How to Become a Dental Assistant

A woman at a dentist appointment getting xrays

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Dental assistants are often confused for dental hygienists, but they are two different roles. While dental hygienists are responsible for cleaning and examining the teeth and gums and reporting the findings to the dentist, dental assistants are more concerned with preparing the patient, equipment, and instruments. In addition to readying the patient for treatment, the dental assistant may also process x-rays, apply topical anesthetic, and insert or remove equipment or materials from the patient's mouth as needed. Dental assistants also assist dentists during procedures or surgery, by handing them instruments, or applying suction or rinse.

How to Become a Dental Assistant

Unlike dental hygienists, there is no officially required associate degree or bachelor's program for dental assisting. However, there are programs available for those who wish to learn the necessary skills and basic knowledge needed for a career as a dental assistant. There are three options: a one-year certificate or diploma training program, or a two-year associate's degree in community or technical college, (after graduating high school), or via on-the-job training.

On-the-job-training for all new dental assistants would be conducted by the dentist and other dental staff, regarding processes and procedures in the office, patient flow, etc.

Licensing and Certification

Most states regulate the work of dental assistants, and some states require a license or certification which typically entails successful completion of an accredited dental assisting program and a certification exam.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the credential of CDA, Certified Dental Assistant, is recognized in dozens of states and is administered by the Dental Assisting National Board (DANB).

What's to Like (and Not to Like)

One drawback of dental assisting is the lack of advancement opportunities. Many dental assistants enter the profession as a stepping stone for a more advanced career in dentistry or healthcare in general.

The plus side of a dental assisting career is that the job outlook is strong, and jobs should be relatively plentiful. (The BLS predicts "much faster than average growth" of 18 percent, from 2014-2024). Additionally, as health careers go, the training and education requirements are relatively minimal. Another positive about dental assisting careers is the schedule—no nights, no weekends, and flexibility to work part- or full-time depending on the employer's needs.

Salary Information

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median income for dental assistants is $35,980 per year for a regular full-time schedule of 40 hours per week, as of 2015. (About one-third of dental assistants work part-time.) The top ten percent of all dental assistants earn up to $50,660. These are fairly attractive salaries, especially considering that no college degree is required.

Also per the BLS data, there were about 318,000 dental assistants employed nationwide, as of 2014, which is the most recent data available as of 2016. The vast majority of these professionals (over 90 percent) work in a dental office. The BLS projects that by 2024 there will be a total of 377,000 dental assistants working nationwide.

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Article Sources

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  • Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor,Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2016-17 Edition, Dental Assistants.