How to Become an Orthodontist in 5 Steps

Explore the career requirements for orthodontists. Get the facts about education, salary, licensing requirements and job growth to determine if this is the right career for you. Schools offering Dental Assisting degrees can also be found in these popular choices.

Career Information at a Glance

An orthodontist is a dentist whose specialty is working with patients to realign and straighten their teeth for functional or cosmetic reasons. The following chart provides an overview about this career.

Degree Required Doctor of Dental Surgery or Doctor of Dental Medicine followed by postdoctorate program in orthodontics
Licensing or Certification All states require dentists to be licensed; board certification in orthodontics is available
Key Responsibilities Conduct examinations, apply and adjust braces or appliances to straighten teeth
Job Growth (2012-2022) 16%*
Average Salary (2013) $196,270*

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS)

What Is an Orthodontist?

Orthodontists are dentists who specialize in straightening teeth. As an orthodontist, you'll use devices such as braces that apply pressure to the teeth and slowly readjust their positions in the gums. It takes several years to become an orthodontist. You'll typically need to spend 2-4 years in an undergraduate program, four years in dental school and 2-3 years in a postgraduate orthodontics program.

Step 1: Complete Undergraduate Requirements and Apply to Dental School

Before you may be admitted to a dental program and train as an orthodontist, you must complete pre-dental requirements as an undergraduate. Most dental programs prefer to admit students with a bachelor's degree, though some will accept students with a minimum of two years of undergraduate education. Required pre-dental courses generally include chemistry, biology, physics and other science courses. You can choose to major in any subject, but since science courses are required anyway, many pre-dental students choose to major in a science, such as biology or chemistry. When you apply to dental school, you'll be required to take the Dental Admission Test (DAT), which is administered by the American Dental Association (ADA).

Step 2: Graduate from Dental School

Dental programs last an average of four years, and upon graduation you'll earn a Doctor of Dental Surgery (D.D.S.) or a Doctor of Dental Medicine (D.M.D.) degree. Your first two years will typically be spent taking basic science courses, such as biochemistry, anatomy, physiology and microbiology. Your final two years will likely be spent gaining clinical experience under the guidance of licensed dentists. During your final two years of dental school, you'll gain exposure to different dental specialties, such as orthodontics, periodontics, pediatric dentistry, prosthodontics and maxillofacial surgery.

Step 3: Complete a Postgraduate Orthodontics Program

After completing a dental program, you'll need to apply to orthodontic specialty programs. One way to apply to these programs is by using the Postdoctoral Application Support Service, offered by the American Dental Education Association (www.adea.org). This service provides a standard format that will allow you to fill out just one application and apply to multiple programs.

Most orthodontic programs last three years, during which time you'll most likely learn about orthodontics (tooth movement), surgical orthodontics and dentofacial orthopedics (guidance of facial development). You may also receive training in research methodology and teaching, complete a research project, attend conferences and prepare case reports. Upon completion of your program, you'll be qualified as a dental specialist in orthodontics.

Step 4: Consider Earning Board Certification

Once you've completed your training requirements, you may consider earning board certification as a means to demonstrate your knowledge and skill in orthodontics. The American Board of Orthodontics offers voluntary certification to orthodontists who pass a written and clinical exam (www.americanboardortho.com). You may take the written examination after completing 18 months of your postgraduate orthodontics program. If you pass the written exam, you qualify to take the clinical exam. You may need to periodically take additional examinations to recertify.

Step 5: Become Licensed

To practice as a dentist or dental specialist, you must earn a license. Licensure requirements are regulated by state, and they usually include graduating from an accredited dental school followed by passing a written and practical examination. To practice in a specialty, such as orthodontics, you'll also need to complete a postgraduate education program and may be required to take an additional state examination. In most states, your license will permit you to practice both general dentistry and orthodontics.

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