A forensic odontologist is basically a dentist version of a medical examiner-someone who examines teeth and bite marks in order to learn more about a crime or a death that was the result of something other than natural causes.
Background Needed to Be a Forensic Odontologist
The education required to be a forensic odontologist overlaps with that required to be a medical examiner. Both typically start with a premed undergraduate major. Both require extensive further postgraduate medical study, with a medical examiner going to conventional medical school, and a forensic odontologist going to dental school.
After completing a Doctor of Dental Science degree, which usually takes four years, one must then train further in the forensic odontology field, either at certain colleges or through special programs offered by the American Academy of Forensic Science, the American Board of Forensic Odontology or the American Society of Forensic Odontology.
What Does a Forensic Odontologist Do?
Forensic odontologists work with law enforcement, medical examiners or coroners. Their expertise can be especially helpful in using teeth to ascertain the identity of a dead body where fingerprint identification is not possible. Where no dental records can be found to match the teeth of the cadaver, the forensic odontologist can often still ascertain many facts about the person, including gender, age, and race. The extent and type of dental work may also provide clues as to socioeconomic status.
Besides being done as a part of a criminal investigation into a murder, such identifications may also be necessary for tragedies including fires and car accidents.
Forensic odontologists may also examine bite marks on a victim to match them to a suspect, or on a suspect to match them to a victim (e.g., if a struggling rape victim bit her attacker). Bite marks on food, chewing gum or other objects may be examined.
The job requires the use of computers, microscopes, and other complex equipment. The forensic odontologist must be able to write clear and detailed reports of his or her findings, and be able to explain the evidence and the conclusions to non-dental professionals. It may be necessary for the forensic odontologist to testify in court, whether in a criminal case, or a civil case of personal injury or dental malpractice.
Career Prospects for a Forensic Odontologist
Forensic odontologists are employed by government agencies such as coroner’s or medical examiner’s offices, or by the military. A small number of dentists are full time forensic odontologists, but more often it is a job done part time on a consultant basis by dentists who also have standard dental practices.
The salary varies based on experience and location, but the typical range is equivalent to $150,000-$185,000 annually. Again, though, most forensic odontologists work only a fraction of the year in this capacity and make only a fraction of that amount of money, but they then make it up by working in ordinary dentistry the rest of the year.
Charlotte Anne Cox, “A Career in Forensic Dentistry.” eHow.
Dale Nute, “Advice About a Career in Forensic Science.” The Florida State University College of Criminology & Criminal Justice.
Sandra Parker, “Salary Range for Forensic Odontology.” eHow.
“Forensic Odontology.” Explore Health Careers.
“So You Want to Be a Forensic Scientist!” American Academy of Forensic Scientists.