Dental assisting is a popular career choice for many reasons, including job stability, quick entry to the workforce, and the ability to help others. Whether scheduling appointments, taking X-rays or assisting dentists with routine or specialized procedures, dental assistants must have great levels of skill and attention to detail. In the guide below on how to become a dental assistant, you will learn about the steps needed to become a dental assistant, available training programs, components of a successful career, salary data and overall job outlook.

What Does a Dental Assistant Do?

Dental Assistant Career Basics

Dental assistants are frequently seen as crucial members of the dental team, providing a spectrum of services to support both dentists and administrative staff. While some states do not require formal licensure, others do, meaning that paths to the workforce vary. It also means the work dental assistants do may vary.

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Steps to Becoming a Dental Assistant

After deciding on a career as a dental assistant, you will need to meet a number of requirements before entering the field. The section below provides a step-by-step guide to becoming a dental assistant. In addition to classroom teaching, most schools for dental assistants provide hands-on learning opportunities in a clinical setting.

Step 1
Decide on the best educational path
Students typically complete a dental assistant program at either a community college or technical school. Programs often take one to two years to complete, depending on whether a student is pursuing a certificate, diploma or associate degree. In addition to classroom teaching, most programs provide hands-on learning opportunities in a clinical setting. Coursework commonly includes:
  • Oral anatomy
  • Dental materials
  • Dental office administration
  • Dental pharmacology
  • Dental radiography
  • CPR and first aid
While some states do not require students to complete an academic program to begin their careers as dental assistants, people who take this step often have a leg up on the competition when it comes to landing their first job.
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Step 2
Complete an externship
Another way dental assistants-in-training can gain experience and stand out from the competition is by completing an externship. Numerous academic programs offer externships as a voluntary component of coursework, providing invaluable real-world training opportunities. During this time, students can hone their skills in areas of chairside assisting, oral anatomy, dental pathology, radiology, oral hygiene and dental pharmacology. Students looking to work in specialized areas of dentistry, such as pediatric or orthodontic care, can focus on these areas during their externships.
Step 3
Choose a focus
Dental assistants can specialize in many different areas of oral care. In addition to general dentistry, other areas open to experienced and educated dental assistants include:
  • Pediatric dentistry
  • Endodontics
  • Periodontics
  • Maxillofacial surgery
  • Prosthodontics
  • Dentofacial orthodonticsd
These specialty areas are discussed in further detail below.
Step 4
Complete state certification or licensing requirements
Certification and licensure requirements vary by state, and you can learn more about these mandates by contacting their state dental board or by visiting the Dental Assistant National Board’s website.
In states where certification is necessary, students typically pass the DANB’s Certified Dental Assistant (CDA) examination. Pearson VUE test centers administers this 320-question exam, which includes the following components:
  • General Chairside
  • Radiation Health and Safety
  • Infection Control

Out of 900 available points, candidates must score 400 or better to be certified. Students who do not pass the exam can either simply retake the exam — provided their state does not require additional coursework — or complete more certification preparation courses and training modules before retaking the exam.
Step 5
Undertake other forms of certification or licensure
In addition to the CDA examination, students may also choose to complete the National Entry Level Dental Assistant test, which the DANB also administers. Students looking to work in specialized dental assisting can undertake further certifications, including:
  • Orthodontic Dental Assistant
  • Preventive Functions Dental Assistant
  • Restorative Functions Dental Assistant
Step 6
Land an entry-level job
Once you graduate, you should have a variety of job opportunities, either in a general dentistry setting or in a specialty area. Dental assisting is one of the fastest growing occupations in the U.S., and the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the number of dental assistant positions is set to grow 7% nationally between 2019 and 2029, much higher than the overall average for job growth.
Step 7
Return to school
After working for a number of years, dental assistants may choose to complete an advanced degree. Those who obtained an associate degree during their initial academic training can often transfer existing credits to a bachelor’s degree in dental hygiene. This 4-year degree opens the door for increased career mobility and greater earning potential.

Dental Assistant Earnings and Job Outlook

Dental Assistant Salaries: Facts & Tools

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, as of May 2020, dental assistants made an average annual salary of $41,180, with those in the 90th percentile earning $58,390. While level of experience and geographic location affects wages, becoming a dental assistant can be both professionally and financially rewarding. Prospective dental assistants should be aware that the states offering the highest salaries often require the highest levels of training. The top five states for earning potential are:

Use the map below to compare teaching salary estimates by state:

State

Dental Assistant Job Growth, Prospects and Outlook

The field of dental assisting is expected to grow by 7% between 2019 and 2029, and compassionate, knowledgeable professionals are in demand to fill these roles. Numerous reasons exist for this growth. Health insurance policies have expanded in recent years, leading to an influx of patients visiting dental offices. A growing awareness of the public links between preventative dental care and good oral health also influence this growth.

