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How to Become a Dental Assistant

By Ajoke Aminu

Published:

Do you want to work closely with dentists, helping patients get on the road to oral health? Well, that’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to dental assistant duties and qualifications. Arm yourself with the necessary knowledge —from education requirements to salary expectations. Let’s set you up for success in one of the fastest-growing allied healthcare careers today.

Career Summary

Dental Assistant Salary

Reports show the various earning powers of dental assistants according to their levels and on average:

  • Entry Salary (US$35k)
  • Median Salary (US$41k)
  • Executive Salary (US$49k)

In essence, the dental assistant salary doesn’t hold much weight compared to the general average income of US citizens.

What does a Dental Assistant do?

The dental assistant is a key member of the dental team, responsible for a wide range of tasks- from gathering patient histories and taking X-rays to applying topical anesthetics and preparing fillings, dental assistants make sure everything runs smoothly during your visit.

Dental Assistant Career Progression

  • Dental Assistant (Entry-Level/Junior): As a Dental Assistant, you work directly with dentists and dental hygienists, providing chairside assistance during dental procedures, taking patient histories, preparing treatment rooms, sterilizing instruments, and performing basic administrative tasks.
  • Expanded Functions Dental Assistant (EFDA): An EFDA has advanced training and skills that allow them to perform additional procedures, such as placing and removing dental fillings, applying sealants, taking impressions, and fabricating temporary crowns. This role requires additional certification or licensure beyond the basic Dental Assistance role.
  • Dental Office Manager: Dental Office Managers oversee the administrative operations of a dental practice. They handle scheduling, billing, insurance claims, staff management, and patient communication. This role requires strong organizational and leadership skills to ensure the smooth functioning of the dental office.
  • Dental Assisting Educator: Dental Assisting Educators teach and train future Dental Assistants in educational institutions or vocational schools. They develop curriculum, deliver lectures, conduct hands-on training, and evaluate students’ progress. This role requires expertise in dental assisting techniques, patient care, and instructional methods.
  • Dental Office Executive/Administrator: Dental Office Executives or Administrators hold top-level managerial positions in dental practices or dental groups. They oversee multiple aspects of practice management, including financial management, strategic planning, human resources, marketing, and compliance with industry regulations.
Dental Assistant Career Progression

Pros:

  • Job stability and strong demand for dental assistants. 
  • Benefits packages, including healthcare coverage, retirement plans, and paid time off.
  • Flexible work schedules, including part-time and evening/weekend options, allowing for better work-life balance.
  • Strong sense of fulfillment from helping patients feel comfortable and confident during dental procedures.

Cons:

  • Physically demanding work that can involve long periods of standing, bending, and wearing personal protective equipment.
  • Exposure to potentially hazardous materials and substances, such as dental materials, chemicals, and infectious diseases. 
  • Dealing with challenging patients, including those who may be anxious, uncooperative, or have special needs.
  • Fast-paced and sometimes stressful work environment, especially during busy periods or emergencies.

Useful Skills to Have as a Dental Assistant

  • Effective Communication
  • Dental Procedures Knowledge
  • Infection Control
  • Organizational Skills
  • Manual Dexterity

Popular Dental Assistant Specialties

  • Orthodontic Dental Assistance
  • Endodontic Dental Assistant
  • Oral Surgery Dental Assistance
  • Pediatric Dental Assistance
  • Periodontal Dental Assistant

How to become a Dental Assistant

Dental Assistant 5 Steps to Career

Becoming a Dental Assistant Through Practical Experience

Dental assistance is a career field that combines hands-on practical experience with the opportunity to help people. Unlike other healthcare professions, becoming a dental assistant requires practical experience even more than a traditional four-year degree. You can gain experience through on-the-job training or by completing a dental assisting program. Not only will you learn the ins and outs of the dental office, but you’ll also get hands-on experience working with patients and assisting dentists with procedures.

