Forensic dentistry is a profession that stands at the intersection of dentistry and law. While general dentistry focuses on the oral and dental health of the general population, forensic odontology is a specialization focused on a particular population.
Forensic odontology focuses on examining, handling, and presenting dental evidence for use by the legal system and interrelated parties such as law enforcement. During their training, forensic odontologists may also learn from forensic medicine, law, and research. Forensic dentists are frequently called forensic odontologists. The two terms may be seen as interchangeable. For the sake of simplicity, the terms odontology and odontologist will generally be used throughout this document to refer, respectively, to the discipline of forensic dentistry and those who practice it.
Forensic odontology is the study of teeth and the mouth as it applies to both civil and criminal law. Forensic odontologists may aid investigators in identifying both victims and perpetrators of crimes. The art of identifying such individuals via teeth and mouth is a critical discipline as the damage or virtually complete destruction of human bodies can, in many cases, make positively identifying individuals very difficult, if not impossible. Forensic odontology relies on a scientific methodology to study dental anatomy and the interpretation of radiographs, pathology, dental materials, and developmental abnormalities.
Forensic odontology is also helpful in the identification of victims of disasters. Disasters in which a forensic dentist’s expertise may be sought include fires, earthquakes, hurricanes, airplane crashes, and terrorist activities. For example, forensic odontologists have been critical to the successful identification of victims of the bombing of the Oklahoma City Federal Building (1995), the September 11th attacks (2001), and the crashes of Pan Am Flight 103 (1988), and American Airlines Flight 587 (2001). Once a human body has reached a certain stage of decomposition, the use of forensic odontology may become the primary or only way a person’s body can still be positively identified. Such identification is done using antemortem and postmortem photographs of the people who are believed to be victims. The use of forensic odontology may ultimately help families of missing and deceased loved ones find some measure of peace, closure, or justice.
Two major professional organizations serve the needs of the discipline of forensic odontology. These are the American Society of Forensic Odontology (ASFO) and the American Board of Forensic Odontology (ABFO).
The ASFO is one of the largest organizations that represents the interests of forensic odontology worldwide. A primary objective of ASFO is to advance the field of forensic odontology and to develop and maintain the highest standards of practice. The organization’s website offers a wealth of resources, including courses, research and grants, upcoming meetings, a newsletter, and a professional directory.
The ABFO is the professional association responsible for certifying specialists who fulfill the requirements to practice as forensic odontologists. ABFO was originally organized in 1976 under the auspices of the National Institute of Justice. The Board identifies as its objective the creation, enhancement, and revision of standards and qualifications for those who practice forensic odontology, and also the certification of qualified specialists who fulfill the requirements of the Board to practice in the field of forensic odontology. ABFO exists within the American Academy of Forensic Science (AAFS).
Read on to discover the career outlook, salary, responsibilities, and training for forensic odontology.
The United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS 2023) projects the overall employment of dentists to grow 4 percent between 2022 and 2032. This growth rate is approximately equal to the average for all occupations. About 5,000 openings are expected for each year of the aforementioned decade. Many openings will occur due to transfers to other occupations and retirement.
The forecast for growth of the general dentistry profession can serve as a fairly reasonable estimate for the expected growth in the specialization of forensic odontology because many odontologists trained in this specialization nonetheless also work as career dentists. In fact, forensic odontologists are often not in sufficient demand such that they can financially sustain themselves on the practice of their specialization alone. Even in some large metropolitan areas where the sheer volume of crime could keep a small number of forensic odontologists somewhat consistently employed, it does not make good financial sense to base a sustainable living on the practice of this specialization alone.
The salary a forensic odontologist can expect to earn depends on many factors. These factors include educational attainment, professional experience, and the local job market conditions. Additional factors influencing salary data include bonuses, special benefits, and profit sharing. Highly specialized (niche) training can increase a salary still further. One example of such niche training would be specializing in the identification of animals that cause human death by review of bite marks. Such niche training might be useful for forensic odontologists living in fairly rural settings where hunting is a common local practice. This training could also allow a person to join a related career and work as a wildlife forensic scientist.
Given the relatively small number of practicing forensic odontologists in the United States, finding accurate and comprehensive salary data can be difficult. However, salary data for practicing dentists can be used as a good proxy to predict reasonable salary expectations for forensic odontologists.