The 10 states experiencing the most job growth are:

  1. Texas
  2. Idaho
  3. Arizona
  4. New York
  5. Utah
  6. Tennessee
  7. Colorado
  8. North Carolina
  9. Washington
  10. Maryland

Dental Assistant Training Programs

If you’re pursuing a career in dental assisting, you have multiple educational paths available to you through school for dental assisting, with the deciding factor typically resting on the possibility of further education. Diploma and certificate programs are great options if you’re looking to enter the workforce quickly and do not foresee yourself undertaking more education. If you’re potentially interested in becoming a dental hygienist later in your career, you should consider completing an associate degree, allowing you to transfer these credits to a bachelor’s level program if desired.

Diploma or Certificate

Diplomas and certificates feature a number of overlapping courses, equipping graduates with the foundational skills needed to be competitive for entry-level positions. Common classes include:

You’ll complete coursework within nine to 12 months as a full-time student, depending on your program’s requirements. Classes are typically spread over three terms, and you’ll take the bulk of hours during the fall and spring semesters.

Programs of this nature are terminal, meaning credits earned are unlikely to be transferable should a student choose to pursue further education down the road. You can learn more about specific courses you may encounter and what skills you can hope to gain in the table below:

Oral Anatomy

Familiarizes students with the oral cavity and surrounding facial structure, covering topics such as anesthesia, mastication, and occlusion

Skills & Knowledge Gained

Identifying oral anatomical features Understanding anatomical variations Applying knowledge to clinical setting

Radiography

Introduces students to digital dental radiography and X-ray techniques, highlighting advanced technology and proper techniques

Skills & Knowledge Gained

Positioning X-ray for best results Recognizing usable versus unusable images Developing awareness of latest radiographic technology

Dental Materials

Provides an overview of materials used in dentistry, including cement, porcelain, bonding agents, metals, and implants

Skills & Knowledge Gained

Evaluating correct materials to use for procedures Establishing proper application techniques Understanding properties of individual materials

Clinical Dental Assisting

Allows students to have clinical experiences, often in a rotational schedule, to gain experience in common assisting skills they will be expected to perform in a dentist’s office

Skills & Knowledge Gained

Practicing assisting functions Understanding emergency procedures Developing professional and ethical assisting skills

Associate Degrees

This two-year degree covers many of the same topics delivered in certificate and diploma programs, but provides a more holistic and in-depth education. Students take general education coursework alongside core dental assisting classes.

While dental assisting is not typically offered as a stand-alone bachelor’s degree, if you become interested in progressing your career, you can often transfer credits gained at the associate level to a 4-year dental hygienist degree.

After completing an associate program in dental assisting, graduates should possess an assortment of skills to serve them well in their careers. Some of these skills include:

Administrative skills

In addition to assisting dentists with routine and specialty procedures, dental assistants often work with office managers to ensure all records are properly maintained and accurately filed. Graduates should understand common dental terminology and be familiar with dental practice management software.

Recording medical histories

Dental assistants often record medical histories from patients, ensuring dentists have a full account of any previous surgeries, current prescriptions, allergies, or preexisting medical conditions. Attention to detail is a crucial component of this skill set, both when recording information initially and when transferring medical records.

Taking X-rays

X-ray technology has come a long way since being developed, and today’s medical assistants need to stay informed of the latest technology being used in dental offices. Graduates should possess a firm understanding of radiographic techniques, ensuring dentists are provided with clear images to help them make important decisions about patient care.

Chairside manner

Just as doctors and other direct care providers are expected to have excellent bedside manners, dental assistants must understand how to provide professional, compassionate care to patients. Given the close proximity of this type of care, dental assistant graduates should learn how to set their patients at ease while administering services.

Using dental materials

Whether taking molds for dental fixtures, assisting with orthodontics, or helping fill cavities, dental assistants should be familiar with the spectrum of materials used to perform procedures. Graduates of associate degree programs should be able to identify the correct materials to use for specific types of care and understand how to best utilize each.