Where to Find Internship Opportunities as a Dental Assistant

Dental offices are always in need of dental assistants, so discovering internships the traditional way isn’t challenging. Otherwise, you can sink your teeth into these internship opportunities:

  • Dental Clinics: Many dental clinics offer internships for dental assisting students or recent graduates. These internships allow you to work alongside experienced professionals, assist in dental procedures, and gain practical knowledge in a clinical setting.
  • Dental Schools: Dental schools often have internship programs where dental assisting students can work in their on-campus clinics. This provides an excellent opportunity to learn from faculty members and interact with dental students and other professionals in the field.
  • Specialty Dental Practices: Consider internships at specialty dental practices such as orthodontics, oral surgery, or periodontics. These internships allow you to focus on a particular area of dentistry and gain specialized skills and knowledge.
  • Community Health Centers: Community health centers and nonprofit organizations may offer internships in their dental departments. These settings often serve underserved populations, providing you with exposure to a diverse range of dental cases and the chance to make a difference in the community.
  • Research Institutions: If you have an interest in dental research, look for internships at research institutions or dental schools with research programs. These internships may involve assisting with research projects, data collection, or laboratory work.
  • Dental Supply Companies: Some dental supply companies or dental equipment manufacturers offer internships to dental assisting students. These internships can provide insights into the industry and allow you to learn about different dental products and technologies.

Top Skills Professional Dental Assistants Must Have

  • Chairside Assistance: You will learn how to assist dentists during various dental procedures, ensuring proper instrument handling, suctioning, and providing assistance as needed.
  • Sterilization and Infection Control: You will gain knowledge of proper sterilization techniques, disinfection protocols, and infection control measures to maintain a safe and hygienic dental environment.
  • Dental Radiography: You will be trained in taking and developing dental X-rays, understanding positioning techniques, and ensuring radiation safety for both patients and staff.
  • Dental Equipment Operation: You will become familiar with operating and maintaining dental equipment such as dental chairs, suction devices, dental drills, and other instruments commonly used in dental procedures.
  • Patient Care and Communication: You will develop skills in interacting with patients, addressing their concerns, and providing empathetic care. You will also learn to effectively communicate oral health instructions and post-treatment care guidelines.
  • Dental Impressions and Models: You will learn how to take dental impressions of patients’ teeth and gums, as well as create accurate dental models that are used for various purposes, including crowns, bridges, and orthodontic treatments.
  • Dental Office Administration: You may acquire basic administrative skills, including scheduling appointments, maintaining patient records, billing, and managing dental supplies and inventory.
  • Dental Emergency Preparedness: You will be trained to handle dental emergencies and provide immediate assistance in situations such as tooth fractures, dental trauma, or sudden onset of pain.

Choosing the Education Route to Become Dental Assistant Pro

If you are considering advancing or diversifying your career as a dental assistant or would simply like to stand out in this profession, furthering your education is certainly the smart thing to do. Now, you may be wondering which education route is the best option for you. There are a variety of options available, each with its own unique benefits. Whether you choose to attend a vocational school, community college, or online program, we’ve done the research to help you find a program that fits your individual needs and learning style. So, delve deeper, weigh your options, and choose the education route that best suits you– your future as a dental assistant awaits!

Do I need a degree to become a Dental Assistant?

No, a degree is not typically required to become a dental assistant– but we already knew that. In most cases, dental assistant training programs or dental assisting certificate programs are sufficient to enter the field. These programs are usually offered by community colleges, technical schools, or dental schools and can range in duration from several months to a year. Some high schools may also offer dental assisting programs.

Although the dental assistant is listed as one of the good careers not requiring a college degree, obtaining certification, specifically as a Certified Dental Assistant (CDA) can enhance job prospects and demonstrate a higher level of competency. However, a dental assistant associate degree would be more appropriate if you are aiming higher.

