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Law enforcement agencies rely on forensic dentists to help them unravel some of their most difficult cases. Forensic dentists can frequently identify a victim even when only the skeleton remains. They also play a key role in identifying suspects and determining the nature of injuries. The website Explore Health Careers notes that they earn between $150,000 and $185,000 a year and can look forward to an excellent career outlook.
Education and Certification
Forensic dentists must first earn a Doctor of Dental Science degree, a process that typically takes four years after completing an undergraduate program. They must then complete extensive hands-on training in forensic methods, often by working alongside a veteran forensic dentist. In addition, some universities offer post-graduate programs in forensic dentistry, such as the Fellowship in Forensic Odontology offered by the University of Texas Health Science Center San Antonio. Many forensic dentists also earn certification, such as that offered by the American Board of Forensic Odontology. To qualify, dentists must complete 30 cases, attend meetings and training programs and pass a certification exam.
Most forensic dentists hold full-time positions in general dentistry, contributing to criminal investigations on an “as needed” basis. For example, they might be called in for mass casualty incidents such as plane crashes or might assist in identifying remains that are badly decomposed. When examining just one body, they typically work in the lab, but when identifying multiple victims they often work at the scene. They must be available at a moment’s notice and may be required to work long and irregular hours, especially when responding to mass trauma events. The job can create significant physical and emotional stress, particularly when visiting disaster or crime scenes.
Much of forensic dentistry involves identifying victims of crime, trauma or disaster. Forensic dentists usually attend the autopsy, where they take photographs, X-rays, dental impressions and measurements of the victim’s skull. They compare these records to those of reported missing persons or to those belonging to a person believed to be the victim. Even if they can’t determine the victim’s identify, they can often estimate the age of skeletal remains, helping police narrow their search.
Forensic dentists also assist in assault, abuse and homicide cases, by helping police unravel the sequence of events or identify suspects. For example, they can compare a bite mark discovered on a suspect to that of a victim, showing the two engaged in a struggle. They can also place a suspect at the scene of a crime by matching his dental impressions to those found on evidence such as discarded chewing gum. In suspected abuse cases, they can sometimes determine a pattern of repeated and deliberately inflicted injuries.