A person's teeth are almost as individual as her fingerprints, especially when you include her dental work. Forensic dentists are real-world detectives whose macabre functions include identifying dead bodies from their teeth, estimating the age at death or discovering who bit someone. If this sounds fascinating, you might have what it takes to become a forensic dentist. You'll need a dental degree, additional training in forensic dentistry and a tolerance for tough work conditions.
The American Dental Education Association recommends earning a bachelor's degree before enrolling in dental school, though some programs admit students without a degree. Although you don't necessarily have to major in a science discipline, doing so makes it easier to fit in the required prerequisites. Most dental colleges require two semesters or three quarters each in biology, physics, general chemistry and organic chemistry, according to the ADEA. These science classes must include labs. Some dental schools require additional prerequisites.
Dental school typically takes four years to complete and rewards you with a Doctor of Dental Science or Doctor of Dental Medicine degree. The coursework is heavy on sciences, including pharmacology, microbiology, biochemistry and oral anatomy. You'll also take clinical sections on diagnosing and treating dental diseases. During the last two years of dental college, the emphasis shifts to clinical work. In this phase, you'll help care for patients in clinics and hospitals, working under the watchful eyes of licensed dentists.
Although forensic dentists spend part of their time working with dead bodies, you will probably want to get licensed to treat live patients to improve your job prospects and earning potential. Working on live patients requires a license. The states set their own licensing requirements, but typically you'll need to pass hands-on and written exams after getting dental degree from an accredited dental school.
Although a dental degree is a must, the normal dental curriculum doesn't adequately prepare you for forensic dentistry, according to the American Academy of Forensic Sciences. The AAFS recommends additional training in odontology through professional societies and colleges. For example, you can attend meetings or take classes through the American Society of Forensic Odontology, the New York Society of Forensic Dentistry or the University of Texas at San Antonio. Shadowing a working odontologist is also excellent training, according to the AAFS.
You can improve your job prospects by passing an exam from the American Board of Forensic Odontology to become board certified. To become certified, you must have an accredited dental degree and provide proof of forensics training. Other requirements include having performed a minimum of 30 forensic dental cases. This requirement will increase to 35 cases in June 2014, according to the ABFO.
A forensic dentist needs a strong stomach because she sometimes examines human remains at blood-splattered murder and accident scenes. Other times, she carries out her examination during an autopsy. Seeing gruesome sights on a regular basis can create emotional stress. In addition, you must perform the work with painstaking accuracy and very fine control of your hands. You must also keep detailed and accurate records of your examination, and you can't let personal bias influence your judgment. Because disasters don't follow a schedule, on-call work and long, irregular hours are routine.
- American Academy of Forensic Sciences: Odontology
- Explore Health Careers: Forensic Odontology
- American Dental Association: Forensics in Dentistry
- U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics: Dentists
- American Dental Education Association: Go Dental -- Dental School Admissions
- American Dental Education Association: Go Dental -- Dental School Curriculum
- American Board of Forensic Odontology: Apply
- American Dental Association: Specialty Definitions
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