Untitled design (56)

What Orthodontists Do – And How To Become One

By Dr. Emily Watson

I didn’t set out to become an orthodontist. But, as with many things in life, experiences happen that point us in directions we hadn’t intended.

For me, that moment came when I was a college student on a medical mission trip to Ecuador.

But before I delve too much into that story, let me examine in detail a question about my profession that is one of the most common you see when you do an internet search for the word “orthodontist.”

It’s the most basic of questions, but an important one: What exactly does an orthodontist do?

Quite a few things, actually, and some that people might find surprising.

Of course, at its most basic, the answer is that orthodontists help align a patient’s bite or straighten their teeth. This often is done with braces or Invisalign, and the treatment takes place over time because the teeth must be moved incrementally to get them in the position they need to be.

Braces aren’t the only way to improve crooked teeth or bite problems. We also use something called a palatal expander, which is especially helpful when the jaw is too narrow. 

Why is a narrow jaw a problem? When a jaw is too narrow, that can disturb the normal growth of the teeth and affect a person’s health in other ways as well. That’s where the palatal expander comes in. The expander fits inside the mouth, attached to the upper back teeth. It gradually separates the two halves of the jawbone at the roof of the mouth’s mid-point, which is called the suture. The process can take a number of weeks or months.

So, orthodontists work on overbites, underbites, crooked teeth, crowded teeth, teeth that are spaced too far apart, and misaligned jaws.

Now, with that question answered, let me return to the subject I started with about my own path to becoming an orthodontist.


Treating Oral Health in Ecuador

Originally, I enrolled in Butler University to study pre-medicine because my dream nearly my entire life – at least my life up to that point – was to become a pediatrician. It was after my first year on the campus that I joined the Pre-Med Club on that South American mission trip where it was our assigned task to serve the people in Ecuadorian communities that lacked adequate healthcare.

Ecuador, a country of 18 million people, is a beautiful place with an environmentally diverse geography that includes the Andes Mountains and the Amazon River Basin. But it has its problems and many of the people do not get the medical attention they need. So our mission group of medical professionals and students entered an Ecuadorian village where we created, at least temporarily, the healthcare facility they needed. We even had a pharmacy. 

Our group was split into a medical group and a dental group. As fate would have it, I was assigned to assist a dentist, even though dentistry wasn’t my calling. The dentist was treating children, many of whom were suffering from infected teeth that he needed to pull before the infection spread to other parts of their bodies. It was an important role in our team’s overall mission and, presumably, I did a good job helping because the dentist suggested I consider entering his profession. 

Maybe the timing was right. In addition to assisting the dentist in making a difference in those Ecuadorian children’s oral health, I also happened to be wearing braces at the time, so my own teeth were getting some of my attention. 


Devoting Extra Years to Become an Orthodontist

Back in Indiana at Butler, I switched my major from pre-med to pre-dental, inspired by the dentist I had worked side by side with, and by the difference I had made in the lives of those children. As I began to put away my dream of becoming a pediatrician, I also found that I was intrigued with the orthodontic side of dentistry. But I was unsure whether I wanted to devote extra years of my life to the training that would be required by orthodontics. This is the educational path to becoming an orthodontist: four years of undergraduate work, four years of dental school, and two to three years in an orthodontics residency program.

Daunting, right?

So, after finishing my undergraduate degree, I entered dental school at Boston University. The work was rewarding, but also a challenge; so much so that I couldn’t imagine that when I finished, I would be willing to endure another two to three years of schooling for orthodontics. 

By this time, in addition to the four years of undergraduate work, anyone in dental school also had gone through the traditional K-12 education that everyone does. Those years of schooling were starting to add up, and I wasn’t excited by the thought of adding any more years to the total than necessary. 

But remember how I said that, sometimes, things occur that make us recalculate our plans?

This is what happened in my third year of dental school. I was involved in treating an easy Invisalign case and again said to myself, “This is something I want to do.”

Orthodontics was the right choice for me because I’m not sure how much I would have enjoyed general dentistry everyday. I don’t like to give people shots. I don’t cherish the idea of people coming into the office in pain. Certainly, treating the many oral problems that cause people to seek dental help is important – vitally so. And I’m grateful to work with a wonderful group of colleagues who take great care of our patients and provide critical services the patients need.

Yes, with orthodontics there are complex cases and sometimes we must do things that make patients uncomfortable, but overall I love seeing their reaction at each visit as they see the changes in their smile and especially when their treatment is finished. Their reactions are priceless. 

For me, the journey that took me from pre-med, to pre-dental, to dental school, to orthodontics, along with that side trip into Ecuador, was the right one.

If you are a young person considering career options, it could be the right one for you.

Yes, it takes a lot of years of education and it is not easy, but time flies when you’re having fun, right?  

**Note: Our office always welcomes students whether they want to do an externship in our office or just come to shadow.  I would be happy to answer any questions to help someone along on their journey.