How to Become a Dental Assistant in 5 Steps

Explore the career requirements for dental assistants. Get the facts about education, salary, licensure requirements and potential job growth to determine if this is the right career for you. Schools offering Dental Assisting degrees can also be found in these popular choices.

What Is a Dental Assistant?

Dental assistants work with dentists to provide services and information to patients. This position involves both direct patient care and working with dentistry equipment. It could also involve recording medical and dental information, scheduling appointments, or other administrative tasks. Dentist assistants need to have good communication skills in order to effectively discuss procedures or oral hygiene practices with patients.

The scope of practice varies slightly from state to state, as do licensing or certification requirements. Almost all dental assistants work in dentist offices, and they must be aware of safety considerations and knowledgeable about the equipment and procedures they assist with. The following chart provides more information about becoming a dental assistant.

Degree Required Certificate or diploma, associate's degree
Field of Study Dental assisting
Certification or LicensureMany states require dental assistants to be licensed or have professional certification; cardiopulmonary resuscitation certification may be required by professional certification organizations
Key Responsibilities Sterilize instruments; prepare work area before use and clean after use; assist dentist during procedures; maintain patient records; process x-rays and lab tests
Job Growth (2014-2024) 18%*
Median Salary (2015) $35,980*

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS)

What Does a Dental Assistant Do?

A dental assistant is a support staffer who helps dentists with a variety of patient care and treatment tasks. Their duties include explaining procedures to patients, instructing patients in oral care, sterilizing instruments, preparing instrument trays, providing chair side assistance during teeth cleaning and tooth extraction procedures, ordering dental supplies, and maintaining treatment records and patient histories. In states with more permissive regulations dental assistants may perform more advanced duties, such as applying temporary dental crowns, making tooth impressions or processing x-rays.

Step 1: Earn a High School Diploma

In some cases a high school diploma or GED is sufficient to earn a dental assistant position, but if you want to enroll in a college program you are required to have a diploma. High school chemistry, biology, office administration and health sciences courses can provide relevant background knowledge that might help you perform your duties.

Step 2: Earn a Dental Assistant Certificate

According to O*Net Online, approximately 63% of dental assistants have some college education ( Another 12% have an associate's degree. Certificate programs emphasize dental sciences and clinical practices, but may also include courses in biomedical sciences and liberal arts. Coursework might include oral anatomy and physiology, dental materials, dental radiography and assisting methods.

Step 3: Obtain Employment

Figures from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics show that approximately 318,800 people were employed as dental assistants in 2014 ( Employment is projected to reach 377,400 by 2024. The majority of assistants worked in dentist offices, but you might also find work in physicians' offices, government agencies and colleges and universities. As of May 2015, the median salary you could earn was $35,980.

Step 4: Obtain Certification

Some states have professional standards for dental assistants. In 37 states you can meet them by passing three exams that lead to a Certified Dental Assistant (CDA) credential. They are administered by the Dental Assisting National Board and are designed to test your knowledge of radiation health and safety, general chairside practices and infection control In addition, passing the radiation and health safety exam in 30 states permits you to perform radiological procedures. To be eligible for the CDA you need either two years of full-time or four years of part-time dental assistant experience and CPR certification.

Step 5: Advance Your Career

You have several options for advancement in the dental field, but most require further education. By earning an associate's degree in office management you could become a dental office manager or transition from providing care to becoming a dental products sales rep. Alternatively, you could apply your certificate credits towards an associate's degree or bachelor's degree in dental hygiene and become a dental hygienist.

What Are Some Related Alternative Careers?

Medical assisting is similar in many ways to dental assisting. It involves direct patient care but takes place in a hospital or clinic setting, typically under the guidance of a physician. Becoming a surgical technologist could be another good choice if you are considering the medical field. As with dental and medical assisting, surgical technology requires completion of a certificate program on top of a high school diploma. These professionals prepare operating rooms and assist surgeons during operations.

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