Exploring dental career options: Oral pathology

November 28, 2014

Article by Global Pre-Meds
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A Gap Medics mentor explaining a procedure whilst treating a patient Most people who are considering becoming a dentist have probably heard about specialties, such as orthodontics and periodontics. But you may not be as familiar with oral pathology as a specialty.

Oral pathologists are dentists who complete additional training to diagnose various oral conditions, such as diseases of the mouth, jaw, face, salivary glands and related structures. Individuals who are interested in the science of dentistry and not as interested in direct patient care may find oral pathology to be a good fit.   



Responsibilities of an oral pathologist 

Patients who have certain symptoms or conditions may be referred to an oral pathologist from their general dentist. Oral pathologists may complete dental exams, review dental x-rays and perform tissue and bone biopsies in order to diagnose a condition, such as oral cancer or an infection. 

As opposed to treatment, an oral pathologist focuses on making a diagnosis and determining the cause of the condition. For example, an oral pathologist may obtain a tissue sample and analyze it under a microscope to determine if cancer cells are present.

Pathologists may also determine if an oral infection is caused by bacteria, a virus or fungus. Based on the type of disease or cause of the condition, a specific treatment plan will be determined. Oral pathologists work closely with general dentists, oral surgeons, periodontists and infectious disease doctors. Some oral pathologists are also involved in research or academia.  


Becoming an oral pathologist

The first step to becoming an oral pathologist is to graduate with a bachelor’s degree. Science classes, such as chemistry and biology, will usually be required for admission into dental school. After taking the dental school admission exam, you are ready to apply to dental school.

Four years of dental school is next. During dental school, you will take classes in oral pathology, but also get a broad education on all aspects of dentistry. You are also required to participate in dental labs and learn how to perform typical dental procedures.

Once you graduate from dental school and become licensed to practice, additional training is needed in oral pathology. A three-year residency in oral and maxillofacial pathology is required to work in this specialty. During residency, dentists take classes in oral pathology, oral microbiology and oral radiology.

Dentists also learn how to perform various types of biopsies and complete rotations in areas of pathology, such as cytopathology, laboratory medicine and hematopathology. Residents also often have opportunities to conduct or assist with research. After all requirements have been met, dentists are eligible to take the exam to become board certified in oral pathology.


Opportunities and salary

Oral pathologists work in dental laboratories and dental schools. According to the American Academy of Oral and Maxillofacial Pathology, the number of board certified oral pathologists are relatively low, which may mean less competition for employment opportunities. Salaries for oral pathologists vary. But according to a survey conducted by Salary Expert, oral pathologists earned between $200,000 and $250,000 a year in 2013.