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How to Become an Orthodontist

Alternate Career Titles:

Orthodontic Specialist

Orthodontist Job Description: Orthodontists help patients straighten their teeth or correct jaw and alignment issues

Orthodontist Salary (Annual): $208,000

Orthodontist Salary Range: $73,490 and $300,000

How Long To Become an Orthodontist: 12 years

Orthodontist Requirements: Doctor of Dental Medicine Degree or Doctor of Dental Surgery Degree (DDS)

How to Become an Orthodontist

Become an Orthodontist

Career Description

An Orthodontist is a healthcare professional who focuses on specialized oral care, including the straightening of teeth and the correcting of a misaligned jaw. To achieve successful outcomes Orthodontists apply braces, retainers, aligners, spacers and other corrective tools to change the position of teeth. They may also alter the shape of the jaw and correct bite issues through the use of special equipment.

As the average length of treatment is 22 months, Orthodontic Specialists must provide ongoing care to regularly evaluate treatments. However, fully correcting a patient’s teeth and other alignment manipulations make take even longer. Success of a corrective plan takes keen assessment, detailed care plans and attentive evaluations.

“In orthodontic healthcare we have the opportunity to help people who are unhappy with the aesthetic look of their smile,” James G. Klarsch, DDS, MSD, an Orthodontist practicing in Missouri, explained. “We also work on function and providing them with a better, healthier bite. All of which is incredibly rewarding!”

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Education & Training

To become an Orthodontist new students must first obtain a undergraduate degree, successfully pass the Dental Aptitude Test (DAT) and then apply to dental school. During the four years of dental school training, learners will complete coursework and clinical training in general dentistry.

These studies include externships where learners begin to treat patients under the direction supervision of an experienced Dentist. Although challenging, these programs are necessary to provide a comprehensive explanation of dental techniques, procedures and methodologies. A Doctor of Dental Surgery Degree (DDS) or a Doctor of Medical Dentistry (DMD) degree is awarded following completion of dental school. Learn about other careers in dentistry, such as that of a Dental Hygienist or Dental Assistant.

“There were people in my dental school classes who did not enroll with an undergraduate degree in science. Instead, they may have been doing something in the way of business, history, etc.,” Klarsch noted. “You just need to have the prerequisites to apply and be admitted to a dental school.”

After dental school these new professionals will continue toward becoming an Orthodontist by completing a two to three year orthodontic residency program, accredited by the Commission on Dental Accreditation. The American Association of Orthodontists states that “All Orthodontists are Dentists, but only 6 percent of Dentists are orthodontists.” These advanced orthodontic programs focus on teaching learners more in-depth skills pertaining to the facilitation of tooth movement and other non- surgical interventions. Upon completion of the orthodontic training, Orthodontists must become licensed by the state they wish to practice in.


One way to advance in a healthcare career as an Orthodontist is to become board certified through the American Board of Orthodontics. To achieve this credential, professionals must take a written exam comprised of over 25 subjects, along with undergoing a clinical evaluation.

Alternatively, these professionals can opt to gain advanced educational degrees, including a Ph.D., providing additional educational and research opportunities.

“Very few Orthodontists go on to complete a PhD,” Klarsch noted. “If they do, they most likely want to become a faculty member at a University. Usually these professionals truly want to teach, and eventually go on to be a director of an orthodontics program.”

Experience & Skills

To be successful in this career in healthcare, Orthodontists must be experts of the mouth, jaw, face and skull. These professionals should also understand how to operate a variety of orthodontic instruments and equipment. Furthermore, they should also be good communicators who are able to educate proper care and self-maintenance techniques to patients.

“You really do need to have the ability to visualize things in three-dimensions,” Klarsch stressed. “You also need a little bit of creativity mixed with fine motor skills to be very meticulous. We work in an environment that requires absolute precision.”


“In this career, professionals should really enjoy owning their own business, as most do,” Klarsch explained. “They should also be very sociable, because we often see patients and their family members who bring them into the office. You have to be very good at working with people, and truly enjoy working with patients.”

Also important to note, Orthodontists spend much of their time treating patients who are in need of braces in their early-to-late teens. Thus, these professionals must be able to effectively interact with younger patients while remaining able to adjust to the needs of older patients as well. Due to constant patient interaction, Orthodontists must be strong communicators with excellent interpersonal skills.


