Odontology is the science of teeth. Odontologists study how they are structured, how they develop, and the various diseases that affect them. The term "forensics" means "of or having to do with questions of law." Forensic odontology is the application of an odontologist's work toward the legal sphere, such as in criminal cases.
Sometimes there's very little traceable evidence left to identify a victim or a suspect when a particularly gruesome crime occurs. Forensic odontologists are called upon by detectives and investigators to provide crucial clues whenever dental evidence is available.
Various unique dental characteristics have been used over the centuries to help identify human remains. None other than Paul Revere was the first person in the United States to use dental characteristics when he helped identify the bodies of American Revolutionary War soldiers, according to historian Esther Hoskins Forbes.
Forensic odontology has expanded well beyond the important work of identifying remains since that time. It has moved into solving crimes. In fact, forensic odontology has played a major role in some extremely high-profile cases, including the conviction of notorious serial killer Ted Bundy.
Forensic Odontologist Duties & Responsibilities
Working as a forensic odontologist involves particularly disturbing and gruesome sights and subject matter, but if you're fascinated by dentistry and teeth and you're interested in medicine, this might be the criminology career for you. Duties include the following:
- Attend accident or crime scenes: They can be called upon to assist in a number of cases including child abuse, murder, rape, and battery. They're called to the scenes of mass fatalities, such as plane crashes, to attempt to identify victims' remains.
- Attend autopsies: Forensic odontologists attend autopsies where they take plastic molds, photographs, X-rays, and measurements. They compare these to the dental records of missing persons to make proper identification.
- Collect evidence: Odontologists collect dental evidence from a variety of sources and use it to identify both victims and suspects. They can use it to determine a victim's likely age. Assailants might bite their victims. They'll leave impression evidence that a forensic odontologist can compare against samples from suspects to help identify the attacker. An odontologist can also help to determine whether bite marks are offensive or defensive.
- Analyze and observe evidence: Forensic odontologists operate under the assumption that teeth are unique to each individual. This is displayed in the way they're arranged in the mouth, how they wear down over time, the imprints they leave, and other characteristics such as bridges, dentures, braces, fillings, and crowns.
Forensic Odontologist Salary
Forensic odontologists are often general practice dentists or dental surgeons who assist pathologists or law enforcement agencies on a contractual basis. They might be professors of dental medicine or work in a dental office. Very few work solely in forensics. They are typically well paid for their services, although a forensic odontologist's salary varies based on the level of experience, geographical location, and other factors.
- Median Annual Salary: More than $156,240 ($75.12/hour)
- Top 10% Annual Salary: More than $208,000 ($100/hour)
- Bottom 10% Annual Salary: More than $72,840 ($35.02/hour)
Education, Training & Certification
Forensic odontologists must be educated as dentists, and then receive additional training to address the needs of the forensic component of the job:
- Education: Forensic odontologists must hold either a Doctor of Dental Surgery (DDS) or Doctor of Dental Medicine (DMD) degree.
- Forensic training: They must additionally receive training in forensic identification from an organization such as the American Academy of Forensic Science, the American Board of Forensic Odontology, the American Society of Forensic Odontology, or the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology.
- Additional training (optional): specialized training and coursework can be obtained through programs, meetings, and seminars at various universities throughout the U.S.
- Licenses and certifications: Trained forensic odontologists can also apply for diplomas from the American Board of Forensic Odontology to solidify their other credentials.
Forensic Odontologist Skills & Competencies
In addition to education and forensic training, forensic odontologists can excel in their jobs when they possess additional soft skills, such as the following:
- Communication skills: The job may require written reports and court testimony, and teamwork alongside specialists and law-enforcement officials.
- Critical thinking skills: Forensic odontologists may need to use their best judgment to match teeth and other physical characteristics to victims or suspects.
- Problem-solving skills: Individuals use tests and other methods to assist in solving crimes.
- Math and science skills: Statistics and natural science knowledge play a large part in analyzing evidence.
- Fine motor skills: Those interested in entering the field of odontology should have excellent fine motor skills. The job requires precision, sometimes under adverse circumstances.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the outlook for forensic science technicians, which includes forensic odontologists, over the next decade relative to other occupations and industries is strong, driven by high caseloads and technological advances that help forensic odontologists add even more value.
Employment is expected to grow by about 17% over the next ten years, which is faster growth than the average for all occupations between 2016 and 2026. This growth rate compares to the projected 7% growth for all occupations.
The cases that forensic odontologists help to investigate are often violent, gruesome, and disturbing. Entering into the practice is certainly not for the faint of heart and, in fact, it can be quite emotionally disturbing.
Most forensic odontologists work for state or local government entities, may need to travel to crime or accident scenes, and must work outdoors in all types of weather conditions.
Forensic odontologists may work in a regular dental practice and provide services as needed for investigations. They may also work full-time in a laboratory or office. The hours for this job are often irregular and exhausting.
Call-outs are not limited to regular nine-to-five schedules, and odontologists often find themselves working day and night, sometimes for extended periods of time in the event of natural disasters.
How to Get the Job
NETWORK & GET EXPOSURE
The American Board of Forensic Odontology organizes events to meet industry experts and people currently working as odontologists, and makes resources available to those interested in entering the field or furthering their work experience.
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