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Orthodontist Career Guide

What is an orthodontist?

An orthodontist is a specialized type of dentist who focuses on diagnosing, preventing, and treating dental and facial abnormalities. They play a pivotal role in the healthcare team, helping patients improve their oral health and overall quality of life. By rectifying dental issues like misaligned teeth and jaws, they enhance not only the aesthetic appeal of a patient’s smile but their oral functionality as well. These dental professionals possess a deep understanding of the growth patterns of the jaw and face, the movement of teeth, and the impact of oral health on a patient’s overall well-being.

Orthodontists have mastered designing and applying corrective appliances like braces and retainers. Using these intricate devices, they correct problems such as overcrowding of teeth, crossbites, overbites, and underbites. Because they deal with a patient’s bite – the way the teeth and jaws align and operate – they often execute necessary interventions that improve the patient’s ability to chew and speak. Correcting such issues contributes significantly to a patient’s self-esteem and confidence.

Duties and responsibilities

An orthodontist is responsible for conducting patient assessments, including reviewing dental health history, carrying out dental examinations, and taking patient X-rays. Together, these tasks allow them to diagnose a wide range of conditions affecting the gums, teeth, jaws, and associated oral structures. They then use this information to create personalized treatment plans for each patient, including braces, aligners, or other orthodontic appliances.

They also play a crucial role in managing the professional team in the dental practice, which could include dental technicians and assistants, replicating dental models and panoramics, and even supervising orthodontic procedures. These professionals also discuss with patients, explaining diagnosis and treatment options in detail. Clear communication aids the patients in decision-making and fosters a trusting and comforting environment.

Work environment

Orthodontists usually work in a clinical setting, often in a private dental office. The environment is typically sterile, clean, and well-lit, with a professional atmosphere. While the job often requires prolonged periods of standing and bending over patients, it also demands a high degree of precision and attention to detail. Multiple appointments and patient consultations require these specialists to be physically present with multiple individuals, including staff and patients, during a regular workday.

Typical work hours

Most orthodontists work full-time, typically around 40 hours per week, with work hours usually set from Monday through Friday. Depending on the practice’s requirements and patients’ scheduling needs, they may also work some evenings or weekends. Additionally, these professionals might need to respond to dental emergencies outside routine work hours. Since they usually manage their own practices, they have some flexibility in determining their schedule.

How to become an orthodontist

This career guide section outlines the process of becoming an orthodontist. The primary steps to this role are centered around higher education and specialized training in orthodontics.

Step 1: Obtain a bachelor’s degree

A bachelor’s degree is generally required for entry into dental school. While no specific major is required, students should focus on biology, chemistry, physics, health, and mathematics coursework to prepare for the DAT and the rigorous dental school curriculum.

Step 2: Pass the Dental Admissions Test (DAT)

The DAT is a standardized exam that assesses your understanding of natural sciences, perceptual ability, reading comprehension, and quantitative reasoning skills. High scores on the DAT are essential for admission into dental school.

Step 3: Complete dental school

After passing the DAT, the next step is to complete a Doctor of Dental Surgery (DDS) or a Doctor of Medicine in Dentistry (DMD) degree program, which typically takes four years. The curriculum includes coursework and practical experiences in dental clinics and hospitals.

Step 4: Pass the National Board Dental Examination (NBDE)

This two-part written national exam is required to obtain licensure. The exam covers anatomic sciences, biochemistry, pathology, microbiology, and clinical dental subjects.

Step 5: Obtain a state license

After passing the NBDE, you must obtain licensure from the state where you plan to practice. This usually involves passing a state or regional clinical licensing exam.

Step 6: Complete an orthodontics residency program

Aspiring orthodontists must complete a postgraduate residency program in orthodontics, which usually takes 2 to 3 years. These programs include advanced study in orthodontic theory and techniques as well as practical clinical training.

Step 7: Obtain board certification

While not necessary for all jobs, many choose to become board-certified. The certification process, administered by The American Board of Orthodontics, involves a written examination and presentation of treated cases.

Step 8: Seek employment or open your own practice

Finally, after fulfilling the educational and training requirements, you can seek employment as an orthodontist. You may also consider opening your own practice, which requires additional skills in business management and operations.

How much do orthodontists make?

Orthodontist salaries will vary based on experience, industry, education, location, and the organization’s size. Compensation can also be affected by specialized skills and certifications, as well as the type of practice in which they are employed, such as private practice versus a corporate dental chain.

Highest paying states

  • Wisconsin – $247,800
  • Nebraska – $243,640
  • Indiana – $237,520
  • Alabama – $235,860
  • North Dakota – $231,070

Browse orthodontist salary data by market

Types of orthodontists

Below, we explore common career types and areas of specialization for orthodontists. This section will help you understand the diverse paths within this profession.

