How to Become a Dental Assistant: Complete Information + Step-by-Step Guide

Having a career as a dental assistant is a good choice for anyone who has great communication skills and enjoys meeting the public.

This versatile job provides consistent employment opportunities.

The training and education for becoming a dental assistant vary, but most programs can be completed quickly.

Dental assistants must be versatile, highly skilled workers as they may be asked to help take x-rays, greet or educate patients, help with scheduling, or assist the dental office staff in any other way.

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Job Description: What Does a Dental Assistant Do

As an integral member of any dental office team, the dental assistant performs a whole gamut of duties.

The dental assistant works with the dentist as well as the office staff and helps in any way they ask.

One moment the dental assistant may work closely with the dentist on a procedure and the next moment work alongside the office manager to schedule appointments or answer the phone.

Because the education level and training requirements for being a dental assistant vary greatly from state to state, so do their duties and responsibilities.

Duties

  • Scheduling and confirming appointments
  • Maintaining accurate patient records
  • Collecting and recording patient’s medical history
  • Assisting the dentist with procedures, treatment, and examinations
  • Taking x-rays
  • Providing patient care and education
  • Understanding the function of and appropriately using dental materials and supplies
  • Seating patients for procedures and treatment and ensuring that they are comfortable
  • Educating patients about proper oral care
  • Preparing sterile instruments and tools and handing them to the dentist
  • Using equipment such as suction hoses and dental supplies to maintain comfort for patients during procedures

Dental Assistant Salary: How Much Does It Pay

A dental assistant can expect to earn a median salary of $35,390 according to statistics provided by the Bureau of Labor in 2014.

However, salaries may range as high as $49,540.

The salary earned in this career vary by location, experience, and education/training.

In most instances, the salary varies according to the education and training earned.

The more education earned, the greater the expected salary.

Alaska, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Hampshire, and North Dakota are the states with the current highest salaries for dental assistants.

Average National Salary: $35,896

$28K
10%
$31K
25%
$35K
50%
$39K
75%
$43K
90%
*Salary information last updated 2018

Average Annual Salary by State

State Avg. Annual Salary
Alabama $34,065
Alaska $40,778
Arizona $35,573
Arkansas $33,204
California $40,311
Colorado $36,291
Connecticut $40,706
Delaware $38,265
Florida $34,532
Georgia $35,358
Hawaii $37,440
Idaho $34,065
Illinois $38,050
Indiana $35,071
Iowa $34,676
Kansas $35,322
Kentucky $34,030
Louisiana $35,645
Maine $36,255
Maryland $36,829
Massachusetts $40,850
Michigan $36,973
Minnesota $38,301
Mississippi $31,948
Missouri $35,322
Montana $34,173
Nebraska $33,958
Nevada $37,404
New Hampshire $37,906
New Jersey $40,993
New Mexico $33,527
New York $43,111
North Carolina $35,178
North Dakota $33,491
Ohio $35,789
Oklahoma $34,101
Oregon $37,691
Pennsylvania $38,624
Rhode Island $38,014
South Carolina $33,886
South Dakota $31,589
Tennessee $33,276
Texas $35,645
Utah $34,030
Vermont $35,430
Virginia $36,004
Washington $39,270
West Virginia $32,737
Wisconsin $35,717
Wyoming $32,666

Becoming a Dental Assistant: Step-by-Step Guide

Step 1Earn a High School Diploma or GED

The first step in becoming a dental assistant is to earn high school diploma or a GED.

Even though some states may not require formal training as a dental assistant, a high school diploma or GED is always recommended and will be necessary to obtain appropriate licensing and certification.

If formal training is required, a high school diploma is required in order to participate in the program.

Additionally, more education makes a person stronger candidate for any job and provides leverage to negotiate for a higher salary.

High school students could prepare for a career as a dental assistant by focusing on science courses such as biology, chemistry, and anatomy.

Technical skills including technology and accounting would also be helpful as the role of a dental assistant may include any job in the day-to-day operations of the dental office.

Step 2Select a Program for Earning Credentials

After obtaining a high school diploma, the next step is to select an appropriate, credentialed program.

Many technical schools and community colleges offer one-year and two-year programs.

Often the one-year program leads to a certificate in dental assisting while the two-year program results in an associate degree.

The Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA) provides accreditation to approved programs.

When selecting a school or college, check to be sure their program has received this accreditation.

Having obtained a degree or certification from an accredited program makes the licensing and certification process easier.

Step 3Participate in On-the-Job Training

The next step is on-the-job training.

Learning the role of a dental assistant through on the job training is all that is required in some states.

However, even licensed and certified dental assistants can benefit from close instruction from dentists and other dental professionals in the office.

Step 4Apply For and Obtain Licensing

After obtaining appropriate training, licensing should be applied for and obtained.

With this step in the process, the regulations vary greatly from state to state.

Some states require dental assistants to be licensed through a program that is certified by CODA.

