GUIDE
August 24, 2022
How to Become a Dental Assistant

If you have a passion for helping others, want to work in healthcare, and are not squeamish about working around people’s mouths, then a career in dental assisting may be an excellent career for you!

This article will discuss what a dental assistant is, tasks they perform, salary information, the career outlook, educational requirements to become one, and everything else you need to get started in the career.

We Found The Following Schools with Online Dental Assistant Programs

Part One What is a Dental Assistant?

Dental assistants provide support within a dental organization and help patients take care of their dental hygiene. The profession works directly with dentists and dental hygienists. They usually work in an office setting, providing care to patients of all ages who need dental care.

Dental assistants are a vital part of the dental team and assist with various office tasks and other clinical support. 

Most patients see a dental assistant as the first point of contact within a dental office. For that reason, dental assistants must possess a caring nature that can help put a nervous patient at ease, especially those who fear going to the dentist’s office.

Part Two Dental Assistant Salary 

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics states that the 2021 annual median salary for dental assistants was $38,660 per year or $18.59 per hour. The highest ten percent earned more than $59,540, and the bottom ten percent earned less than $29,000.

However, many factors play into your overall earnings as a dental assistant, such as where you live, how many years of experience you have, and whether you work full-time or part-time.

Highest Paying States for Dental Assistants

According to the BLS the highest paying states for dental assistants are:

  • Minnesota - $53,080
  • Massachusetts - $51,210
  • Alaska - $50,640
  • New Hampshire - $49,470
  • Oregon - $48,470

Highest Paying Industries for Dental Assistants

The BLS also states that in 2021, the mean annual wage for dental assistants was dependent on what industry you worked in:

  • Government - $50,170
  • Specialty - $48,120
  • Home Health Care Services - $47,930
  • General Medical and Surgical Hospitals - $47,180

On some occasions, dental assistants are also required to work weekends and may have opportunities for overtime, which may also be a way to increase wages.

 Part Three What Do Dental Assistants Do?

Dental assistants work in various dental practices, including dental clinics, dental surgery centers, and orthodontist offices. The job description does not include assisting directly with dental treatments the way dental hygienists do. Instead, they perform various office management and clinical tasks, which include:

  • Managing patient records
  • Scheduling and sending reminders for patient appointments
  • Managing patient billing and insurance
  • Managing and ordering office supplies
  • Managing and ordering dental services supplies
  • Assisting with cleanings and other dental procedures
  • Ordering x-rays
  • Cleaning and setting up dental materials in exam rooms
  • Educating patients about maintaining dental health at home

Some essential characteristics of a great dental assistant include compassion, patience, a passion for patient care, and attention to detail.  In addition, dental assistants must also follow patient privacy guidelines and comply with a high standard of safety and health protocols.

Part Four How to Become a Dental Assistant

Becoming a dental assistant takes about ten months to two years, depending on whether you attend a certificate, diploma, or associate's degree program. Dental assistants can receive their education through different academic programs, including:

  • Technical institutes
  • Vocational schools
  • Community colleges
  • Universities
  • Dental schools

Whatever educational path you choose, these are the steps you need to follow to become a dental assistant.

Step 1:  Obtain a high school diploma

The minimum requirement to attend a dental assistant program is a high school diploma, GED, or equivalent.

Step 2: Enroll in a dental assistant program

Attend a program accredited by the Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA) - this is mandatory to be eligible for certification testing after graduation.

Step 3: Complete your dental assistant education

Dental assisting programs take about a year or two to complete depending on the program you choose to attend. Certificate and diploma programs are usually the fastest and take about 9 to 15 months to complete. An associate’s degree in dental assistance usually takes two years to complete. Check with your school to see what financial aid options are available to you.

It may be tempting to take the fastest route to achieve your education. However, some employers may prefer candidates with an associate’s degree over a diploma or certificate program. Having an associate’s degree education may give you an edge during interviews as well. 

In addition, if you decide to advance your career later, having an associate’s degree will make it easier and faster for you to complete a bachelor’s program.

Step 4: Complete an externship as a dental assistant

As a part of your coursework, dental assistant programs generally require that you complete an externship to gain hands-on training before graduation. During an externship, students get an opportunity to perform “chairside assistance” to a dentist during procedures. This type of assistance is referred to by many in the industry as “four-handed dentistry.”

Some programs will allow you to choose a dental assistant specialty such as orthodontic, periodontic, or pediatric dental care.

Step 5:  Get certified by your state

Complete all licensing requirements per your state’s dental board (each state varies on requirements). Or visit the Dental Assistant National Board’s (DANB) website for more information.

Step 6: Apply for a dental assistant job

Many dental assistant positions require at least one year of experience, so you will need to be open and apply for as many entry-level positions as you can until you get your first job. Consider applying where you had your externship since you already have a foot in the door.

Step 7: Get certifications for career advancement

The CANB offers three Certified Dental Assistant (CDA) certifications, which include:

  • Radiation Health and Safety (RHS)
    • 100-question multiple-choice exam that takes 1.25 hours
  • General Chairside Assisting (GC)
    • 120-question multiple-choice exam that takes 1.5 hours
  • Infection Control (ICE)
    • 100-question multiple-choice exam that takes 1.25 hours

You may take the three certification exams individually or all at once. It is not required to have certifications before obtaining your first job and working as a dental assistant. However, having additional certifications will help show your employer that you are prepared to excel in the position and may offer higher earnings. 

We Found The Following Schools with Online Dental Assistant Programs

Part Five What is the Career Outlook for a Dental Assistant?

The job outlook is bright for those working in the dental field. According to the BLS, there’s a need for an 11% growth in careers for nursing assistants from 2020-2030, which is faster than the average for all professions.

The higher-than-average job growth in the profession is partly due to an increased awareness of how optimal oral health improves your overall physical health. Also, the growing baby boomer population is driving the need for more dental care.

Part Six What Are the Continuing Education Requirements for a Dental Assistant?

Continuing education (CE) requirements for dental assistants vary depending on your state. Many states, such as Arizona, Colorado, and Connecticut, do not require any CE requirements to renew your dental assistant license. 
However, other states such as California, Alaska, and Maine require completing as many as 25 CE credits to renew your license.

To maintain licensure, dental assistants must renew their license every two years. It is essential to check your state’s CE requirements to ensure you understand your state’s specific requirements.

Part Seven Where Can I Learn More About Dental Assistants?

We Found The Following Schools with Online Dental Assistant Programs

Part Eight FAQs About Dental Assistants

  • How long does it take to study to be a dental assistant?

    • To become a dental assistant, you will study anywhere from 9 months to two years, depending on whether you attend a certificate, diploma, or associate’s degree program.
  • Is being a dental assistant worth it?

    • Dental assistants provide essential services that help dentists and hygienists give great care to patient’s oral health. If you have a passion for helping others and want to have an exciting career with a lot of variety throughout your day, becoming a dental assistant might be an excellent option for you.
  • Is it hard to be a dental assistant?

    • Working as a dental assistant can be stressful, and the dentistry field can be a high-paced work environment. The career requires hard work, determination, and the ability to multitask at times to be successful.
  • What qualifications do I need to be a dental assistant?

    • You will need to graduate from a dental program accredited by the Commission of Dental Accreditation (CODA) and complete all licensure required by your state. Other essential characteristics of a great dental assistant include compassion, patience, a passion for helping others, and excellent communication skills.
  • How many hours do dental assistants work a day?

    • Dental assistants generally work 8 hours a day, five days a week, for a 40-hour workweek. However, many employers offer part-time options and weekend hours as well.