How to Become a Dental Assistant
Dental assistants have one of the most versatile positions in the industry with a range of responsibilities, including patient care and support.
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2 Years

The Definitive Guide to Becoming a Dental Assistant

If you appreciate a healthy smile and love helping people, you might want to consider a career as a dental assistant. This rapidly growing career provides plenty of opportunities for friendly, helpful people who want to make a difference.

Does it sound perfect to you? Read on to learn everything you need to know about how to become a dental assistant.

Learn Everything About Being a Dental Assistant

Before you learn how to become a dental assistant, it’s important to understand what to expect from the job and career prospects. If the daily tasks don’t interest you, or the pay rate is lower than you’d like, you might want to switch gears.

Role and Traditional Duties

Dental assistants have one of the most versatile positions in the industry with a range of responsibilities, including patient care and support. Perhaps the most important part of the job is keeping patients comfortable and informed, but that involves various tasks.

  • Take x-rays, imaging, and impressions.
  • Record patients’ medical histories.
  • Support the dentist during dental procedures.
  • Handle sterilization of equipment instruments and manage the office’s infection control procedures.
  • Educate patients on procedures, oral care, and other important dental matters.
  • Serve as liaison with patients, vendors, insurance companies, and more.
  • Some states allow dental assistants to handle additional procedures, like fluoride treatments.

Additionally, many dental assistants perform a range of general office tasks to ensure things flow smoothly. Think of the dental assistant as the jack of all trades in any professional setting.

Pay Range

While some people truly love working as a dental assistant for the pure joy of helping people, you might want to know more about salary. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), dental assistants made around $19.80 per hour and over $41,000 per year in 2020.

Career Prospects

The BLS notes that the long-term job outlook is favorable with an expected 11% increase by 2030, that’s around 44,000 new openings each year. Plus, you have your choice of work settings, including:

  • General dental practice
  • Specialty dental practice, like orthodontics
  • Solo dentist
  • Group practice or clinic
  • Public health facility
  • Dental sectors in hospitals
  • Insurance companies

Regardless of where you work, dental assistants typically enjoy flexible schedules in a pleasant environment. While most dental assistants work full-time, the demand is so great that part-time positions are increasingly common.

Fulfill Your State Education and Certification Requirements

Like other medical professionals, dental assistants require a minimum education level and some type of certification or licensure.

Each state establishes its own requirements for education and certification. It’s a good idea to double-check your state’s minimum requirements before starting a program.

Basic Requirements

The path to becoming a dental assistant starts with a solid education. You must have a high school diploma or GED to enter a dental assistant program or apply for a job in the field. Dental assistants must also complete first aid and CPR certification classes.

Dental Assistant Programs

While some states permit you to become a dental assistant with a high school diploma or GED, many require more training. There are several programs available at technical and vocational schools, community colleges, universities, and dental schools. You might want to consider one of the 240 programs accredited by the Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA).

While it is possible to find shorter courses, most dental assistant programs take nine months to two years to complete. It depends on what you hope to achieve and how soon you want to start working.

Certificate Programs

Certificates take less time but typically provide students with enough education to secure an entry-level position. That path allows you to start working sooner, but you can also transition to a longer degree program.

If you already have a degree and want to shift gears to be a dental assistant, a shorter certificate program might be the best option for you. It’s also a helpful path for people who want to specialize.

Advanced Degrees

Associate’s degrees take two years at a minimum but involve more comprehensive training. Students can expect to complete core coursework, including English and mathematics. These degrees also transfer to four-year programs.

Regardless of the program, students participate in a blend of lectures and clinical training. Expect to learn about human anatomy (focused on oral structures), dental tools and materials, imaging, and office administration.

Consider an Externship

Externships are valuable opportunities that provide experience in a real dental setting. Some programs require externships to complete the training, but it’s usually voluntary.

It’s in your best interest to complete an externship to strengthen your resume. You can also get an idea about the type of setting you prefer to work in when you enter the field. Additionally, some externships allow trainees to explore a specialized area of dentistry.

Certification and Licensing

While each state has unique requirements, you typically need to be CPR-certified and successfully complete an accredited dental assistant program. Many states require that potential dental assistants complete testing to establish competency.

Check with your state’s dental board or the Dental Assisting National Board (DANB) to determine the steps toward certification and licensure.

DANB Exams and Certifications

DANB is an excellent resource, and the organization provides five national certifications and some state-specific exams. The organization provides study materials and access to review courses to help you prepare for each exam.

  • National Entry Level Dental Assistant (NELDA)
  • Certified Dental Assistant
  • Certified Orthodontic Assistant
  • Certified Preventive Functions Dental Assistant
  • Certified Restorative Functions Dental Assistant

These additional certifications can boost your resume and help you land specialty positions. It’s possible to take individual components of several exams depending on how you want to use them.

Apply for a Dental Assistant Position

Once you meet the minimum requirements for your state, it’s time to apply for a position. Hopefully, your educational experience helped you decide whether you want to work in the private or public sector and the size of office or clinic you prefer.

Building Your Resume

Your resume should highlight your educational background, especially any internships or externships you completed. Also, highlight any accolades or additional certifications you earned that qualify you to perform additional duties.

Maintaining Professional Certifications

Dentistry is constantly evolving with new equipment and technology to improve the work and patient experience, so you might want to continue your education after you secure a position.

Typically, dental assistants need to maintain current CPR certification at a minimum. Some states also require dental assistants to recertify to ensure they remain in touch with current trends and technology.

Advancing Your Career

There is always room to obtain additional certifications, take classes to learn new technology, and even obtain an advanced degree. It’s possible to start as a dental assistant and move to other specialties or train to become a dental hygienist, dentist, or orthodontist.

You also might want to join a professional organization, like the American Dental Assistants Association (ADAA). It advocates for the profession and supports dental assistants with educational and credentialing opportunities.

Now you know how to become a dental assistant and what to expect with the career. It’s a flexible and rewarding opportunity for those who want to help people and still have time for themselves and their families.