Other states only regulate the taking of radiographs and coronal polishing.

Some states have no requirements at all.

Step 5Acquire Advanced Credentials

Some dental assistant candidates will need to acquire the Certified Dental Assistant (CDA) credential.

In order to be eligible to take this exam and earn this certification, candidates must graduate from an approved school or program, possess a current CPR certificate, and pass a national examination.

This national examination is divided into three parts:

  1. RHS – Radiation Health and Safety
  2. ICE – Infection Control Education
  3. GC – General Chairside Exam Skills

Step 6Prepare for the Future

The dental assistant’s career path does not have to stop here.

Opportunities abound for advancement in this field.

There are credentials in specialized areas of dental assisting as well.

These include:

  • COA – Certified Orthodontics Assistant
  • CPFDA – Certified Preventative Functions Dental Assistant
  • CRFDA – Certified Restorative Functions Dental Assistant

For many, working as a dental assistant is just the first step in learning about other health care professions.

A dental assistant is in a great position to get further education to become a dental hygienist, a dentist, or a nurse.

Some dental assistants even choose to specialize or focus on one specific area of treatment such as geriatrics, pediatrics, or orthodontics.


Dental Assistant Education & Requirements

In order to become a dental assistant, students must complete a dental assistant training program.

These programs are offered through technical schools as well as community colleges and universities, dental schools, and even some high schools.

Depending on the degree or certification being pursued, the training may last as long as two years.

Students can expect to learn about topics such as understanding and using dental materials, performing CPR and first aid, taking and processing dental radiographs, understanding the day to day operation of a dental office, and knowing about pharmacology as it relates to dental procedures and diseases.

Extensive training is not required in all states; however, in the states that do require higher education levels, the salary is higher as well.

Before embarking on any formal training or education program, checking the requirements for each state would be an important step.

The primary educational requirement of a dental assistant is a high school diploma or a GED.

Obtaining this educational level give the candidate eligibility for national certification, makes them qualified to perform the more complex dental procedures such as teeth cleaning and polishing.

Additionally, high school graduates are able to enroll in a training program or school to earn a dental assisting certification or even an associate degree.

Education and training to become a dental assistant will include a variety of topics.

These topics may include:

  • Science
    • Students will learn about the anatomy of the face, mouth, jaw, and lips.
    • Topics may also include the correct development of the anatomical structures as well as diseases associated with oral health.
  • Materials and Supplies
    • Students will learn the types of instruments and equipment needed to perform dental procedures and the function of each one.
    • Additionally, many chemical substances are used in a dental office for which the dental assistants must know their chemical composition, application, and precautions for all substances.
  • Radiography
    • Radiographs are used in the dental office to ensure proper diagnosis and care.
    • Dental assistants must learn to safely make x-rays and effectively use other imaging procedures.
  • Disease and Infection Control
    • Dental assistants learn the diseases and infections associated with oral health and the methods, medicines, and techniques used in the effective control, prevention, and transmission from one person to another.

Following classroom and textbook training, the dental assistant is ready to begin on-the-job training.

This allows the dental assistant an opportunity to put into practice the knowledge gained.

They will work in dental offices and assist dentists and other oral care professionals with patients in “real life” situations.

In an ideal setting, the dental office staff will provide the dental assistant experience with every facet of the daily operations.

They need to work with patients on a one-to-one basis, assist the dentist and staff and work with the administrative staff to understand the intricate details of the entire office.

Video About The Career


Certification & Licensing for Dental Assistants

The educational training needed to become a dental assistant will take approximately one year.

Successful candidates will receive a certificate or diploma upon graduation.

After completing the training program selected by the dental assistant, the licensing process may begin.

The Dental Assisting National Board outlines the eligibility requirement to sit for their exam.

The DANB offers different pathways depending on the training completed and the certification desired.

After being sure these requirements are met to become a Certified Dental Assistant (CDA), the candidate must pass an examination given by the Dental Assisting National Board (DANB).

The candidate must complete an application packet with the DANB and pay the applicable fee.

The DANB provides a schedule including a time and a place for taking the examination.

The examination takes four hours to complete and consists of 320 questions spanning three main categories.

The point range for the test is 100 points to a total possible 900 points.

A passing score is 400 points or more.

The three test sections include General Chairside Assisting (GC) which includes 120 questions, Radiation Health and Safety (RHS) which include 100 questions, and Infection Control (ICE) which includes 100 questions.

Certification Example:

Dental Assistant Certification Example

Average Training Program Duration: 2-4 Years

Dental assistant education and training programs may be as short as nine months or as long as two years depending upon the program selected

The nine-month to one-year programs results in a certificate of completion which suffices for many licenses

However, when a candidate completes the two-year program, they earn an associate degree

These degree holders are eligible for the more advanced licensing and are eligible to advance their career.

Popular Degree Programs


Job Outlook & Growth for Dental Assistants

Salaries are commensurate with the training earned.