Employment as an Orthodontist can be conducive to a strong work life balance. This is because Orthodontists are rarely, if ever, required to be “on-call” to assist Dentists, Surgeons and Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeons in emergency situations (which means they can really set their own hours). Having all appointments pre-scheduled also means that Orthodontists primarily work standard business hours, without having to see patients in the evenings, on weekends or holidays.

“The beauty of an orthodontics practice is that you can set your own hours, especially because there aren’t a lot of emergencies in this field,” Klarsch said. “You can truly schedule your hours based upon your lifestyle and how often you want to see patients. This is unlike a hospital setting, where most surgical employees can be called in for procedures.”


Employment of Orthodontists is expected to grow 7 percent over the next decade. Most orthodontists own their own practices. For others, they work as partners, as associates, as independent contractors or as educators at university- or hospital-based programs. Some orthodontists also serve in the military. States with the highest employment level in this occupation are California, Texas, Massachusetts, Florida and Maryland.

“There really is no way that Orthodontists can be replaced by automation, so the career outlook is great,” Klarsch explained. “Doing what we do requires a specific skill set of a highly trained person who has mastered dentistry and then specialized in orthodontics.”


Orthodontic Specialists typically earn between $73,490 and $300,000 annually, with $208,000 being the approximate median salary. The highest paying employers of Orthodontists are the offices of Dentists, the offices of Physicians and general medical and surgical hospitals. The top paying states for Orthodontists are Washington, Virginia, Nebraska, Alabama and Arizona. Ultimately, earnings in this career in healthcare can be increased depending upon factors like bonuses, healthcare plans and retirement funds.

“This profession is very rewarding financially,” Klarsch emphasized. “When they finally do enter the field an Orthodontist has many career options to choose from, ranging from joining the military to opening a private practice. Many will certainly make well above $100,000.”

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Unions, Groups and Associations

The American Association of Orthodontists (AAO) is a professional organization for educationally-qualified orthodontists that is dedicated to ethically advancing the art and science of orthodontics and dentofacial orthopedics worldwide, and seeks to help prospective patients understand the importance and life-changing benefits of orthodontic care for all patients: children, teens and adults. The AAO is the world’s oldest and largest dental specialty organization, established in 1900.

The World Federation of Orthodontists (WFO) is an organization designed to encourage high standards in orthodontics throughout the world, and to assist in the formation of national associations and societies of orthodontists when requested. The organization also promotes research and encourages the formation of national and regional certifying boards.

Getting Started

  • Complete an undergraduate degree in a related science (dental school applicants must meet dental schools’ educational prerequisites for admission)
  • Apply to dental school
  • Graduate from dental school.
  • Complete a postgraduate orthodontics program
  • Take the examination required to become licensed
  • Earn board certification (becoming board-certified by the ABO is voluntary in orthodontics)

All statistics are provided by the Bureau of Labor Statistics and

Orthodontist James KlarschMeet the professional: James G. Klarsch, DDS, MSD

Age: 60
Practice: Klarsch Orthodontics
Location: Town and Country, MO

What is the single biggest suggestion you would give to someone wanting to get into this career?

“The best thing someone who is considering the field of dentistry can do is to shadow. They should spend at least 50 to 100 hours shadowing someone and getting a feel for that type of practice. If you’re spending time in an office, you are able to watch that Orthodontist practice the trade and interact with patients and staff members.”

What’s the number one mistake people make when trying to get into this career?

“Student debt is probably the number one issue in this career. These professionals can already have debt from their undergraduate degree, and then they build up the debt during dental school and graduate school. The debt that we see our students graduating with is astronomical.”

What is the question people should ask about this career but rarely do?

“What is my opportunity for paying off my debt after I graduate? What type of setting will I be in? The answer is often initially in a corporate setting where these professionals are guaranteed a salary to begin paying off their debt”

Why did you choose to become an Orthodontist?

“I had my orthodontics done at St. Louis University in the clinic. I knew I wanted to be a Dentist and I felt that was the profession for me. Yet, after I had my own braces done in that clinic and saw how orthodontics operated and how the students interacted with their patients, I knew this was exactly what I wanted to do. The light bulb really went off when I had my own braces done.”

If you could describe in one word what makes you successful, what would it be?


Credentialing organization: The American Board of Orthodontics

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