Dental Assistant Certificate VS Associate Degree

Should you go for the dental assistant certificate, or take the plunge and pursue an associate degree? While both options will eventually lead you into the dental assistant world, the certificate program tends to be a quicker and less costly journey. Nevertheless, the associate degree takes things to the next level, offering you a more well-rounded education in the dental field, such as courses in radiology and dental anatomy. Read further if you want to know the importance of obtaining a degree as a dental assistant.

Dental Assistant Certificate
  • Curriculum: Certificate programs cover essential topics such as dental anatomy, infection control, chairside assisting, dental radiography, and office administration. They are designed to prepare students for entry-level positions as dental assistants.
  • Career Prospects: A certificate can qualify you for entry-level dental assistant positions in various dental settings. It allows you to start your career relatively quickly and gain practical experience.
  • Flexibility: Certificate programs offer flexibility, as they can often be completed on a part-time or evening basis. This allows individuals to balance their education with other commitments.
  • Advancement: While a certificate is sufficient for entry-level positions, obtaining certification as a Certified Dental Assistant (CDA) can enhance job prospects and demonstrate a higher level of competency.
Dental Assistant Associate Degree

Now that you are thinking beyond entry-level roles, you should consider these factors:

  • Curriculum: Associate Degree programs cover a wider range of topics, including dental sciences, oral health, radiography, dental office management, and advanced dental procedures. They provide a more in-depth understanding of the dental field.
  • Career Prospects: An Associate Degree can open up additional career opportunities, such as supervisory roles, dental sales, dental hygiene education, or positions in specialized dental practices. It may also make you a more competitive candidate for job openings that require higher education.
  • Advancement: An Associate Degree can serve as a stepping stone for further education, such as pursuing a Bachelor’s degree in Dental Hygiene or other dental-related fields.
  • Personal Goals: If you have long-term aspirations of advancing your career in the dental field, teaching, or pursuing roles beyond chairside assisting, an Associate Degree may be a more suitable choice.

How Long Does it Take to Become a Dental Assistant?

  • Dental Assistant Certificate or Diploma: These programs typically take around 9 months to 1 year to complete. They are focused on providing the essential knowledge and practical skills needed to work as a Dental Assistant.
  • Dental Assistant Associate Degree: Pursuing an Associate Degree in Dental Assisting usually takes about 2 years to complete. Associate Degree programs offer more comprehensive education, covering a broader range of dental topics and providing more in-depth training.
  • On-the-Job Training: In some cases, individuals may start working as dental assistants with only on-the-job training provided by the employer. This route does not require formal education, but the duration of training can vary significantly depending on the employer’s requirements and the individual’s ability to learn and perform the necessary tasks. It’s important to note that formal education or certification may still be preferred or required by some employers.

The Cost of Obtaining a Dental Assistant Degree at a University

The cost of obtaining a dental assistant degree at a university can vary significantly depending on several factors. These factors include the university or college you choose, the program’s duration, whether it is a certificate or degree program, and the location of the institution.

On average, the cost of an Associate Degree program in Dental Assisting at a university or college in the United States can range from approximately $6,380 to $48,730 or more– meanwhile, a certificate or diploma costs $2,180 to $30,510. This cost estimate is a general range and can differ significantly based on the factors mentioned above.

It’s important to research and compare the tuition and fees at different institutions to get a more accurate idea of the cost. Additionally, consider exploring financial aid options, scholarships, grants, and student loan opportunities to help offset the expenses associated with obtaining a degree.

Can I Become a Dental Assistant through Online Education?

Yes, it is possible to become a Dental Assistant through online education. Many institutions offer online programs and courses for Dental Assisting, providing flexibility for individuals who cannot attend traditional on-campus classes due to various reasons such as work or personal commitments. More importantly, make sure to do your research and choose a program that’s accredited and recognized by your state’s dental board.

While it may seem unconventional, online dental assistant programs can provide similar instruction to traditional programs through virtual means. Online dental assistant programs typically include a combination of theoretical coursework, virtual simulations, multimedia presentations, and hands-on training components. The theoretical aspects of the program can be completed online, while the practical training may require some in-person sessions or clinical externships at affiliated dental offices and facilities. Believe it or not, online education can offer a pathway to your desired career!