As society has become more aware of maintaining good oral health, the job outlook for dental assistants is excellent.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics states that an 18 percent growth is expected for dental assistants in the next ten years.

In comparison, this is a much faster growth rate than what is expected for most professions.

Public demand is driving this positive job outlook.

An increasing number of people see the connection between good ORAL health and good OVERALL health.

Another contributing factor is longevity.

Improved techniques in dental care are allowing people to keep their natural teeth for a longer period of time.

This increases the demand for proper dental care.

Employment Growth Projection: 19.4%

332,000
2016
396,600
2026

That's a higher than average projected growth of 64,600 jobs.

Dental Assistant: Interest Over Time


Should You Become a Dental Assistant?
(Data-Driven Review)

Overall Satisfaction

Overall Satisfaction: High

Working as a dental assistant is a very rewarding career.

Because some people fear their visit to the dentist, your calm, reassuring demeanor may be just what is needed to make this a positive experience.

Knowing that you have made a dental visit pleasant for a patient as well as providing quality care and professional knowledge about oral health care increases your job satisfaction.

Average Salary

Average Salary: Medium

A dental assistant can expect to earn a median salary of $35,390 according to statistics provided by the Bureau of Labor in 2014.

However, salaries may range as high as $49,540.

The salary earned in this career varies by location, experience, education and training, and the duties and responsibilities assigned to the dental assistant.

Also, for the dental assistant who wants to advance their career, further certifications and specializations are available. An increased salary would go along with these advancements.

Job Growth Outlook

Job Growth Outlook: High

The job growth outlook for dental assistants is high.

First, people have become more aware of the importance of good oral health care.

Many equate good oral health with good overall health.

These individuals seek preventive care starting early in life and continuing for many years.

This good care results in people keeping their natural teeth for most of their lifetime.

Thus, the elderly population also has a need for dental care. The demand for dental services is projected to continue to increase.

Education Duration

Education Duration: 2-4 Years

Dental assistant education and training programs may be as short as nine months or as long as two years depending upon the program selected.

The nine-month to one-year programs results in a certificate of completion which suffices for many licenses.

However, when a candidate completes the two-year program, they earn an associate degree.

These degree holders are eligible for the more advanced licensing and are eligible to advance their career.

Personal Skills Needed

Personal Skills Needed

In order to be an effective dental assistant, a person must pay attention to details.

When working with radiographs, charts, and infection and disease, there is no room for error.

The dental assistant must remain aware of the tasks at hand be ready to identify potential problems.

A dental assistant needs to have excellent interpersonal skills.

Spending much time with patients face to face requires the ability to provide conversation and empathy.

Being a good listener is very important as well.

The patient will provide information necessary to provide timely information about good oral health.


Frequently Asked Questions

Q. How Many Hours Does a Dental Assistant Work?

Dental assistants typically work a normal business day.

Some clinics offer evening and weekend appointments.

Each dental office will have its own schedule so be sure to ask about that when interviewing.

Q. What Does a Dental Assistant Do?

The dental assistant will perform a wide range of duties in a dental office.

The assigned tasks may relate more toward dentistry in which they would assist the dentist such as preparing the treatment area, seating the patient and being sure they are comfortable, sterilizing and handing the dentist tools and supplies, drying the patient’s mouth during procedures, and instructing and education the patient following a procedure.

They may also work directly with the office staff and participate in jobs such as scheduling appointments, making follow up and reminder phone calls, and maintaining and filing patient records.

Q. How Can a Dental Assistant Demonstrate Professionalism?

A dental assistant can demonstrate professionalism through the way they treat their patients and coworkers.

Being caring and empathetic toward everyone promotes good working relationships.

The dental assistant should be well groomed with neat, work approved clothing and good personal hygiene including hair, face, hands, and nails.

Most dental professionals wear masks and eye protection in the treatment area for the safety and well-being of the patient.

Q. When Is The Dental Assistant Day/Week?

Dental Assistant’s Week is held annually during the first full week of March.

The week honors the dental assistant for their various roles and responsibilities and for the many ways they assist in providing quality oral health care.

The week usually has a theme that highlights the role dentistry plays in overall health and the ways in which the dental assistant contributes to providing oral health care.

Q. How Often Should a Dental Assistant Get a Raise?

The ability to receive a raise would follow the procedure of the dental office in which the dental assistant works.

The typical time span for evaluation and raise assignment occurs annually.

If the dental assistant earns a new certification or licensing, the need for a raise might occur sooner than their one year anniversary with the dental office.

Q. What Is the Difference Between a Dental Hygienist and a Dental Assistant?

The dental assistant assists the dental office staff.

They typically perform tasks assigned to them by others and in turn, they are supervised by the one who gave them the assignment.

A dental hygienist often works directly with the patients.

They may perform dental cleanings and other dental procedures without the direct supervision of the dentist or anyone in the dental office.

Dental hygienists usually hold a higher degree of education than a dental assistant.


Dental Assistant Information by State


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