General orthodontist

General orthodontists concentrate on the diagnosis, prevention, and correction of misaligned teeth and jaws. They use equipment such as braces, retainers, and aligners to rectify these problems. Their work revolves around diagnosing oral diseases, promoting oral health, and creating treatment plans to maintain or improve patients’ oral health.

Pediatric orthodontist

Specializing in the dental and oral health of children and adolescents, pediatric orthodontists work to diagnose and treat issues involving the alignment of teeth and the jaw. These professionals often deal with children’s dental developmental issues, including monitoring wisdom teeth growth, managing gum diseases, and correcting prolonged thumb-sucking habits.

Adult orthodontist

Dedicated to attending to the orthodontic needs of adult patients, these professionals specialize in braces installation, correction of malocclusions, and other treatments geared toward improving their patients’ dental aesthetics and functionality. They also work on treatment plans that ensure the longevity and health of their patients’ teeth and gums.

Research orthodontist

Research orthodontists often work in academic or research institutions studying orthodontic treatments’ methodologies, materials, and effectiveness. They contribute to understanding best practices, developing new orthodontic tools and approaches, and the progression of the field in general. They might also teach and mentor aspiring orthodontists.

Orthognathic orthodontist

Orthodontists specializing in orthognathic surgery work on severe cases where non-surgical treatments like braces aren’t sufficient. These professionals collaborate with oral and maxillofacial surgeons to perform procedures that reposition the jaws. They typically deal with conditions that affect the patient’s ability to chew, speak, or breathe properly.

Top skills for orthodontists

This career guide section outlines the skills and abilities that will help you find success as an orthodontist.

Excellent manual dexterity

Orthodontic treatment often requires delicate, precise movements. Thus, having good manual dexterity is fundamental to performing these procedures flawlessly. With dexterity, they can efficiently handle tools in a constrained space while minimizing discomfort to the patient.

Strong analytical skills

To treat misaligned teeth and jaw-related problems, these professionals must be able to analyze and interpret complex dental records. By doing so, they can draft comprehensive treatment plans suited to specific patient needs. Strong analytical skills are a must for diagnosing problems, understanding development patterns, and implementing effective solutions.

Good interpersonal skills

As healthcare providers, orthodontists interact with patients frequently. They must communicate treatment plans clearly and respond to patient concerns with compassion and understanding. Good interpersonal skills foster trust and rapport, ensuring a more pleasant experience for everyone involved.

Attention to detail

In this profession, small nuances can significantly affect the outcome of a treatment. Paying attention to detail enables these dental professionals to spot minor issues before they escalate, ensuring the patient receives the best possible care.

Strong problem-solving skills

Unforeseen issues may arise during the treatment of a patient. In such cases, they must rely on their problem-solving abilities to determine the best course of action that prioritizes the patient’s long-term health while providing immediate relief from discomfort.

Orthodontist career path options

Starting off your journey as an orthodontist provides various career development opportunities. Initially, you might work in a clinic under a senior orthodontist, developing skills and building a portfolio. Eventually, with gained experience and expertise, you have the potential to head your own practice or collaborate with a dental team.

An established specialist in the field can branch out into numerous segments. Tutoring is an enticing option, imparting knowledge and experience to future orthodontists in a university or dental school setting. Some choose to enter research, contributing to advancements in the field and creating more effective treatments for dental and orthodontic disorders.

Beyond general practice, opportunities for specialization exist. These include, but are not limited to, pediatric orthodontics, craniofacial orthodontics, and clear aligner therapy. Deciding to specialize in a specific area means requiring additional education and training. Upon completing this, you can open a practice that focuses solely on these specific services or become a research leader in your field.

As you gain more clinical experience, leadership roles become within reach. These roles won’t limit you to a single job title but will allow you to hold positions of authority. Being the head of a dental department in a hospital, managing your own practice, or directing a research unit are all achievements that come with effective leadership in this field. These positions come with added responsibilities, like supervising junior doctors, managing clinic operations, and making key strategic decisions.

The field of orthodontics is ever-evolving, bringing with it dynamic developments and challenges. In recent years, advancements in dental technology and the widespread use of digital tools have significantly influenced this line of work. The advent of 3D printing, for example, has made it possible for professionals in this industry to create more precise and customized dental appliances, such as braces.

Additionally, the trend of teleorthodontics has been increasingly popular. This approach uses digital technology to provide remote consultations and follow-up appointments, enhancing patient convenience. However, this remote trend brings its own set of challenges, including increased competition in the digital space, implementation of cybersecurity measures, and the need for patient education.

Employment projections

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the employment for orthodontists is projected to grow 6% through 2031. This growth is linked to the increasing demand for orthodontic services as people continue to prioritize their oral health and aesthetics. In addition, the need for these specialists in underserved rural areas also contributes to projected job growth.