Essential Web Resources to Learn Skills to Become a Dental Assistant

  • American Dental Association (ADA): The ADA provides resources for dental professionals, including Dental Assistants. Their website offers information on dental topics, guidelines, and educational resources that can be useful for learning about the field of dentistry.
  • Dental Assisting National Board (DANB): The DANB is an organization that offers certification and educational resources for Dental Assistants. Their website provides study materials, practice exams, and online courses to help individuals prepare for the Certified Dental Assistant (CDA) examination.
  • Dentalcare: Dentalcare is a comprehensive online resource for dental professionals and students. It offers a wide range of educational materials, articles, webinars, and interactive modules that cover various topics related to dental assisting.
  • DentalJuce: This is an online learning platform that offers dental education modules and courses. They have a specific section dedicated to Dental Assisting, with interactive modules covering topics such as dental materials, oral health promotion, and chairside assistance.
  • DentalXP: DentalXP is an online learning platform that provides dental education through webinars, courses, and clinical cases. While it offers resources for dental professionals in general, you can find specific courses and content relevant to Dental Assisting, such as infection control, dental imaging, and assisting in surgical procedures.
  • DentistryIQ: DentistryIQ is an online publication that covers various topics related to dentistry. They have a specific section for Dental Assistants that offers articles, news, and educational resources on topics like dental office management, infection control, and career development.

What’s the Career Outlook for Dental Assistant?

This field is expected to experience significant growth in employment opportunities from 2021 to 2031, with an estimated growth rate of 8%. This growth rate is faster than the average for all occupations, indicating a positive job outlook for dental assistants. Over the course of the decade, an average of approximately 56,400 job openings for dental assistants are projected each year.

These openings can result from a combination of factors, including new job creation and the need to replace dental assistants who retire, advance to other positions, or leave the field for other reasons.

Dental Assistant Popular Career Specialties

The Various Job Availabilities for Dental Assistants

The demand for skilled dental assistants creates a plethora of employment options. Let’s explore a wide range of job opportunities in the ever-growing field of dentistry.

  • Orthodontic Dental Assistant: This role involves working closely with orthodontists, who diagnose and treat misaligned teeth and jaw irregularities. You would assist with orthodontic procedures such as placing and adjusting braces, taking impressions for retainers, and educating patients about orthodontic care.
  • Oral Surgery Dental Assistant: In this role, you would assist oral surgeons during surgical procedures, including tooth extractions, dental implant placements, and corrective jaw surgeries. You may also be involved in pre-operative and post-operative patient care, sterilizing instruments, and providing support during sedation procedures.
  • Endodontic Dental Assistant: This role involves the diagnosis and treatment of dental pulp and root canal-related issues. You would assist endodontists during root canal treatments, take and develop X-rays, and prepare the treatment area for procedures. You would also provide patient education on post-treatment care.
  • Pediatric Dental Assistant: Pediatric Dental Assistants work in pediatric dental practices, where they assist dentists specializing in children’s dental care. The knowledge of child psychology and behavior management techniques helps them create a positive and comfortable environment for young patients. They assist with pediatric dental procedures, X-rays, and oral health education for children and their parents.
  • Periodontal Dental Assistant: Periodontal practices focus on the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of gum diseases and conditions. In this role, you would assist periodontists in procedures such as scaling and root planning, periodontal surgeries, and implant placement. You would also provide patient education on periodontal health and proper oral hygiene practices.
  • Prosthodontic Dental Assistant: Prosthodontic Dental Assistants work in prosthodontic practices that focus on the restoration and replacement of missing teeth. They assist prosthodontists in procedures such as denture fabrication, dental implant restoration, and crown and bridge work. They may also take impressions and assist in creating prosthetic appliances.
  • Dental Anesthesia Assistant: Dental Anesthesia Assistants work alongside dental anesthesiologists to administer and monitor anesthesia during dental procedures. They assist with patient monitoring, equipment setup, and maintaining patient safety throughout the anesthesia process. They also provide support during conscious sedation procedures.
  • Cosmetic Dental Assistant: Cosmetic Dental Assistants work in practices that specialize in cosmetic dentistry, which involves enhancing the aesthetic appearance of patients’ smiles. They assist dentists in procedures such as teeth whitening, veneer placement, and cosmetic bonding. They also educate patients about cosmetic treatment options and post-treatment care.
  • Dental Education Assistant: Dental Education Assistants work in dental schools, assisting dental educators in teaching and training future dental professionals. They support students in clinical settings, help with patient care, provide chairside assistance, and assist in laboratory and classroom activities.
  • Dental Office Management Assistant: Dental Office Management Assistants specialize in the administrative aspects of dental practice management. They handle appointment scheduling, patient records management, insurance billing, and financial coordination. They ensure the smooth operation of the dental office, allowing dentists and other dental professionals to focus on patient care.

