To work within the field of forensic odontology, students must first pursue a traditional four-year D.M.D. or D.D.S. degree. Students in these programs learn both technical and medical elements of oral care as well as how to give routine dental examinations, fill cavities, interpret x-rays and perform other diagnostic tests and treatment procedures. Students should have their bachelor's degree in a scientific field, as well as some related work experience, when applying to a D.M.D. or D.D.S. program.
Dental school graduates can then apply for forensic odontology training programs if they wish. Specialized training is not required for a dentist to act as a forensic odonotologist, although a training program can add validity and reliability to a dentist's testimony during a court case.
Doctor of Dental Medicine and Doctor of Dental Surgery Degrees
The D.M.D. and D.D.S. are the primary degrees earned by these dental professionals. In these programs students perform basic oral surgery, straighten teeth using a variety of devices and make models of the teeth to allow technicians to create bridges and dentures. Students in dental degree programs may have different curricula during their last years of study. However, coursework at the beginning of dental school are basically the same, and might include:
- Human anatomy
- Introduction to oral surgery
- Materials and instruments used in dentistry
Certification and Training for Forensic Odontologists
Most forensic odontology courses in the U.S. are offered through the American Society of Forensic Odontology (ASFO). However, rare advanced certificates or M.S. degrees in areas such as oral and maxillofacial radiology may offer elective courses in forensic odontology. Certification is available through the American Board of Forensic Odontology (ABFO). While no specific forensic coursework is required for certification, extensive experience is. Much of that experience may demand coursework. The kind of forensic odontology coursework that is offered by a university and the ABFO are very different from one another. The ABFO's courses are usually in the form of workshops or symposia, while university courses are generally laboratory courses. Topics covered in these programs include:
- Age estimation
- Bitemark patterns as evidence
- Dental coding
- Dental photographs in forensic odontology
- Forensic odontology axioms
- Forensic odontology laboratory work
Forensic odontologists usually work as dentists in their specialty. Depending on how they are needed in a particular location, forensic odontologists may work as independent contractors for police departments, coroners or medical examiners.
The number of dentist jobs is anticipated by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) to increase from about 151,500 in 2014 to 178,200 in 2024 (www.bls.gov). This 18% increase is greater than that for all other jobs in general. As of May 2015, average annual salary for dentists in general was $172,350, the BLS reported.
Graduates of the D.D.S. and D.M.D. programs who wish to specialize may choose to earn a Master of Science or a Doctor of Science in Dentistry. Different specialties may take from 1-4 years for a master's or 3-4 years for the doctorate.
In every state and Washington, D.C., dentists must be licensed. Although requirements vary from state to state, most states require a D.D.S. or D.M.D. degree from an accredited program and the passing of a licensing exam, which includes both written and practical sections. Each state has continuing education requirements for license maintenance, which may range from 12-30 hours each year.
Forensic odontology is a subfield of general dentistry. Students interested in working in this field can follow the traditional path of becoming a dentist and then pursue a training or certification program to gain experience within the field.