their level of debt, which means that vital but under-resourced areas, such as research and public health, may miss out."
Louise Derby, who is about to start her fourth year of study at the University of Manchester's dental school, said that she expected to graduate £12,000 in debt. She said her colleagues who are paying fees expected their debts to be at least £15,000.
Ms Derby wants to specialise in orthodontics. She said: "It is going to be difficult to weigh up the options because I want to get out of debt as fast as I can. Specialising would send me further and further into debt."