Dental Assisting: Career and Salary Facts

Explore the career requirements for dental assistants. Get the facts about education and licensure requirements, salary 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 perform a variety of tasks that range from administrative duties to patient care. Their main responsibility is to help dentists during procedures, whether it's gathering supplies, preparing the patient, or using/cleaning tools. They also may take X-rays and other minor lab work. After that, they update the patient's medical records as necessary.

Get information on the training you'll need for this career, and learn what the salary potential is for dental assistants.

Training Required Postsecondary diploma or certificate may be preferred
Education Field of Study Dental assisting
Key Responsibilities Maintain and organize patient records; sterilize instruments; teach patients basic dental hygiene; assist dentists in processing x-rays
Licensure/Certification Licensure or certification may be required by state
Projected Job Growth (2014-2024)* 18%
Median Annual Salary (2015)* $35,980

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

What Would I Do as a Dental Assistant?

As a dental assistant, you would be part of a dental team working with a dentist or group of dentists. Your work would cover office duties as well as patient care. You would prepare patients for various dental procedures, sterilize and arrange equipment for regular checkups, take x-ray photographs of patients' teeth and aid dentists by keeping patients' mouths clear and dry during dental procedures. You would also instruct patients on proper tooth care and hygiene. You may have laboratory duties like taking molds of patients' teeth and office duties like filing paperwork and scheduling appointments.

What Education Do I Need?

Although you are not required to complete a training program, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) notes that dental assistants are increasingly seeking training before entering the workforce (www.bls.gov). In high school, you should focus on science and health classes, particularly biology. The American Dental Association's (ADA's) Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA) accredits certificate and associate's degree programs in dental assisting (www.ada.org). Your classes would include radiography (x-ray), office management and clinical procedures. These programs typically take one year to complete.

Do I Need to Be Certified?

Some states require you to be registered or licensed, so check with your state for specific regulations. The Dental Assisting National Board offers the Certified Dental Assistant (CDA) credential, which is recognized or required by many states (www.danb.org). To be eligible for certification, you must be certified in cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR).

In addition to CPR certification, you must also meet additional eligibility requirements. There are three ways by which you can become eligible to take the certification exam. You could complete a CODA-accredited training program, hold a high school diploma and complete 3,500 hours of dental assisting work experience within a period of 2-4 years or graduate from a CODA-accredited dental program. The exam consists of three parts: radiation health and safety, general chairside assisting and infection control.

What Salary Could I Earn?

The BLS reported in May 2015 that dental assistants made a median yearly wage of $35,980. The ADA noted that salaries for dental assistants vary by the responsibilities they have, so the more duties you are trained to perform the more earning potential you may have.

What Are Some Related Alternative Careers?

Other jobs in the area of assistance include surgical technologists and medical assistants. The former help doctors during surgical operations and do prep work. The latter's tasks vary widely by the health setting and the place they work. Generally they complete office and clinical work at hospitals, physician offices, etc. Both occupations require short-term postsecondary education. With an associate degree, one can become a dental hygienist, who specializes in cleaning teeth and maintaining good oral health.

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