How to Become an Orthodontist

by Dr. Joseph Thompson

Orthodontic BooksYou’ve been to your orthodontist for many appointments and you thought, wow, this would be a great job. I want to be an orthodontist.

Many people, who have had braces, get to see their orthodontist at work.  They like their orthodontist and think their job is a fun job.  They wonder how a person becomes an orthodontist.  Here is some information about becoming an orthodontist in the United States.

Orthodontic Specialists are professionals who have studied the art and science of orthodontia.  Orthodontia is the study and treatment of malocclusions due to irregular tooth positions and/or adverse jaw growth.  Orthodontia comes from the Greek.  “Orthos” meaning proper or straight and “odous” meaning tooth.  Many hours of study are required to obtain this occupation.

The college degrees an orthodontist will have are as follows.  First, a person obtains their Doctor of Dental Surgery (DDS) or a Doctor of Medical Dentistry (DMD) degree from an accredited dental school.  A DDS and DMD degree are considered the same.  Then the dentist applies to an orthodontic graduate program to obtain a Masters of Science (MS) degree in orthodontics.  Therefore, every Orthodontic Specialist is a dentist that has gone through dental school.

If you are considering orthodontics as an occupation, you have to consider some questions before starting the path of becoming an orthodontist.

Do You Want to Be a Dentist?

The first question that you have to ask yourself is, do I want to put in the time, money and effort to becoming a dentist and then a specialist?  It takes a long time and many hours of study to become an orthodontist.

An average number of years to become an orthodontist is 10 to 11 years after high school graduation.  That would be 4 years of undergraduate, 4 years of dental school and 2 to 3 years of an orthodontic graduate program.  Yep, that’s right.  It is possible that when you go to your ten year high school reunion, you may have just graduated from your orthodontic graduate program and have just started seeing your first patients in your practice.

Do you have the patience and manual dexterity needed as a dentists?  Dentists work on very small areas that are hard to reach and you have to have the manual dexterity to perform the work.  It is a wise idea to do crafts or play musical instruments, that use your hands to develop your manual dexterity.

Do you mind working with the public?  Are you a people person?  Students who are introverted have to overcome their fear and get out of their comfort zone to react with people.  Dentists as a whole are outgoing and motivated to set goals and obtain them.  You can’t be lazy if you are going into dentistry.

Do you want to run a small business?

Almost all dentists and orthodontists are small business entrepreneurs.  We have to wear different hats all the time.  Our responsibilities cover areas of patient care to the light bulb that needs to be replaced.

We take all the risks of small business ownership, whether good or bad.  Our success and profit can change due to new regulations or legislation.   So not only are your taking care of patient treatment, but you are doing all the things a small business owner performs from hiring to firing, payroll, taxes, continuing education, complying with government regulations, accounts payable and accounts receivables.

Dentists usually run a very profitable business model and control their costs well.  Although a dental school education doesn’t completely prepare the dentist for business, dentists learn quickly or become an associate in a group practice to learn the business.

Undergraduate Education

After high school graduation, a person needs to major in an area that would be conducive to applying to dental school.  Most go into Health Sciences, in the College of Science, and would major in biology or chemistry.

During this time, you need to get information from the dental school that you want to apply for acceptance.  All dental schools have a brochure or booklet that outline the requirements for application to dental school.  Most dental schools require certain biology and chemistry courses before application.

They also may require that you take a Dental Aptitude Test (DAT).  The DAT is given at certain times of the year and you can find out more information at the American Dental Association DAT page here.  If you are not happy with your DAT score, you can take it again.  There are also study guides that can help you understand what the test covers and gives practice tests.

One area of the DAT that is a little different from other tests is that it measures your three dimensional reasoning and perception.  Certain test questions will ask you to manipulating 3D objects in your mind and select the correct answer.

Once you have all the requirements to apply to a dental school, then do so.  You may be able to get into dental school after three years of undergraduate school.

Each dental school has their set number of students that they will admit each year.  A certain number of students will be in-state, foreign exchange and out of state with a ratio of 50/50 male to female mix.

If you are considered for a dental student slot, an interview with the admittance committee will be given.  Good undergraduate grades and a good interview are needed for acceptance.

Dental School

Once, admitted to dental school, congratulations.  You have just begun.  Dental school is an intensive four years of full time study.  Your lectures and patient appointments will be from 8am to 5pm.  After 5pm a dental student will do their lab work, and then study for the next day’s classes.  Your days as a dental student will be very long.

During the first years, your main concentration will be in the class room.  As you progress through the years, you will be assigned patients that have dental problems that you correct.  This would include all areas of dentistry from crowns to dentures, from periodontal disease to pediatric dentistry.  Usually the dental student has to make all the appointments and perform all the lab work.

Orthodontic Graduate Program

Dental Mouth MirrorOnce you have graduated from dental school, you can apply to one of dentistry’s specialties.  Some recognized specialties include oral surgery, prosthodontics, periodontics, endodontics, pedodontics and orthodontics.  This is not a complete listing of all the specialties.

It is difficult to gain acceptance into an orthodontic graduate training program.  Some dental schools will admit 40 to 50 students per year into dental school, whereas an orthodontic graduate program may only take 3 students per year.  Therefore the competition is high for each open slot.  Some dentists will apply numerous times and are not accepted.  Being ranked in the top of your dental school class, gives you a greater chance of being accepted into an orthodontic program.  So high grades are very important.

During the orthodontic program, along with your course work, you will be assigned orthodontic patients.  Almost all graduate programs require a masters thesis for your degree.  Again, the residency program requires long hours from 8am to 5pm and then lab work and study after 5:00.

The Orthodontic Practice

After you graduate with your Masters of Science in Orthodontics, you can apply to the state in which you want to practice for a specialty license.  Once you are licensed in the state, you can hang your shingle out and start your practice of orthodontics.

An orthodontic practice is usually fast paced with many patients seen in a day.  The orthodontist uses multiple chairs in an open bay area to see this number of patients quickly since small adjustments do not take a long appointment time.  The practice is usually very efficient with their time and resources.  Orthodontics is demanding mentally and physically.

Most orthodontists and dentists only work four days per week.  They usually take off Fridays with Wednesday as their second choice.  Remember, you have the choice of what type of practice you want.  You can have a large staff and work a lot of hours or you can have a small staff and work as little as you want.  Dentistry gives you that option.

These are some of the insights in becoming an orthodontist.  Remember, hard work can pay huge dividends in the long term.  You have to work and study hard to become an orthodontist.

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