How To Become an Orthodontist

October 12, 2023


Reviewed by:

Akhil Katakam

Third-Year Medical Student, Lewis Katz School of Medicine at Temple University

Reviewed: 10/11/23

If you’re interested in working in the dentistry field but want to specialize in corrective treatment and adjustment, read on to learn more about how to become an orthodontist.

There are several types of physicians that tend to specific parts of the body. For instance, there are neurologists, cardiologists, dermatologists, and numerous other “ologists.” Similarly, there are different types of dentists that concentrate on certain dental issues! One type of dentistry specialty is orthodontics. 

These specialists largely focus on mal-positioned teeth and how to fix them to give their patients the perfect smile! If this sounds like your dream career, this guide will tell you everything you need to know about orthodontists, including the steps involved in pursuing this profession, an orthodontist’s daily duties, and their average salary.

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Steps To Becoming an Orthodontist

As you begin the journey of working towards a career in orthodontia, you’ll probably have several questions. One of your first questions will likely be, “how long does it take to become an orthodontist?”

Considering orthodontists are essentially advanced dentists, you can expect the process to be lengthy! To be exact, it will take about a decade to become an orthodontist.

Here’s a breakdown of the steps involved.

Step One: Obtain an Undergraduate Degree

The first step on your journey to orthodontia is completing an undergraduate degree at an accredited university. While the majority of dental schools have no preference over the major you choose, science degrees are common because of the biology and chemistry prerequisites you’ll need to complete before enrolment. 

Since dental schools are highly competitive, it’s imperative you maintain a high GPA throughout your undergrad to maximize your chances of getting into your dream dental school. You should also partake in various extracurriculars that can help boost your dental school application.

Volunteer or work experience in a dental clinic or office can make your application stand out, but if you aren’t able to gain this type of experience, having any experience in a healthcare setting can be useful.

Having customer service experience can also help boost your resume. As an orthodontist, you’ll have to collaborate with other professionals and your clients to ensure they are satisfied with the final outcome of their dental adjustments, so strong interpersonal skills are required.

To gain better insight into the types of opportunities that are available to you as an undergrad student, you should consider joining your school’s pre-dental club!

Step Two: Write the DAT

To apply to dental school, you’ll have to write the DAT. This test was specifically designed to assess students’ potential to do well in the field of dentistry. Unlike the MCAT, the DAT does not only test student’s reading comprehension, reasoning, and scientific knowledge. It also tests students’ perceptual abilities.

This section is typically the most challenging because it tests students’ spatial visualization skills by asking them to interpret two-dimensional representations of three-dimensional objects.

The DAT is one of the most important parts of your dental school application, so ensure you create a comprehensive schedule and review study tips to help you reach your target score!

Step Three: Go to Dental School

Once you’ve gotten into your dream dental school, you’ll spend the next four years completing a rigorous curriculum and clinical training. You should also maintain high grades in dental school to ensure you’re able to join a good residency.

You can either complete a Doctor of Dental Surgery (DDS) or a Doctor of Dental Medicine (DMD) for this step. These degrees are the same and are held to the same educational standards.

Step Four: Pass the NBDE

Once you’ve finally completed all of the necessary education, you can write the National Board Dental Examination (NBDE) to gain the licensure to practice as an independent dentist. 

Depending on where you live, you may also have to write state exams before you begin practicing. Passing this exam is not only necessary for you to become an official dentist, but may also be required to pursue postgraduate specializations. 

Step Five: Complete a Dental Residency

Once you’ve completed your DDS or DMD and licensing exam, you are qualified to practice general dentistry. However, in order to pursue a career in orthodontics, you must complete an orthodontic residency to gain specialized training.

These residency programs typically take at least two years to complete, with some programs taking up to five. 

These residencies are highly competitive, and there are far more applicants than there are available positions. In fact, there are about 15 applicants to every residency opening. This means students must maintain high grades, have stellar extracurriculars and work experience, and make strong connections to ensure they stand out.

What Does an Orthodontist Do?

An orthodontist's main responsibility is to solve alignment or bite problems. This involves the following:

  • Diagnosing teeth and jaw irregularities
  • Aligning teeth and jaws
  • Applying braces, Invisalign, and retainers
  • Treating overbite and underbite
  • Correcting teeth placement (too far apart, overlapping, crooked)
  • Performing jaw surgery involving wires, surgical screws, and plates to support the jaw bone
  • Improving facial symmetry 
  • Easing the pain from temporomandibular joint disorders (TMJ)
  • Placing orthodontic expanders to widen the jaw
  • Performing and reading dental x-rays
  • Performing and reading panoramic x-rays
  • Creating impressions and molds of teeth

There are regular orthodontists and dentofacial orthopedics. The latter focus on guiding facial growth and development, typically when the patient is still a child. These dentists use appliances and corrective surgery to ensure the patients’ bones grow to be the right size and shape and in the right position. 

Orthodontists typically work in dental offices but may also work in general or surgical hospitals. 

Orthodontist Career Outlook and Salary

Another question you might have about this career is, “how much do orthodontists make?”

Considering you’ll be spending over a decade in school, it’ll come as a relief to know that you’ll be well compensated for the time and money you put into your training.

Orthodontists’ average salary is $216,320 a year.

With an 11.8% projected employment rise within the next decade, this career will grow in demand. Orthodontia is especially needed in rural areas, where there is a shortage of healthcare providers in general.

FAQs: Becoming an Orthodontist

For any remaining questions about how to become an orthodontist, read on to find your answers.

1. How Long Does It Take To Become an Orthodontist?

It will take at least 10 years to become an orthodontist: four years to complete an undergrad, four years to complete dental school, and at least two years to complete an orthodontic residency.

2. Do Orthodontists Go To Medical School?

No, orthodontists go to dental school, which is similar to medical school because it also involves an extensive curriculum and considerable clinical training.

3. Is Being an Orthodontist Hard?

Getting the right education and training ensures these professionals are well prepared for their orthodontic careers. However, completing this training can be challenging. 

There will be fierce competition along the way, including when you’re trying to get into dental school, and especially when you’re trying to get into an orthodontic residency.

4. How Much Do Orthodontists Make?

Orthodontists make about $216,320 a year on average.

5. Where Are Orthodontists Paid the Most?

Orthodontists are paid the most in Maryland, where the average salary is much higher than the national average. In Maryland, orthodontists have a median salary of $336, 720

6. Do Orthodontists Perform Surgery?

While orthodontists do their best to avoid surgery to be as minimally invasive as possible, they are trained and certified to perform surgery. Orthodontists will first attempt to realign or adjust the teeth and jaws using orthodontic devices such as braces, wires, or retainers, and typically only perform surgery if these devices fail. 

7. Do Orthodontists Make More Than Dentists?

Yes, because orthodontists require more specialized training than dentists, they earn more. Dentists make almost $100,000 less a year on average, with a median salary of $159,530 per year.

Final Thoughts

Now that you know how to become an orthodontist and what the job entails, you should be able to decide if this career is the right fit for you. If you’re up for the lengthy journey involved in joining this profession, rest assured it’ll be well worth the hard work!

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