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Career Spotlight: Orthodontics

Over a decade of schooling is required to become one of these specialized dentists who correct teeth alignment, improving oral development as well as their patients' self-confidence.

Over a decade of schooling is required to become one of these specialized dentists who correct teeth alignment, improving oral development as well as their patients’ self-confidence.

Students who’ve ever had crooked or crowded teeth may already be familiar with orthodontists and the work they do. What they might not realize is that learning to apply braces can be as challenging as having to wear them. But the end result is also similar—extremely gratifying and well worth the time and financial commitment.

Future orthodontists can look forward to promising employment projections, flexible work schedules, and high salaries. They may work in medical centers with a team of dentists or run their own private practices, in which good business management skills are essential. Orthodontists should also be excellent communicators and be able to work with people of all ages, especially nervous or unenthusiastic patients.

Duties

Orthodontists identify and treat teeth, bite, and jaw abnormalities to help improve a patient’s personal appearance, speech patterns, and facial function. After taking X-rays, creating plaster molds, and examining dental records, orthodontists devise customized plans to correct any malocclusions (misalignments). They design, fit, and apply dental appliances such as braces, retainers, spacers, and headgear with the help of an assistant. They also supervise periodical check-ups to track individual progress and make adjustments until a patient’s treatment is complete.

Training

Prospective dentists often study a science like biology or chemistry as undergrads, but dental schools accept students of all majors. However, many schools have prerequisites such as certain science courses, so it is important to fulfill all requirements before applying. Students must also score well on the Dental Admission Test (DAT), which can be taken multiple times.  

Once admitted to dental school, students spend four years learning in classrooms and gaining hands-on experience, treating patients in dental clinics during the last two years. Graduates then go on to pursue orthodontics in a specialized residency program that lasts two to three years and often spend additional years in a postgraduate residency. 

Degree required

Some dental schools require a bachelor’s degree upon admission, while others accept students after two or three years of undergraduate education. If a student doesn’t receive their four-year degree, it is usually recommended they complete those studies while in dental school.

Successful completion of a program in a school accredited by the American Dental Association (ADA) results in a Doctor of Dental Surgery (D.D.S.) or Doctor of Dental Medicine (D.M.D.). Students must then enter a graduate program specializing in orthodontics to receive their master’s and pass written and clinical exams in order to become a licensed orthodontist.

Job growth

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics expects employment of orthodontists to increase 16% between 2012 and 2022, the same rate as other dentists and faster than the national average for all occupations.

Median income

Orthodontists earn $187,199 a year on average, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. But this amount can vary depending on factors such as one’s location, education, and years of experience.

Professional organization

American Association of Orthodontists 

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