Becoming an orthodontist takes a great deal of time, money, and effort – but orthodontists consistently rate their career choice highly.
In fact, U.S. News and Reports ranks Orthodontist as #3 in Best Healthcare Jobs, #4 in Best 100 Jobs, and #5 in Best Paying Jobs.
With a high salary, great work-life balance, and excellent job prospects across the country, becoming an orthodontist can land you an amazing lifelong career. Not everyone has what it takes, however: dental school is competitive and demanding, and there are fewer placements in orthodontic residencies than there are applicants.
If you’re determined, dedicated, and hard-working, read on to find out how to find a job as an orthodontist.
U.S. News reports that orthodontists earned a median salary of $208,000 in 2018. Lower-paid orthodontists make around $142,470. Research from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) found that in 2019, the average salary had climbed to $230,830.
Salaries vary widely by state: the cost of living, taxes, and other factors contribute to the variation in pay. Zipcrecruiter has compiled a table of average orthodontist salaries by state to compare wages in your area.
Orthodontists are licensed dentists who specialize in the art of properly aligning teeth for better oral health, better overall health, more effective and comfortable bite, and greater smile confidence.
Each patients’ case is unique, so orthodontists must have a broad knowledge and experience in a wide variety of treatment techniques and appliances.
They use different instruments, equipment, and technology to assist them in the correction of malocclusions, including dental radiographs (x-rays), digital imaging and predictive modeling, and appliances such as braces, clear removable aligners, palatal expanders, and much more.
In addition to working with patients, orthodontists are often responsible for leading a team of dental professionals, which requires directing and supervising dental assistants and hygienists, and working with office managers to keep the office running smoothly.
Those orthodontists who go into private practice will also be responsible for the many aspects of small business ownership, including paying taxes and office rental fees, tracking budgets, hiring, supervising, and discipling staff, and much more.
Education, Licensing & Experience
Becoming an orthodontist is a long road, even longer than becoming a dentist. That’s because all orthodontists are, in fact, dentists: they complete dental school and becoming licensed dentists before going on to specialize through a residency program.
Dental school is usually 4 years: applicants must have completed undergraduate education and take the Dental Assessment Test (DAT). The test is scored on a scale from 1-30, with the average score being 17. A higher grade on the DAT increases your chances of acceptance to a more competitive program. You can learn more about applying to dental school through the American Dental Education Association (ADEA).
Licensure to practice dentistry is achieved through examinations administered by the Joint Commission on National Dental Examinations, as well as through the state dental board of the state where you will practice. You can search the dental license requirements for your state using this guide from the American Dental Association (ADA).
Once you’ve completed dental school and achieved your dental license, orthodontic residency is the next step: these are highly competitive training programs, generally 2-3 years, where aspiring orthodontists train exclusively in the arts of orthodontia and dentofacial orthopedics. While dentists are legally permitted to perform orthodontic procedures and treatments, orthodontic residency provides deeper and lengthier training in this complex art, and many employers require completion of a residency in orthodontics to work as a licensed orthodontist.
- Learn more about becoming an orthodontist
Top Orthodontist Skills
According to the American Dental Education Association (ADEA), both dentists and specialits like orthodontists need a variety of exceptional traits to excel in this field.
Some important traits for effective dentists and orthodontists:
- Passion and excitement for the field
- Caring and concerned for patient experience
- Good communicator and approachable
- Knowledgeable and artistic in the art of dentistry
Orthodontists also need to have a wide knowledge of the literature, and an understanding of the mechanics and physics of dental movement, as well as skilled with precise hand movements for orthodontic procedures.
Because straight teeth and health smiles area always in demand, orthodontists enjoy sunny job outlooks for the foreseeable future.
According to U.S. News, The Bureau of Labor Statistics, which tracks job growth and projects numbers for the future, expects orthodontic jobs to grow by 7.3% between 2018 and 2028, with an estimated 500 new jobs opening up.
Orthodontists are needed across the country, in all regions, so while salary may range considerably, the chances of finding a job are good in every state.
Schedule & Work Environment
Orthodontist often work full-time, but there are options for part-time work, including for semi-retired orthodontists. Every office schedules differently: some larger practices are open 7 days a week, with a rotating staff of orthodontists and assistants that take turns working weekends. Others are only open Monday through Friday, or for certain hours on certain days.
If you choose to open your own practice, you will have a great deal of flexibility in setting your hours, which is one reason people choose to follow this route.
The work environment is fast-paced and bustling: many orthodontist work with other dental professionals, serving multiple patients at once in different areas of the office. All orthodontist offices are required to comply with state and federal health and safety regulations, to protect staff and patients in a medical setting.
There are a variety of professional options for orthodontists:
Join a group orthodontic practice
As a member of an orthodontic team, you will have your own caseload of patients but work under a supervising orthodontist or clinical director. Depending on the practice, you may see the same patients throughout their care, or see whichever patients are in the office that day.
Working as part of a group practice means you’re not responsible for covering the many costs of private practice, including staffing and labor, materials, instruments, leasing office space, company liability insurance, etc. This is a common and popular choice for new orthodontists, since you can gain experience and mentorship from more experienced orthodontists, and learn more about working in this field.
Finding a good fit between office and orthodontist is important to achieving the best workflow and enjoyable experience for all.
Start your own practice
Many orthodontists start out as part of a group practice, but go on to start their own business or partner with 1 or 2 other orthodontists. This makes them both practicing orthodontists and small business owners, employing a small team of dental assistants, hygienists, and/or office administrators to help them see and manage patients.
Practice owners are also responsible for all overhead: liability insurance, materials and technology, office rent, and much more. Practice ownership also requires overseeing strict compliance with state and federal regulations for patient and staff health and safety, medical privacy, labor practices, and more.
The majority of practitioners take on debt in order to open an office, so there are large financial risks involved. Starting your own orthodontic practice is financially risky and a demanding life path, but a successful personal practice can make for much higher salaries and work flexibility, especially if your practice expands by hiring more orthodontists.
Work with a general dentist
Some orthodontists join a dental practice that offers a wide variety of dental care, where they will be responsible for orthodontic treatments. Some orthodontists work part-time for a variety of dental offices, traveling to different offices throughout the week.
Working in a general dentist’s office has drawbacks, however: the orthodontist must assume the risks and responsibilities for all orthodontic patients, since the dentist depends on the orthodontist for treating these patients and providing continuity of care.
Being the lone orthodontic provider can create issues in patient care: if the orthodontist is not available full-time and there are no other orthodontists to provide care, patients may hold the orthodontist responsible for failing to provide emergency care. And when an orthodontist chooses to leave a general dental practice, they are often responsible for finding new orthodontists for all their orthodontic patients or risk being accused of patient abandonment.
In addition, orthodontists must assume all compliance risks of general dentistry, such as records keeping, informed consent, HIPPA, and more. If the general dentist fails to keep proper records, the orthodontist may be legally culpable even years after leaving the job for the failures of the practice.
Due to the risks just described, it’s important to research a general dentist practice thoroughly before joining as an orthodontist.
Work in a Community Health Center
While orthodontic care can be expensive and many patients pay out-of-pocket, there are a variety of healthcare organizations that provide affordable or free orthodontic care to low-income families. Orthodontists can work in a community health center that provides low-cost dental services, including orthodontics. These salaries tend to be lower, but many people pursue this route out of a passion for providing affordable healthcare.
Looking for orthodontist jobs? Check the online job boards of the American Association of Orthodontists (AAO), or the American Dental Association (ADA).