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Oral Surgeon Career Guide

What is an oral surgeon?

An oral surgeon is a specialized type of dentist who focuses on performing surgery to treat issues with your mouth, jaw, or face. Oral surgeons perform some of the same functions as a general dentist, such as tooth extractions, including wisdom teeth, but they also perform more complex surgeries, including biopsies of soft tissue, removing tumors, jaw realignment, positioning implants, repairing soft tissue, and reconstructive surgery after an accident. They may also perform surgery to help alleviate breathing or sleeping issues. 

Oral surgeons treat cancers of the mouth, neck, and head as well. Other issues these surgeons handle include facial infections, removing lesions, cleft lips, cleft palate, and nerve repair. They also perform surgical treatments of the muscles, skin, and bones of the face such as chin surgery, cheekbone implants, ear surgery, skin treatments, and other cosmetic surgeries. These surgeons administer anesthesia as part of their procedures, which might be localized anesthetics to one area or general anesthesia. 

Patients are often referred to oral surgeons by dentists if the patient needs work done that requires surgery. They work closely with other medical professionals such as ENTs (ear, nose, and throat doctors), general dentists, and pediatricians.

Qualifications and eligibility

Oral surgeons must complete a minimum of four years of undergraduate school, followed by an accredited four-year dental school program. While in dental school, students learn anatomy, physiology, biochemistry, pathology, pharmacology, microbiology, radiology, pathology, periodontics, oral surgery, orthodontics, pediatrics, oral pathology, and oral histology. Some of the top dental schools for oral surgery include:

They also have to complete a residency program in a hospital or clinic where they gain practical experience in dentistry, including how to diagnose and treat patients. A residency is typically three years long and includes one year of clinical training and two years of clinical practice. 

After completing dental school, oral surgeons must pass the National Board of Medical Examiners Examination to be licensed in the state in which they intend to work. This exam tests the knowledge and skills required to be a competent surgeon. Additional certifications may also be required and can differ by state. 

These surgeons must be good communicators to explain procedures to patients in a way they can understand and address any questions or concerns they may have. They also work with a medical team that typically includes anesthesiologists, dentists, dental assistants, and nurses. They must be able to work well within the team and effectively explain treatment options and procedures so everyone on the team is on the same page. 

Oral surgeons perform intricate surgeries and need a steady hand and technical proficiency to be successful. They use specialized tools and must be knowledgeable in their use. 

They also should be compassionate and empathetic toward patients. The mere thought of oral surgery is frightening to most people, and this professional should have the ability to calm patients’ fears and put them at ease. This is especially true for surgeons who perform procedures on children. These surgeons are also good problem solvers, assessing the problem a patient faces and choosing the right solution to fix the issue. They also face challenges during and after surgery and need to quickly and efficiently solve those problems. 

Work environment

Oral surgeons work in well-lit, clean, and sterile environments. They typically work in private practices, although some may work in hospitals or dental schools. They might work four or five days a week and typically see patients during regular office hours. However, they may have to work evenings and weekends on occasion to accommodate patients’ schedules or perform emergency surgeries. The workday can often be long and the work physically and emotionally demanding as surgeries can last for hours. During surgery, these individuals have to stand for long periods and have to wear protective equipment, including gloves, masks, and goggles, to guard against exposure to blood and other bodily fluids.

Typical work hours

Most oral and maxillofacial surgeons work regular schedules and 40-hour weeks. Their work is generally split between surgeries and office hours. Because surgeries are scheduled in advance they don’t typically work nights and weekends, but they may have to in case of an emergency. 

Types of oral surgeons

The most common type of oral surgery is tooth extraction, but there are a variety of different surgeries performed. Some common surgeries include:

  • Tooth Extraction – they perform millions of tooth extractions every year due to wear and tear or decay that may cause a tooth to break or get infected. 
  • Wisdom Teeth Removal – wisdom teeth are additional molars that typically emerge around the ages of 17 to 20. Many times, they come in fine and present no issues. However, they can often crowd against nearby teeth or fail to fully emerge. In these cases, an oral surgeon can remove them.
  • Dental Implants – these surgeons put dental implants in patients who generally have lost many teeth, have poor bone structure, or have lost a tooth in a very visible location. 
  • Throat Exam – patients with sleep apnea or other disorders can experience dangerously low oxygen levels when they sleep. These professionals can help current this by altering the structure of their jaw, palate, or upper airway. 
  • Apicoectomy – they perform apicoectomies when a root canal procedure can’t reach the tip of the tooth’s root. An apicoectomy involves removing the tip of the root and filling the space with inert material.
  • Facial Reconstruction – these surgeons perform facial reconstructions for any number of reasons, including a break of facial bones or jaw, or knocked out teeth, typically from an accident. They restore function and appearance to the face, jaw, and oral cavity. Facial reconstruction can require multiple surgeries over many months or even years at times. 
  • Corrective Jaw Surgery – this surgery, also known as orthognathic surgery, is performed to fix a range of dental and skeletal irregularities, such as a misaligned jaw. 
  • Cleft Palate or Lip – plastic surgeons typically perform cleft palate surgery on children, but these professionals with specialized training also perform these surgeries. Children with cleft palates have an opening in the roof of their mouth, whereas those with cleft lip have a turned-up front lip. Some children have both. 
  • Bone Grafting – they perform this surgical procedure when a patient does not have sufficient jaw bone tissue due to failure to replace a missing tooth or a dental condition that deteriorates jawbone tissue.

Income potential

The earning potential for an oral surgeon can vary greatly depending on geographic location, education, experience, and acquired skills.  

