What Is an Orthodontist? (With 7 Steps To Become One)

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published July 22, 2022

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

Orthodontics is a specialization within the medical field of dentistry. An orthodontist ensures patients receive the appropriate treatment they require to correct any dental or jaw abnormalities. You can begin your career as an orthodontist by understanding the knowledge, education, and skills this profession requires to help you succeed. In this article, we explore the answer to "What is an orthodontist?", how to become one in seven steps, explore their essential duties and helpful skills, and discover the difference between a dentist and an orthodontist.

What is an orthodontist?

Orthodontics is a dentistry specialty focusing primarily on the straightening of teeth. As an orthodontist, you're responsible for examining a patient's teeth, jaw, gums, mouth, and nerves while diagnosing issues, such as overcrowded mouths, occlusions, misaligned teeth and jaws, underbites, and overbites. As an orthodontist, you provide treatment to correct these dental concerns, including applying braces, aligners, headgear, retainers, and palate expanders.

How to become an orthodontist in 7 steps

Whether you're in high school or university or an established professional seeking a change of career, orthodontic therapy offers a practical option if you're passionate about dentistry. For a specialization in the dental field, you can expect to complete additional education and certification to receive your orthodontic licence. The following are seven steps you can pursue to become an orthodontist:

1. Complete your high school diploma

A high school diploma or equivalent, like a General Education Development diploma, can help you advance your education. If you know that you want to pursue a career as a dentist or orthodontist during high school, you can begin to prepare early. You can start by taking biology, mathematics, physics, chemistry, and anatomy classes. These classes provide valuable knowledge and help determine if dentistry is right for you.

2. Acquire your bachelor's degree

A prerequisite to applying for dental school is for you to have a bachelor's degree. Earning a university degree is essential for your career goals. Most dental schools avoid assigning one specific undergraduate program as a prerequisite for admittance. So you can prepare by earning a bachelor's degree in biology, mathematics, physics, or chemistry.

Related: Master's vs. Bachelor's Degree: What's the Difference?

3. Pass your dental aptitude test (DAT)

Dental schools require applicants to pass the DAT as part of their admission process. The Canadian Dental Association administers the DAT and recommends registering for the test about eight months before dental schools request your scores. DAT is a computerized, multiple-choice exam that tests your knowledge of the natural sciences, including biology and chemistry, and your perceptual abilities. The English version of the DAT also includes a reading comprehension section, but the French version omits this. While receiving good scores improves your chances of admission, dental schools also consider your academic performance and extracurricular pursuits.

4. Graduate from dental school

Successful admission into dental school offers you the opportunity to learn the necessary knowledge and abilities to become a dentist. Dental programs typically last four years, with the first two years focusing on learning about the relationship between teeth and the human anatomy. In the last two years, students can expect to learn and practise the various procedures dentists perform on their patients. Dental school aims to provide you with the foundation to pursue a dentistry career and earn a Doctor of Dental Medicine or Doctor of Dental Surgery degree.

Related: How Long Is Dental School and What Are the Requirements?

5. Earn your dental licence

After graduating from dental school, the next step in your career journey is to apply for a dental licence. The National Dental Examining Board of Canada (NDEB) offers this certification, typically lasting between 6 to 18 months. Successfully passing the written exam and the Objective Structured Clinical Examination rewards you with a dental licence.

6. Complete your orthodontics residency

You can enroll in an accredited orthodontics residency program for two or three years with your dental licence. These programs offer practical experience that can strengthen your knowledge and skills about teeth alignment. It's a valuable method of shadowing experienced orthodontists and learning how they interact with their patients, diagnose common dental issues, and administer treatments. Typically, a three-year residency program positions you to earn a master's degree in orthodontics by providing more in-depth experience and knowledge than the two-year program.

7. Apply for your certification

Similar to applying for certification after dental school, you can do the same after your orthodontics residency. You can become a licensed orthodontist by taking the National Dental Specialty Examination (NDSE) through the NDEB. The NDSE tests your knowledge and competency of your selected dental specialization, including treatment planning, clinical diagnosis, and basic sciences. An NDSE certification also functions as provincial licensure, allowing you to work in most provinces.

What are the responsibilities of an orthodontist?

An orthodontist's primary duties include diagnosing dental misalignments and offering treatment options. They work closely with dentists and dental assistants in their private practice or as part of a team in a clinical facility. An orthodontist ensures that patients understand their dental concerns and how they plan to administer the treatment plan, including orthodontic fixtures, braces, and surgery.

In most cases, an orthodontist examines a patient after a referral from a dentist or other medical expert. As a result, patients only interact with orthodontists after a dentist identifies an alignment issue with their teeth. An orthodontist uses the dentist's notes to perform a variety of exams, such as X-rays, to assess the cause of a patient's problems. Depending on the treatment, a patient may visit an orthodontist regularly to monitor progress and implement adjustments if applicable.

Related: 10 Dental Careers (With Salaries and Primary Duties)

What other skills do orthodontists develop?

Whether you're becoming an orthodontist or considering changing careers, it's essential to understand what hard and soft skills you can develop to succeed in orthodontics. Your education can provide valuable knowledge and experience, while your work experience can help improve your skills further. The following are some of the skills that may advance your career as an orthodontist:

Detail-oriented

One of the primary duties of orthodontists is to identify dental or jaw misalignments. Understanding how to carefully and efficiently analyze X-ray scans and feel abnormalities with your hands or tools that may be hard to see can ensure you provide an accurate diagnosis. Attention to detail is crucial to designing and delivering effective treatment plans.

Related: How to Be More Detail-Oriented (With Definition and Resume Tips)

Time management

Whether you're managing a private practice or working in a dental facility with several dental experts, understanding how to manage your time effectively is essential. Each week you may treat several patients with varying oral concerns. Developing your time management skills can help you balance your schedule while delivering accurate diagnoses and treatments. This ability allows you to implement and adopt organizational techniques to improve overall efficiency.

Related: Benefits of Effective Time Management (With Actionable Tips)

Interpersonal communication

Orthodontists treat patients daily, and each patient presents a distinctive personality and dental issue. It's helpful to understand how to communicate with your patients to explain treatment options and the importance of continued oral health. Sometimes, patients may express apprehension towards orthodontists, and it's your responsibility to alleviate any concern and create a welcoming environment for them. If a patient feels comfortable with you, you can improve your chances of providing adequate care.

Related: Interpersonal Skills: Definitions and Examples

Critical thinking

Sometimes, you may receive a patient whose previous dentist or medical expert failed to diagnose that patient's issue. You are responsible for analyzing a dentist's notes and examining that patient's medical history to provide an accurate diagnosis. In other cases, a dentist's notes may feature a mistake in diagnosis. As a result, a successful orthodontist conducts a face-to-face examination to determine the causes of a patient's oral abnormality.

What are the differences between a dentist and an orthodontist?

Even though dentists and orthodontists both work in the medical field of dentistry, each profession focuses on different areas of dental care. Dentists perform general services and checkups, including X-rays, extractions, diagnostics, root canals, and dental cleaning. They aim to teach their patients how to maintain proper oral health. Orthodontists focus exclusively on teeth alignment and jaw health. They aim to diagnose a patient's oral abnormalities and offer treatment to correct these problems by performing occlusions and installing braces and headgear.

Dentists can begin practising their profession after graduating from dental school and earning their licence. Orthodontics is a specialization within dentistry and, as a result, requires extra education and certification. You can enroll in a two- or three-year orthodontist residency program after dental school and then pass the certification exam to become an orthodontist.

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