The average oral surgeon — also referred to as an oral and maxillofacial surgeon, OMFS or OMS — can make a great six-figure salary, well in excess of what a general dentist earns, but the many years of education after dental school to specialize in oral surgery can mean getting a late start on earning any salary and possibly racking up even more debt.
Is the extra time and money it takes to become an oral surgeon worth it?
Let’s examine the path to becoming an oral surgeon, how much it costs, and the average OMFS salary. From there we can help you determine whether the investment would be worth the result for you.
Requirements to become an oral and maxillofacial surgeon
An OMFS is a practitioner who removes wisdom teeth and other teeth that are impacted or infected and need to be extracted. These oral surgeons also perform other procedures, all of which require extensive training for several years after dental school.
Oral surgeons are also trained to understand and administer anesthesia. This is surgery after all. They handle complex procedures related to fractures and malformations in the jaw and cleft palate, temporomandibular joint (TMJ), and reconstructive surgery, according to the American Association of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeons.
To become this type of specialist, dental students need to first complete a four-year dental school program — either a doctor of dental surgery (DDS) or doctor of dental medicine (DMD) — followed by a four-year residency to obtain the OMS Certificate.
Many oral surgery students will seek a doctor of medicine degree integrated into their training. Doing so, however, increases the post-dental school training from four years to six years and also means incurring more student debt, though not as much as going to school to become a physician alone.
It’s a long and expensive road to become an oral surgeon, but it can be rewarding. Plus, unlike some other dental residencies, an OMS residency is funded by the Graduated Medical Education (GME) stipend, which means an OMS resident salary pays similar to a physician resident.
How much do oral surgeons make?
The American Dental Association in conjunction with the Health Policy Institute surveyed close to 1,500 dentists including specialists in 2019 about their incomes from 2018.
The study showed that dental specialists earn a substantial premium to general dentists. Of those dental specialists, OMFS salary ranks at the top.
Specialists, in general, earn much more. Associate general dentists earn $160,000, whereas non-practice-owning specialists earn $257,000 — nearly $100,000 more. Specifically, oral surgeons outearned prosthodontists, pediatric dentists, periodontists, endodontists and even orthodontists. Oral surgeons in private practice earned $420,000 on average, according to the survey.
That sounds like a tremendous salary compared to other professions, but it comes at a great cost.
Typical oral surgeon student loan debt
Dental school is expensive as it is, but when you add in four to six years of extra training, student loan debt can skyrocket due to accruing interest and possibly getting a dual degree.
The average dentist we have worked with at Student Loan Planner has $388,000 of student debt, whereas the average OMS has $584,000 in debt. That’s $196,000 of extra student debt compared to general dentists.
That financial burden also ranks as the second-highest average debt load by profession that we’ve seen here at Student Loan Planner. Many of our highest individual debt consults have been with oral surgeons. We’ve even had clients with more than $750,000 in student loans.
If you’re curious about which profession has the highest debt, it’s another dental specialty: Orthodontists are No. 1, mainly because residency is very expensive. We’ve helped a handful of orthodontists that had seven figures’ worth of student debt.
The level of student debt that OMS and other dental specialist professionals take on is a serious matter. Managing that kind of debt and paying it off requires an equally serious strategy.
The best student loan repayment strategy for an OMFS
In order to understand whether becoming an oral surgeon is worth it, examine the cost of paying back OMFS student debt.
Let’s look at an example of an average OMFS. Nick owes $587,000 in student loans and is starting his six-year residency earning $55,000. His income will rise by about $2,000 each year, after which he’ll make $300,000 his first year post-residency and then $325,000 in the following year.
Should he pay back his loans in full knowing he’s going to be eventually earning good money, or should he go on an income-driven repayment (IDR) plan to keep his payments low and go for taxable student loan forgiveness?
Let’s compare the three IDR plan options of PAYE, REPAYE and student loan refinancing over a 20-year period. All of these options would get Nick debt free in about the same amount of time:
We’ll remove REPAYE from the running because it is the most expensive way to pay back the loans of the three options, mainly because REPAYE payments go on for 25 years, five years longer than PAYE. Those payments will be the highest payments he’d make because his income will be at its peak.