  • According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual wage for oral and maxillofacial surgeons was $237,570 in May 2019. 
  • The average salary for oral surgeons in the United States was $301,700 as of August 2022, but the range typically falls between $281,900 and $329,600.  
  • As of August 2022, the average annual pay in the United States is $307,569 a year. Annual salaries run as high as $401,000 and as low as $54,500. The 5 states with the highest annual pay are listed as:
    • New York – $365,034
    • New Hampshire – $346,085
    • New Jersey – $319,124
    • Wyoming – $317,733
    • Arizona – $317,312
  • The bottom 3 states are:
    • Texas – $243,303
    • Louisiana – $240,252
    • North Carolina – $223,568
  • USNews lists the best-paying cities as:
    • Washington, District of Columbia – $272,110
    • Grand Rapids, Michigan – $264,030
    • Reading, Pennsylvania – $254,370
    • Philadelphia, Pennsylvania – $253,380
    • New York, New York – $228,190

Position trends

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects a 7.7% employment growth for oral and maxillofacial surgeons between 2020 and 2030. In that period, an estimated 400 jobs should open up, mostly in dentist offices, other medical offices, hospitals, and universities. 

Career path

Most oral surgeons move into private practice after they have completed their studies and obtained their certification and state license. However, other opportunities do exist. Some areas this type of surgeon might pursue include:

  • Teaching at a dental school
  • Research and development of new and cutting-edge treatments and procedures
  • Military service at any branch of the Defense Department where you might work throughout the U.S. and the world
  • Oral surgery management, where you can help drive innovation, growth, and operational efficiency for oral surgery practices

Steps to becoming an oral surgeon

1. Prepare while in high school

Students should start preparing for a career in oral surgery as early as high school by taking science and math courses to build the foundation they’ll need as an undergraduate and when in dentistry school.  

2. Get a bachelor’s degree

The next step is to complete your undergraduate degree. The most common majors are biology, anatomy, physiology, or related science.   

3. Attend dentistry school

You’ll have to dedicate yourself as an undergraduate to work hard and get good grades so you can be accepted into an accredited dentistry program. Before being admitted into a dental school, you must pass the Dental Admissions Test (DAT). In school, you’ll take classes in anatomy, biology, radiology, periodontology, anesthesia, and health sciences, with a focus on the teeth and mouth. In the final 2 years, you will complete supervised clinical rotations and take oral and maxillofacial surgery as an elective. Dental school typically takes 4 years to complete and earns you a Doctor of Dental Surgery degree, or D.D.S.

4. Get your dental license

To practice as a general or specialty dentist, you must have a state license. The requirements can vary by state, but most require an accredited dental degree and passing the two-part National Board Dental Examinations. The multiple-choice exam covers dentistry-related sciences, anatomy, ethics, and clinical knowledge. Most states also require a hands-on practical exam.

5. Complete your residency

After graduating from dental school, you will need to complete a residency in oral surgery. This is where you will start to focus your training toward a career in oral surgery. You will need a certificate in oral surgery, but it’s not as easy as it sounds. You’ll need to apply to a surgical residency program endorsed by the American Dental Association’s Commission of Dental Accreditation. Residency programs are either 4 or 6 years. A 6-year program includes more rotations and earns you an MD. The 4-year program is the certificate only, and it does not earn you an MD. One program well known for this oral surgery certificate is Texas A&M University.

6. Get certified

After you’ve completed your residency, you will need to sit for a certification exam offered by the American Board of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery. Once you’ve passed the test, you will be able to practice as an oral surgeon.  

7. Complete a fellowship

A fellowship is not required to work, but it’s an opportunity for you to further develop your skills and focus on your specific career choice. Fellowships typically last 2 years.    

8. Maintain your certification

Certification as an oral surgeon is valid for 10 years, in which you must participate in 20 hours of ongoing professional education a year through national meetings, seminars, lectures, special courses, panels, symposia, and self-assessment tools to maintain your certification. Every year, you are also required to provide evidence of professional standing by submitting an Annual Registration (AR). You can view some continuing education courses here.

9. Join associations

Joining an organization can open up a wealth of resources and networking opportunities for you. Here are some of the top organizations:

Tips for becoming an oral surgeon

If you are planning to become an oral surgeon, there are a few things you can do to give yourself a head start.

  • Work hard in school. Becoming a dentist isn’t easy. Becoming an oral surgeon is even harder. Make sure you have a knack for math and the sciences and are a good student, even in high school.
  • Know the commitment. This role can be rewarding, but it takes a lot of time to achieve the goal. Make sure you are willing to put in 12 or more years of study beginning at the undergraduate level to become an oral surgeon.
  • Have a passion for helping others improve their look and function, and a desire and interest in working with the teeth and facial bones.
  • Have compassion and empathy toward people. Patients who visit an oral surgeon tend to be stressed and can be emotional, especially those with more serious issues. You’ll need to be caring and compassionate in dealing with patients. 
  • Develop good communication skills. These surgeons work with a team of assistants and nurses and interact with patients on a daily basis. You’ll need to be able to communicate with your team effectively and explain procedures to patients in a way they will understand.  
  • Think about what type of oral surgery you want to specialize in. You might want to do tooth extractions or something more demanding such as facial reconstruction.  
  • Find opportunities to volunteer at an oral surgeon’s office or in a hospital where you can see what they do and gain insight into the job.

Oral surgeon interview questions to expect

  1. As an oral surgeon, why do you feel it’s necessary to preserve a socket through grafting?
  2. When do you feel it’s necessary for a surgical root removal?
  3. How do you ensure that your workspace remains sterile when performing a tooth extraction?
  4. A patient states that they just had a large breakfast before they’re supposed to have a tooth extraction. How would you handle this?
  5. Do you feel it’s important to speak to the patient before operating? Or, do you prefer your assistants to speak to them? Why?
  6. How familiar are you with maxillary sinus protocols?

Oral surgeon FAQs