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.
A dental assisting program can take anywhere from nine months to two years to complete, depending on whether it’s a certificate, diploma or degree program. After finishing their education and passing any required certifications, dental assistants perform a variety of essential functions. Administrative tasks may include scheduling and confirming appointments, maintaining patient records and ordering dental supplies. Clinical duties include handing tools to the dentist during treatment and examination, sterilizing instruments, operating suction devices, processing X-rays and making impressions for dental fixtures.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, as of May 2014, dental assistants made an average annual salary of $35,390, with those in the 90th percentile earning $49,540. 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:
The field of dental assisting is expected to grow by 25 percent between 2012 and 2022, and compassionate, knowledgeable professionals are in demand to fill these roles. Numerous reasons exist for this growth. Coverage provided by some health insurance policies has expanded in recent years, leading to an influx of patients visiting dental offices. This growth is also influenced by a growing awareness of the public to links between preventative dental care and good oral health.
The 10 states experiencing the most job growth are:
After deciding on a career as a dental assistant, students 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.
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:
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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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.
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 and dentofacial orthodontics. These specialty areas are discussed in further detail below.
Certification and licensure requirements vary by state, and students 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. This 320-question exam is administered at Pearson VUE test centers and includes the following components:
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.
In addition to the CDA examination, students may also choose to complete the National Entry Level Dental Assistant test, also administered by the DANB. Students looking to work in specialized dental assisting can undertake further certifications, including:
Graduates 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 25 percent nationally between 2012 and 2022, much higher than the overall average for job growth.
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.
Students pursuing a career in dental assisting have multiple educational paths available to them, with the deciding factor typically resting on the possibility of further education. Diploma and certificate programs are great options for prospective students looking to enter the workforce quickly and do not foresee themselves undertaking more education. Students potentially interested in becoming a dental hygienist later in their career should consider completing an associate degree, allowing them to transfer these credits to a bachelor’s level program if desired.
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 studies in oral anatomy, radiography, office administration, dental materials and basic communication skills. Coursework is completed within nine to 12 months for full-time students, depending on individual program requirements. Classes are typically spread over three terms, with the bulk of hours taken 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. Potential students can learn more about specific courses they may encounter and what skills they can hope to gain in the table below:
Familiarizes students with the oral cavity and surrounding facial structure, covering topics such as anesthesia, mastication and occlusion
Introduces students to digital dental radiography and X-ray techniques, highlighting advanced technology and proper techniques
Provides an overview of materials used in dentistry, including cement, porcelain, bonding agents, metals and implants
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
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, students interested in progressing their careers 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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Many vocational and technical colleges, career schools and community colleges have online dental assistant programs for students 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, prospective students should do their research to ensure potential schools meet certain standards of academic excellence. Some of the most important qualities include:
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. A full list can be found 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.
While requirements for licensure and certification vary by state, national certification can be gained by 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.
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 undertake further academic coursework.
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.
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.
|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|
For those 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.
Sources: Bureau of Labor Statistics
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:
With so many dental assistant programs available, students can be selective about the program they choose. After identifying the features most important to them, students can use the search tool below to sort schools by location and degree level.