Discover What It's Like to Work as a Dentist or Orthodontist

Picture a dentist, and you might envision comedian Steve Martin prying out teeth

Discover What It's Like to Work as a Dentist or Orthodontist

Discover What It's Like to Work as a Dentist or Orthodontist
Picture a dentist, and you might envision comedian Steve Martin prying out teeth in "Little Shop of Horrors" and belting out his ode to dentistry: "I am your dentist/ And I enjoy the career that I picked/ I am your dentist/ And I get off on the pain I inflict."

But dentistry today is very different, says Dr. Kim Harms, a recently retired dentist in Bloomington, Minnesota, and spokeswoman for the American Dental Association. "People come into your dental office and they're afraid," she says. "And we have all the tools now to make them comfortable."

In the U.S. News 2016 Best Jobs rankings, dental professions reigned supreme, with orthodontist ranking No. 1 and dentist ranking No. 2.

Some of the reasons they came out on top are obvious. For example, dentists and orthodontists tend to take home generous salaries. Dentists earned a comfortable median salary of $149,530 in 2014, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. During the same year, orthodontists' salaries were literally off the charts. The BLS doesn't track median salaries above $187,199, which orthodontists topped.

But these wage statistics only tell part of the story, say those who work in the dental fields. Some point out that this type of medicine is rarely life-or-death, which lessens stress. Others talk about setting down roots in a community where lots of people know them. Others mention that their patients are typically looking forward to a visit because it will remedy a cosmetic issue, such as a crooked bite or broken tooth.

"From a professional standpoint, it's very gratifying to be an orthodontist," says Dr. DeWayne McCamish, a Chattanooga, Tennessee-based orthodontist and president-elect of the American Association of Orthodontists. "We don't give shots. We don't have the same level of anticipation and stress when the patient is walking in the door – 90 percent are smiling."

Here's what to know about working in the top two professions of 2016.

Training is no cakewalk. Before entering these fields, prepare for a decade or more of education. Dentists need a bachelor's degree, dental school, clinical experience and other requirements. Orthodontists require even more education, which includes graduating from a specialized program after dental school. "After high school, you have four years of college and four years of dental school, and two or three years of orthodontics," says McCamish. "You're looking at 10 to 11 years."

And while all that academic work is time-consuming, it's also bound to drive up student loan debt. That's something to consider when eyeing the six-figure salaries these professionals bank each year.

Other skills are necessary, too. "If you're not a people person, this is not the profession for you," says Dr. Matthew Messina, a dentist in Fairview Park, Ohio. "Dentistry is all about people, and the teeth are always connected to a person when they walk in the door."

A knack for science is crucial, dental professionals say, as is an eye for artistry. Dentists and orthodontists work with their hands, sculpting materials and completing dental work inside patients' mouths. McCamish honed his dexterity assembling model airplanes. Says Harms: "When I look at the world, I see it in millimeters."

Be your own boss. Dentistry is "one of the last true areas where you can be your own boss and run your own business," says Messina, who owns his dental practice.

And most dentists choose this path. About 70 percent of dentists are the sole proprietors of their businesses, according to a survey from the American Dental Association. When it comes to orthodontists, 72 percent reported working in orthodontist-owned solo practices in 2014, according to a survey of American Association of Orthodontists members.

One of the benefits of being the boss is that "we don't have to go through the layers of bureaucracy," Harms says. But, she adds: "Most dentists would likely tell you that the management part of the job, dealing with insurance and staff, is the hardest part."

Dentists who don't work in private practice may work for larger health care providers, such as hospitals and public health organizations, or in research.

Balance work and life. Being your own boss can ease stress and encourage work-life balance, according to industry professionals. "It's an attractive profession for a lot of women. You can arrange your schedule, within certain limits, so that if you do have children, dentistry works well with family life," Messina says.

The same goes for orthodontists, McCamish says. "One good thing about being an orthodontist is you can set your own comfort level," says McCamish, who has two partners in his practice. He controls stress by setting the tempo of his day, including how many patients he wants to see and the size of his practice.

"I never missed a basketball or hockey game," says Harms, who worked two or three days per week when her children were young. In fact, she says, she occasionally found herself storming the basketball court when it appeared that a game-time injury had damaged a player's tooth.

Test it out first. If you'd like to sink your teeth into one of these top careers, try shadowing a dental professional for a day. McCamish recommends trailing a dentist before an orthodontist since dental school is a requirement for both.

Getting a sense of the day-to-day tasks of a dental professional is key, Messina says, because so much happens behind the scenes. "The average person in high school now may have had braces or a filling or two, but they really don't appreciate the range and breadth of what dental offices do."