Everything you need to know about becoming an orthodontist

An orthodontist is a dental professional who is trained to correct irregularities of the teeth and jaw. When a person feels less-than-confident about the way their teeth look, it can have a major impact on their life.

A smile can be a powerful tool to communicate emotions to others, and an orthodontist’s job is to use their skills to ensure that their patients can feel confident facing the world. 

What does an orthodontist do?

Orthodontists examine, diagnose, and treat patients who experience malocclusion, or teeth which are not aligned properly. Orthodontists can close gaps between teeth, correct bad bites, and help prevent dental issues like decay and difficulty chewing from misalignment. 

Said simply, an orthodontist straightens crooked teeth, but their work is actually quite complex. Orthodontists use a variety of devices to move a person’s teeth into the proper position including braces, retainers, aligners, spacers, and bands. The goal of orthodontia is to correct the spacing of a person’s teeth so that each tooth is aligned properly in relation to the jaw. 

Although orthodontists commonly treat adolescents, they can also correct dental problems for adults. When working with children, orthodontists can often identify bite and alignment issues early on as adult teeth come in and work to prevent things from worsening throughout adulthood.

Orthodontists evaluate patients using a combination of X-ray imaging, photos, impression molds, and hands-on examination to determine a course of treatment. Typically, orthodontic care is an ongoing process where patients are treated over the course of several months and up to several years. Monthly adjustments must be made by an orthodontist to slowly improve a person’s bite over time. 

Additionally, some orthodontists perform jaw surgeries to lengthen or shorten the jaw and correct a person’s bite using surgical screws, wires, and plates.

How do you become an orthodontist?

Orthodontists are specialized dentists. To start their career, orthodontists must first obtain a Bachelor’s degree, and then pass the Dental Admission Test in order to apply to dental school. Undergraduate coursework in chemistry and biology are often prerequisites for dental school. Much like attending medical school, dental school admission is highly competitive.

In dental school, future orthodontists will study to obtain either a Doctor of Dental Medicine (DMD) or a Doctor of Dental Surgery (DDS) degree. There, spend four years studying topics like anatomy, radiology, and periodontics, as well as completing clinical training. They also get hands-on practice working with patients. 

After completing dental school, orthodontists will complete an orthodontic residency that lasts two to three years. They receive specialized instruction and training to learn specific orthodontic techniques and practices to safely move teeth into proper alignment and guide the proper development of the jaw, teeth, and facial structure.

Orthodontists who have graduated from an accredited dental school and residency program can become board certified through the American Board of Orthodontics. In the U.S., board certification is not required to become a practicing orthodontist, but it can be helpful to have on a resume for an orthodontist who is just starting out to prove the competency of their skills.

What skills do you need to become an orthodontist?

Much like doctors and other healthcare professionals, orthodontists learn most of the specialized skills necessary to perform their job during dental school and residency. A thorough understanding of dental health, best practices for orthodontia, and the ability to execute orthodontic treatment are essential. 

Problem-solving, critical thinking, and observation skills are used by orthodontists to determine how to best correct a person’s teeth and bite. Excellent communication skills are needed to explain procedures to patients and work with office staff. They work with their hands to manipulate tools and apply orthodontic devices, so hand dexterity is also important. 

Monthly visits mean that orthodontists get to develop long-term relationships with their patients, so a pleasant bedside manner and the ability to show a vested interest in a patient’s well-being is crucial — especially when treating adolescents. The ability to express empathy and show compassion are skills that can serve an orthodontist well. 

What is the average salary for an orthodontist?

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average salary for an orthodontist in 2020 was $237,990. Orthodontists in private practice earn the highest salaries, with an average salary of $255,550 reported to the BLS in 2020.

Orthodontists who work in major metropolitan areas tend to have higher salaries than those in rural areas. Tulsa, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C. were the top-paying cities for Orthodontists in 2020. According to the BLS, the top-paying state for orthodontists to work in is Oklahoma, with an average annual salary of $286,050. 

What is the typical career path for an orthodontist?

The field of orthodontia is highly competitive. The American Association of Orthodontics (AAO) reports that there are approximately 15 applicants for everyone opening in orthodontic residency programs.

Post-residency, orthodontists often start their careers as associates in traditional orthodontic practices or nationwide dental service organizations (DSOs). They work as employees, addressing patient needs and applying orthodontic devices.

Orthodontists can also choose to practice as an independent contractor with a DSO or open their own traditional practice. They manage a staff that assists patients seeking orthodontic care, as well as oversee associate orthodontists. Orthodontists can choose to start their own business or buy out an existing traditional practice. 

Where to find orthodontist jobs?

The BLS lists orthodontics as one of the top 20 highest-paying occupations in 2020. Job market growth for orthodontists is expected to grow by 8% over the next decade, a slightly faster rate than the national average of 4% for all occupations.

Take a look at some of the current job openings for orthodontists on Ladders now.