The remaining options are interesting. PAYE and refinancing both mean that Nick would be debt free in 20 years, but PAYE beats private refinancing hands down, and it’s actually not even as close as the numbers indicate.
If Nick consolidates right after graduating dental school in order to waive his grace period, he can start on PAYE just before starting residency with a $0 monthly payment. Compare that to the projected refi payment of $3,714 payment for 20 years. There’s no way he’d be able to afford that payment on his resident salary.
His payment on PAYE while in residency would never be greater than $350 per month in this projection. Even post-training, his PAYE payments are projected to never be higher than that 20-year refi payment.
Refinancing and paying off the loan in full seems appealing and doable with the future salary, but it would actually be better to keep payments low while in residency and also lower after training so he can save aggressively on the side to reach financial independence and other goals.
Any oral surgeon’s student loan repayment strategy will vary depending on income, amount of student debt, practice ownership goals, spouse’s income, student debt situation and other factors, however, so it’s important to review each unique situation carefully.
Is the average OMS salary worth the student debt?
Deciding whether pursuing a career as an oral surgeon is worth the cost is a tough call, so let’s talk through it.
The amount of student debt needed to become an OMS is only part of the picture. What really matters is how much it will cost to pay back the debt and how much extra salary can be earned compared to taking on the extra debt. Let’s look at a comparison to a general dentist.
The numbers show that a general dentist practice owner makes about $201,000 on average with $388,000 of student debt. An oral surgeon in private practice makes about $375,000 and has $584,000 of debt.
The projected cost to pay back student debt for a general dentist is about $622,000 out of pocket using PAYE. The projected cost for an oral surgeon is $822,000 on PAYE.
|Cost of Loan|
An OMS salary is $174,000 more than a general dentist practice owner. Let’s dig a little deeper by looking at how the take-home pay could differ.
Let’s say that the oral surgeon is in a 40% marginal tax bracket (federal and state), so they take home an extra $104,400 per year compared to a general dentist. The extra cost of loan repayment is projected to be $200,000.
At that rate, it would take about two years to earn enough after-tax money to compensate for the higher debt load. In other words, an oral surgeon can recoup the extra cost of residency within two years of practicing, which is potentially a very good return on investment.
But, an even bigger factor is that an oral surgeon is also missing out on up to six years of earning a six-figure income to take on the extra certification compared to a general dentist. Oral surgeons have to play catch up.
How long will it take to recoup the lost salary and pay off the extra debt with the OMS salary?
It takes 13 years after dental school to recoup the lost income from pursuing oral surgery, plus two more years to recoup the $200,000 that it costs to repay the extra debt.
Is the debt worth it?
The answer is yes, if looking at it strictly from a numbers standpoint, but it’s a long and costly road. Dentists who are considering the OMS route need to be sure that it’s a path they want to take before committing to school and residency.
An oral surgeon who doesn’t want to play financial catch-up over 15 years can find ways to minimize their debt and earn more than the average, too. For example, someone looking to become an oral surgeon would want to avoid private dental school to keep the relative debt to a minimum. Also, they can choose to live and practice outside of the top 10 most populated areas to earn a higher salary where there is greater demand for their skills. Both of those factors can cut up to five years off of the break-even timeline.
Oral surgeons can get on a solid student loan repayment plan
Oral surgeons can find a clear path to pay back their student loans — one that could not only save them significantly more money but also could give them a step-by-step action plan to get it done. An oral surgeon salary can be quite substantial, but part of figuring out whether it’s worth the associated student debt load depends on your loan repayment strategy and your career choices. Wise choices can lessen the potential debt load.
Student Loan Planner has done over 3,600 student loan consultations for clients totaling over $925,000,000 of student loan debt. We can help you figure out the optimal repayment plan in just one hour no matter what your unique circumstances and career goals are. Plus, we include email support after the consultation to continue to answer your questions and help you implement the plan.
I work with borrowers who owe more than $400,000 in student loans and am very familiar with loan repayment strategies specifically for oral surgeons. Feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have any questions.
Our team can help anyone, though, so choose the right consultant for you based on your individual circumstances.