Orthodontist career tips

Strive for continual learning

An orthodontist must maintain their skills and keep up with the latest advancements in dental technology. This continuing education will make you a more competent professional and give you an edge in this evolving field. It helps you stay updated with the latest techniques, tools, and procedures, making your practice more comprehensive and efficient. Here are some suggestions:

  • Attend seminars and workshops to stay updated on emerging trends and advanced techniques in orthodontics
  • Subscribe to renowned dental journals and magazines for the latest research, case studies, and other valuable insights
  • Choose elective courses or training in areas that you’re interested in, such as pediatric orthodontics or aligner therapies

Get certified

While it’s not a compulsory requirement, gaining additional certifications in the field of orthodontics can increase your credibility amongst your peers and patients. Certifications like the American Board of Orthodontics Diplomate certification validate your specialized knowledge and enhance your professional standing.

Build a professional network

Building a solid professional network is essential to growing your career. This can help you learn from the experiences of seasoned professionals and gain insights into how other successful orthodontists operate their practices. Here are some professional associations that can help grow your network:

  • The American Association of Orthodontists (AAO)
  • The World Federation of Orthodontists (WFO)
  • The American Board of Orthodontics (ABO)
  • The European Orthodontic Society (EOS)

Offer special services

One way to stand out in your field is to offer specialized services that other professionals may not. For example, you may want to specialize in servicing children or patients with special needs or offering orthodontic treatments for sleep apnea. By focusing on a niche market, you can build a loyal patient base and differentiate yourself from the competition.

Invest in advanced dental technology

Investing in the most recent dental technologies can boost your practice’s efficiency and quality of care. From 3D imaging that offers precise treatment planning to digital intraoral scanners that increase patient comfort and communication, navigating the modern landscape of dental technology can significantly improve your practice and patient satisfaction.

Where the orthodontist jobs are

Top employers

  • OrthoCare Orthodontics
  • Pacific Dental Services
  • InterDent Service Corp
  • Smile Brands, Inc.
  • Brident Dental and Orthodontics

Top states

  • California
  • Texas
  • New York
  • Florida
  • Illinois

Top job sites

  • zengig
  • Indeed
  • LinkedIn
  • USAJobs
  • CareerBuilder


What kind of education is necessary to become an orthodontist?

This profession typically requires a bachelor’s degree, followed by a four-year degree from a dental school. After dental school, a two- to three-year residency in orthodontics is necessary. Some also prefer to gain a master’s degree or doctorate in orthodontics.

What are the necessary skills for an orthodontist?

Besides in-depth dental health knowledge, they need good hand-eye coordination and manual dexterity, as they often work with small tools and delicate mouth structures. They also require excellent communication skills to discuss treatment options and progress with patients.

What is the work environment like for an orthodontist?

Much of their time is spent in a dental office or clinic, which can involve standing or bending over patients for long periods. They often work full-time and may have evening or weekend hours to accommodate patients’ schedules.

What type of person is well-suited to be an orthodontist?

Those who are patient and detail-oriented can excel in this role, as they’ll be working with small tools and must closely follow treatment protocols. Good interpersonal and communication skills are also imperative as there’s constant interaction with patients and their families.

Do orthodontists have opportunities for career advancement?

There are various ways to further a career in this field. They can opt to specialize in a specific area, such as pediatric orthodontics or maxillofacial surgery. They can also pursue further education and research opportunities or even start their own practice.

What is the hardest part of being an orthodontist?

The most challenging aspect might be dealing with patients who have fear or anxiety about dental procedures. They need to be sensitive and understanding while effectively performing their duties. Another difficulty is maintaining concentration and physical stamina when working on detailed procedures for extended periods.

Is orthodontics physically demanding?

The nature of their work can be physically demanding, as it often involves standing or bending over patients for long periods. Manual dexterity is important, as you often work with small, precision tools. Their work can also require physical stamina, as some procedures can be lengthy.

What type of licensure or certification is necessary for orthodontists?

Upon completing their education and residency, they must get licensed to practice. In the US, dental licensure is regulated by individual states. They must pass the National Board Dental Examination and a clinical exam. Some states also require a jurisprudence exam.

What technology is commonly used by an orthodontist?

They often use various types of imaging technology, such as 3D X-rays and impressions, to create a detailed image of the patient’s mouth and teeth. They may also use computer software for treatment planning and record keeping. Specific tools include different types of dental appliances, such as braces or retainers.

What soft skills are beneficial for an orthodontist?

Good communication skills are crucial because they must clearly explain treatment plans to patients and parents. Empathy is also important as they often treat children and adults who may be anxious about their procedures. Additionally, having good interpersonal skills can also help build a rapport with patients.