The Difficulty of Becoming an Orthodontist

Orthodontists straighten teeth in children and adults.
i Keith Brofsky/Photodisc/Getty Images

The Internet is filled with bright, positive messages about the value of a smile, both for the way it makes you feel and the way others respond to you. Providing patients with a healthy smile is a major part of dentistry, and especially of orthodontics. Orthodontics is the specialty of straightening teeth and jaws, and correcting irregularities in the patient's bite. If you're considering a career in dentistry, orthodontics is a rewarding field. However, it does take a lot of training and hard work.

Undergraduate Education

    Becoming a dentist is much the same as becoming a doctor. You start out by earning an undergraduate degree that gives you the humanities, science and math courses you need to get into dental school. If math and the sciences don't come naturally to you, extra studying will be required. During your junior year you also take a tough exam called the Dental Acceptance Test or DAT, which is taken into consideration by admissions committees. Your marks are important, but dental college admission is seriously competitive and they're also interested in what kind of person you are. Get involved in your community and student leadership, or you might not make the cut.

Dental College

    Once you're in, you'll spend four years earning your dental degree. The first two years are spent mostly on in-depth scientific training in the lab and classroom. The curriculum includes subjects such as anatomy and physiology, histology and other laboratory sciences, microbiology, biochemistry, and pharmacology. If you struggled with your undergraduate science courses, you'll really have to dig in during this stage of your training. During the third and fourth years, you learn practical dental skills by working on real patients. There's no substitute for physical dexterity, and you absolutely have to have those skills. At graduation, you'll also have to pass your state's licensing exam before you can practice.

Orthodontic Training

    If you're set on being an orthodontist, the next step is to go back to school for more education, which usually takes two to three years. Depending on the school and the program, you might get a certificate, a master's degree or a doctorate when you're finished. Some schools offer a combined program that awards both a master's and a doctorate. A master's degree is all you need to practice as an orthodontist, but if you're interested in a research or academic career a Ph.D. might be required. Course work at this level is very advanced, and some programs expect you to perform original research.

Board Certification

    Once you successfully complete your graduate training, you're eligible to practice as an orthodontist. If you really want to make a statement about your expertise and professionalism, you can take it one step further and become board certified. The American Board of Orthodontics administers the certification exams, which include both a written and an oral component. The written exam tests your knowledge of orthodontics through a series of multiple-choice questions. The oral exam is tougher. You present the examiners with full histories of six patients you've cared for, and answer their questions about the cases. If you're successful, you'll become a Diplomate of the board. Diplomates maintain their certification through a program of continuing education.

Your Work

    So you decide to spend 10 to 12 years of your life and a whole bunch of money becoming an orthodontist. At the end of that process, you have a range of career options. Orthodontists can set up independent practices, buy an existing practice or share a clinic with other dentists. If clinical work isn't your thing, you can also provide consulting services to other dentists, go into dental research, teach at a dental college or go to work for a dental-equipment manufacturer. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported a mid-range income of $166,400 per year for orthodontists in its 2011 figures, so you'll do well on most of those paths.

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