According to the BLS (May 2022), dentists earned the following in the United States:
Market demand is one of the best predictors of a salary for any given job. It is a basic principle of economics that as the demand for any good or service increases, the compensation the provider can reasonably expect will also increase. The supply of a desired good or service will also impact prices. Given that forensic odontologists are often called to work in partnership with the legal system and investigative bodies working in a job market with a high level of crime increases the likelihood of enjoying a high salary. If a forensic odontologist is especially interested in working primarily on the issue of victims of crime, it would make sense to seek out job markets where there is a high level of crime and, thus, at least theoretically, a higher need for their expertise.
Given the wide variety of potential career paths open to a person with forensics training and the current and projected need for such professionals, this industry will likely continue to be popular and well compensated in coming years.
Aspiring forensic odontologists and professionals with closely related skills are encouraged to use tools such as the cost of living data series provided by the Missouri Economic Research and Information Center (MERIC 2023) when considering job offers. This site provides analysis useful to understand better just how much purchasing power a certain salary will have in different parts of the country.
Step One: Graduate from high school (four years)
Those seeking to become forensic odontologists will do well to show skill in physical and health sciences as well as anatomy as early as their high school education. Given how closely forensic odontologists may work with law enforcement and investigative bodies, a demonstrated early interest in law and criminology may also prove helpful later on.
Step Two: Complete an undergraduate degree (four years)
Upon graduating from high school, a person seeking to become a forensic dentist must complete an undergraduate (bachelor’s degree) academic degree to be eligible to start dental school.
Highly skilled individuals may ultimately complete their undergraduate degree in less than four years, thereby somewhat shortening the total time commitment. Those interested in forensics, but as yet uncommitted to forensic odontology, may elect to complete an undergraduate degree in forensic science. Popular bachelor’s degrees for forensics professionals include degrees in chemistry, biology, and other natural sciences.
Admissions requirements for many undergraduate programs include official high school transcripts, a satisfactory test score (SAT or ACT, in addition to the TOEFL test for non-native speakers of English), a personal or motivational statement, and an application fee. Students already sure of their interest in forensics should seek out programs accredited by the Forensic Science Education Programs Accreditation Commission (FEPAC), the country’s predominant program approval body for forensics programs.
Step Three: Become a dentist (four years)
Becoming a dentist is a significant educational investment. A vast majority of dental schools require a bachelor’s degree to apply. With but one exception, all currently-accredited dental schools in the United States are four-year programs. Dental schools do not require applicants to have a specific bachelor’s degree major. In addition to a bachelor’s degree, applicants must also complete dental school requirements, including an adequate Dental Admissions Test (DAT) score, letters of recommendation, and a dental school personal statement. Upon completion of dental school, a graduate receives either a DDS or DMD. There is essentially no difference between these two designations.
Step Four: Complete odontology training (timeline varies)
After receiving formal recognition as a dentist, individuals must complete training specific to forensic odontology. Many forensic odontologists receive most of their training through courses, lectures, and other resources provided by the American Academy of Forensic Science (AAFS).
Forensic odontology fellowship programs, other training, and related resources include those offered by the University of Texas San Antonio Center for Education and Research in Forensics, the New York Society of Forensic Dentistry, and the New York County Dental Society. Forensic odontologists may also complete relevant training through basic courses in forensic science and medicolegal death investigation.
Step Five: Obtain professional certification (timeline varies)
See the certification step below for details on this step.
The primary objective that informs the variety of tasks and duties a forensic odontologist customarily completes is the careful application of scientific and medical techniques, without bias, to locate and analyze dental and related oral materials. Common tasks include:
Completing such tasks requires a variety of skills. The skills necessary to complete the aforementioned tasks include:
As previously noted, the final stage in becoming eligible to practice forensic odontology is obtaining certification from the relevant professional certifying organization. In the case of forensic odontology, that organization is the American Board of Forensic Odontology (ABFO) within the American Academy of Forensic Science.
To become ABFO certified, a forensic odontologist must:
Once candidates fulfill the knowledge, experience, and other requirements, they can take the certification test. This test will examine candidate competencies in the following topics:
Bernd Geels is a Berlin, Germany-based freelance writer and artist. He holds an undergraduate degree in atmospheric science and two graduate degrees. He completed his most recent graduate degree in international environmental studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies in 2011. He is interested in healthcare, climate change, marine conservation, indigenous science, and refugee issues. You can reach him directly at [email protected].