Types of Companies that Hire Dental Assistants

Dental assistants are sought after by various types of companies and organizations within the healthcare industry. Let’s explore a few.

  • Private Dental Offices: The majority of dental assistants work in private dental offices. In this setting, they support dentists in providing patient care, chairside assistance during procedures, sterilizing instruments, taking X-rays, and performing administrative tasks.
  • Specialty Dental Practices: Dental assistants may find job opportunities in specialty dental practices such as orthodontics, endodontics, periodontics, oral surgery, or pediatric dentistry. These practices focus on specific areas of dental care, and dental assistants in these settings often work closely with specialized dental professionals.
  • Dental Clinics: Dental clinics, including community health clinics, public health clinics, and dental schools’ clinics, offer job opportunities for dental assistants. These settings often provide dental care to underserved populations and can offer a rewarding and diverse work experience.
  • Hospitals and Medical Centers: Some dental assistants work in hospitals and medical centers that have dental departments. In these settings, they collaborate with dentists and other healthcare professionals to provide dental care to patients who may require specialized treatment or have medical conditions that impact their oral health.
  • Dental Sales and Product Representation: Some dental assistants transition into sales or product representation roles for dental supply companies or manufacturers. In these positions, they use their expertise to educate dental professionals about dental products and equipment.

Balancing Work and Life as a Dental Assistant

As the first line of defense against cavities and other dental troubles, dental assistants are integral members of any dental team. But what about their own health and well-being? How do they maintain a healthy work-life balance beyond their dental assistant duties and amidst the fast-paced and demanding world of dental care?

In general, dental assistants often enjoy a favorable work-life balance due to regular working hours and a predictable schedule. Many dental practices operate during standard business hours, providing the opportunity for evenings and weekends off. This allows dental assistants to have quality time for personal pursuits, family, and leisure activities.

However, it’s important to note that occasional overtime or flexible schedules may be required in certain dental offices, particularly those with extended hours or emergency services.

Should I become a Dental Assistant?

After considering the key points discussed in this article, your personal interests and skills, and long-term goals, the decision to become a dental assistant is not one to be taken lightly. By becoming a dental assistant, you’ll be part of a growing and rewarding profession that impacts the lives of many by providing quality oral healthcare. But before you make a final decision, let’s recap, shall we?

We’ve discussed the dental assistant job duties, the education, experience, and certification required, the job outlook, and the potential salary. However, it’s important to also consider your own interests and strengths.

Do you enjoy working with people? Are you comfortable working in a fast-paced environment? Perhaps most importantly, think about your long-term goals– is dental assisting a stepping stone to a career in dentistry or healthcare? Or maybe it’s a job that offers stability and a good work-life balance.

Ultimately, the decision to become a dental assistant should align with your long-term career goals. So, take the time to weigh your options and make an informed decision. Ready to take the plunge? Well, here’s to a bright future that keeps smiles shining!

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Ajoke Aminu

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