Finding a Quality Online Dental Assistant School

Many vocational and technical colleges, career schools, and community colleges have online dental assistant programs if you are seeking an education outside of a brick-and-mortar campus. Offerings include certificates, diplomas, and associate degrees, allowing students to complete their education without disrupting their schedules too much.

A number of schools also offer hybrid degree structures, allowing students to complete clinical components in a campus-based setting to gain hands-on experience. Other schools work with students to identify appropriate local organizations where students can undertake any clinical requirements.

While online programs in dental assisting are appealing for a variety of reasons, you should do your research to ensure potential schools meet certain standards of academic excellence. Some of the most important qualities include:

Proper Accreditation

Schools seeking accreditation for their dental assistant programs need to receive approval from the Commission on Dental Accreditation, a branch of the American Dental Association (ADA). Currently, 270 programs are accredited throughout the nation. You can find a full list on the ADA website. Students looking to attain certification by the Dental Assisting National Board should review this list carefully, as those attending unaccredited schools cannot take the exam until they have completed two years of work as a dental assistant.

Licensure and Certification Preparation

While requirements for licensure and certification vary by state, you can gain national certification successfully passing the Dental Assisting National Board’s Certified Dental Assistant examination. While this level of endorsement is not necessary in all states, graduates can use it both to stand out amongst the competition and to assure patients of their abilities. In addition to this national qualification, some states offer further licensure programs.

Accelerated Programs

The majority of certificate and diploma programs last nine to 12 months, while associate degrees typically take two years. Outside of these timeframes, a number of institutions offer accelerated programs lasting four to eight months. Students should fully research these to ensure they will gain the skills and knowledge necessary to succeed in their field. In many cases, these programs are designed for dental assistants already working in a similar capacity who have undergone on-the-job training but wish to complete further academic coursework.

Faculty with Relevant and Extensive Dental Assisting Experience

No matter how passionate students are about a career in dental assisting, their education may suffer if they don’t have excellent faculty members leading their program. Many departments share teacher biographies, allowing prospective students to get a sense of their backgrounds. In addition to making sure faculty hold proper credentials, students should verify that the instructors leading their classes have extensive experience in the world of dental assisting, with the best case being that they worked chairside for a number of years before transitioning into academia. Those looking to enroll in a program should specifically ensure that faculty members did not move directly into teaching after completing a dental assistant program, as their ability to share real-world experiences may be limited.

Components of a Successful Dental Assistant Career

Skills

The most successful dental assistants are skilled communicators, administrators and assistants to the dentists they serve alongside. Because a dental assistant is often the first person a patient encounters, dental assistants must be able to communicate professionally and compassionately. As the patient moves through the cycle of service, dental assistants must have great attention to detail as they collect and input important medical histories and data. Dental assistants frequently serve as the second pair of hands to the dentist, meaning they must have a nuanced understanding of professional patient care and possess an excellent chairside manner.

Credentials

Dental assistants have access to a variety of credentials. Some of the most popular professional certificates cover:

Dental assistants who have obtained certification through DANB are required to complete continuing dental education credits every year to maintain their certification.

Tools and Technology

Tools of the trade for dental assistants can be divided into three types:

Dentist Office Management Software Dentrix, SOFTDENT, EagleSoft, PracticeWork
Radiography devices X-ray equipment, imaging software (e.g., DEXIS, TigerView, Apteryx)
Dental instruments Examination mirrors and probes, sterilization equipment, dental molds, surgical utensils and anesthetic devices

Related Allied Health Careers

If you are considering a career similar to dental assisting, the chart below provides useful information on the salaries, growth projections and education and training necessary for a variety of similar occupations.

6%

Salary

$77,090

Education and Training:

Education and Training:

9%

Salary

$48,820

Education and Training:

Education and Training:

19%

Salary

$35,850

Education and Training:

Education and Training:

8%

Salary

$44,090

Education and Training:

Education and Training:

8%

Salary

$30,830

Education and Training:

Education and Training:

4%

Salary

$35,100

Education and Training:

Education and Training:

29%

Salary

$49,970

Education and Training:

Education and Training:

7%

Salary

$49,710

Education and Training:

Education and Training:

Sources: Bureau of Labor Statistics

What Do Workers in Related Careers Earn?

There are many occupations within the dental profession, with varying levels of education required and a wide range of salary potential. A few of the top related occupations are listed below:

Related Careers at a Glance

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Michelle Honeyager
Contributing Writer

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