Becoming An Orthodontist

If you’re thinking about straightening your teeth or improving your bite, you’ll need assistance from an orthodontist. While you may be familiar with that title, you might not be aware of the credentials this type of dental professional possesses. Simply put, an orthodontist is a dentist who has undergone additional training to become an expert at aligning teeth and jaws.

In the medical field, all doctors undergo basic medical training, then choose a speciality and become experts in that field. Your primary care doctor is responsible for your overall wellness. You see them for routine checkups, and they’re the first stop if you feel or if an unanticipated problem arises. If that problem requires specific attention, they may refer you to a doctor who specializes in that field. Similarly, your general dentist is in charge of your basic oral health. You visit your dentist’s office for routine cleanings, X-rays, and checkups. If you have an achy tooth, you see them first. If you have dental problems that require further intervention, they will send you to the appropriate specialist. Your dentist is typically the one to refer you to an orthodontist if you, like many people, have abnormalities with your alignment or bite.

If your child has had a great experience with orthodontic care, they may wonder what it would take to become an orthodontist someday. Or, maybe you’ve always thought about starting a new career in dentistry. Only 6 percent of dentists successfully pursue this advanced specialty, which requires two- to three-years of training after dental school. If you are contemplating this path, be prepared for at least a decade of college and post-graduate schooling.

Dental School

Before you can begin study in the orthodontic specialty, you must complete dental school and become a fully-certified dentist. Dental school is four years of intense study beyond a bachelor’s degree. An undergraduate degree in a science field is not a requirement for admission to dental school. However, you typically need to complete prerequisite courses in biology, chemistry, and other sciences.

At least one year before seeking admission, dental school applicants must take the Dental Admissions Test (DAT). This exam measures comprehension of scientific principles and general academic and perceptual ability. Schools will take the results of this exam, your college GPA, letters of recommendation, and the intensity of your undergraduate program into consideration when making their admission decision. Most dental schools also require a personal interview as part of the admissions process. This allows the admissions committee an opportunity to evaluate your character and qualifications, and gives you the chance to ask questions about the school and its program.

The first two years of dental school are typically spent in the classroom. Students take courses in health sciences and learn about the body and the diseases that can affect it. Required courses typically include anatomy, physiology, biochemistry, microbiology, pharmacology, and dental-oriented sciences including oral anatomy, pathology, and histology. The last two years focus on clinical study. This is when you’ll learn how to care for a diversity of patients with different needs. At many schools, students rotate through several hospitals, clinics, and health centers. This gives you an opportunity to practice dental medicine alongside other health professionals and health professions students.

After successfully completing dental school, students earn either a Doctor of Dental Surgery (DDS) or Doctor of Medical Dentistry (DMD) degree. Although the titles sound different, the curriculum requirements for the degrees are the same. Each individual dental school decides which degree to offer. Earning either degree isn’t cheap. You can expect to pay anywhere from $150,000 to over $300,000 for dental school, depending on the name recognition of the program and whether it’s public or private school. However, there are plenty of merit- and need-based scholarships available that can help fund your education.

Orthodontic Residency

In the final year of dental school, you can choose to apply to a two- to three- year residency program if you wish to pursue an advanced dental field, such as prosthodontics, periodontics, endodontics, and, of course, orthodontics. Applicants can search for and apply to postdoctoral programs using the Postdoctoral Application Support Service (PASS) and the Postdoctoral Dental Matching Program (MATCH). These systems allow you to fill out one application for multiple programs. Most programs require that you have taken and passed the National Board Dental Examination (NBDE).

Acceptance into an orthodontic residency program is highly competitive. Many dental school graduates apply to this program several times and do not get accepted. According to the American Association of Orthodontics, each orthodontic residency program has approximately one spot per every 15 applicants. Your chances of breaking into the field increase if you graduate at the top of your dental school class. 

During the orthodontic residency program, along with continued coursework, dentists are closely supervised while treating orthodontic patients. This residency period requires long hours—typically an 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. work day, followed by lab requirements and study time. Following residency, you must pass board examinations and become licensed in your state before you can practice. You can also choose to become certified by the American Board of Orthodontists. In order to gain certification, you must pass written and clinical exams. Recertification is required every ten years.

Other Skill Sets Needed

Most orthodontists are small-business entrepreneurs, setting up their own private practices. If you are a private practice owner, you’re responsible for the day-to-day management and upkeep of the office. This means there is more to the job than fixing teeth. To successfully run a private practice you must have strong business acumen and know basic business skills, including human resource and finance management. Usually, orthodontists hire a small staff to assist with these responsibilities so they can focus on patient care. Some orthodontists join together to create a private-practice group, which allows them to divide the responsibilities on the business side.

Being a successful orthodontist also requires good “people skills.” If you want a plentiful practice, you will need your patients to find you friendly, personable, empathetic, and trustworthy. Since many orthodontic patients are children and young adults, you must be able to work comfortably with patients of all ages. A willingness to work as part of a team and the ability to delegate tasks to staff members is also important.

Life As An Orthodontist 

Although the upfront costs can be incredibly daunting, after time, a career in orthodontics can really pay off.

In the field of orthodontics, employment is projected to grow much faster than most careers. There are ample job options throughout the country for orthodontists. Orthodontics also offers plenty of opportunities for growth. With so many technological advances in the field, there is always something new to learn. Through continuing education and special training, you can improve your skills and learn about the latest offerings in orthodontic care. The more up to date you are with the latest technologies and techniques, the more successful you’ll be in the job market.

Most orthodontists have reasonable work schedules, usually working 35–40 hours a week over four or five days. Occasionally, you might have to see patients beyond normal work hours for special appointments or emergency procedures.

Overall, being an orthodontist is about giving patients a healthy and beautiful smile. While the road to becoming an orthodontist can be intimidating and challenging, it can also be very rewarding. If you are passionate about teeth and are interested in helping people look and feel their best, a career in orthodontics may be a perfect fit.


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