How to Become an Orthodontist

Orthodontists are dental specialists who focus on incorrectly aligned teeth and jaws. By using devices like braces, orthodontists are able to straighten teeth for both aesthetic and functional reasons. Orthodontists also perform specialized procedures such as oral surgeries, and they treat dental abnormalities.

Correcting an overbite or underbite won’t just improve the function of the teeth and jaw, but it can also help boost a patient’s self-esteem. These specialists can bring back people’s smiles.

If you’re considering a career in orthodontics but aren’t sure what that entails, read on. This article will explore how to become an orthodontist and give you all the information you need in order to decide if it’s the right career for you.

What is an Orthodontist?

Orthodontists are dentists who specialize in teeth alignment and jaw disorders. General dentists refer patients to them for diagnosis and treatment.

Main Responsibilities

While braces are the first thing that comes to mind when thinking about orthodontists, these specialists provide many different services to treat an array of dental issues. Orthodontists typically help patients with:

  • Braces: Often the main role of an orthodontist, fitting braces can help align teeth and correct an overbite, underbite, or overcrowded teeth.
  • Space Maintainers: If a baby tooth is lost early, space maintainers can help prevent other teeth from encroaching into the lost tooth’s space.
  • Aligners: Similar to braces, aligners help straighten teeth and fix problems like crowding and improper bites. Most aligners are clear plastic, making them almost invisible.
  • Splints: Sometimes used for patients with temporomandibular joint dysfunction (TMJ), these devices help reposition the upper or lower jaw to allow it to close more naturally.
  • Bumpers: Lip and cheek bumpers help reduce pain and discomfort by reducing the pressure placed on the teeth by the lips or cheeks.
  • Palatal Expanders: Used to widen the upper jaw, palatal expanders create more space in the mouth, which results in better alignment between the upper and lower teeth.
  • Headgear: To help slow jaw growth and correct bite problems, headgear can be attached to metal wires in the teeth. Often worn at night, headgear helps ensure the teeth are correctly spaced to prevent crowding.

How to Become an Orthodontist

If you’re considering a career in orthodontics, it’s important to understand how much study is required. The typical path from high school graduate to practicing orthodontist includes:

  • Bachelor’s Degree (four years)
  • Dental School (four years)
  • Orthodontic Residency (two to three years)

The minimum requirement to practice as an orthodontist is to have a doctorate in dentistry and specialized orthodontic training. After completing specialist training, orthodontists are able to become licensed and board certified. Study and training will typically take at least 10 years to complete.

Undergraduate Degree

As there are many pre-requisite courses that must be passed before you can attend dental school, most prospective orthodontists pursue a Bachelor of Science degree at university or college. While you can apply with any bachelor’s degree, the following courses must be completed and passed to be considered for dental school:

  • Biology
  • Inorganic Chemistry
  • Organic Chemistry
  • Physics

It’s also recommended that students complete an English course with a focus on writing, as well as anatomy, biochemistry, and mathematics. Unrelated courses like social sciences and humanities can also improve a candidate’s chance of securing a place.

Take the Dental Admission Test

To attend dental school, students will need to study and pass the Dental Admission Test, or DAT. Typically taken during the Junior year of college, the DAT tests a candidate’s knowledge of natural sciences such as biology and chemistry, as well as their perceptual abilities, reading comprehension, and quantitative reasoning.

Dental School

Much like medical school, admission to dental school is highly sought after. While a passing DAT score is required, all of the following will be taken into consideration for a place in dental school:

  • DAT grade
  • Undergraduate GPA
  • Recommendation letters
  • Personal statement
  • Extracurricular activities such as interning at a dentist’s office
  • Interview

If successful, students enter a four-year program for a Doctor of Dental Surgery (DDS) or Doctor of Dental Medicine (DDM) degree. The first two years of the program focus on classroom training, while the third and fourth years are dedicated to gaining clinical experience.

Under the supervision of an experienced dentist, students gain exposure to dental specialties such as orthodontics, periodontics, and dental surgery.


After completing dental school, you can apply for a license to practice dentistry. While some states only require a general dental license, others require orthodontists to apply for a second license after completing a postgraduate orthodontic program.

Before applying for an orthodontic residency or postgraduate program, students need to pass the National Board Dental Exam (NBDE). Completed over three days, this exam tests students’ skills and their knowledge of dentistry and clinical work.

Postgraduate Orthodontic Program

After earning your doctoral degree and passing the NBDE, students wishing to specialize in orthodontics need to enter a postgraduate program for additional training. Programs accredited by the American Dental Association generally take two or more years to complete.

In the postgraduate program, students learn about and gain practical experience in orthodontics, as well as dentofacial orthopedics (facial growth and development) and surgery. Once this program has been completed, students will be qualified as an orthodontic specialist.

Board Certification

The final step in becoming an orthodontist is to become board certified. This voluntary credential demonstrates an orthodontist’s knowledge and commitment to their specialty. Consisting of a written and clinical exam, this certification needs to be renewed every ten years.

Career Outlook and Salary

Many orthodontists practice both general and specialized dentistry. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, jobs in dentistry are likely to grow by up to 19% through 2026, much faster than average.

While the average salary for dentists is around $158,000, those specializing in orthodontics average over $229,000. Working in private dental offices, they can earn a higher average salary, at $236,000. Orthodontists employed in a general medical and surgical hospital may only earn around half that amount.

Should You Become an Orthodontist?

Now that you know how to become an orthodontist, you can ask yourself if it’s the right career for you. While there is the potential to earn a high salary, with over ten years of study and training it’s certainly not a career for everyone.

But if you like the idea of helping people and have the drive to succeed in your studies, you can find a challenging and rewarding career as an orthodontist.