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Dental Assistant Education, Schools and Career Overview

Dental assistants are are on the front lines of a dentist's practice. It may be up to them to help patients feel at ease before their appointments. It's also up to them to make sure the office runs smoothly and efficiently -- from scheduling the appointments to keeping dental records to billing patients.

The job is not just administrative. Dental assistants have hands-on responsibility for patients with tasks like:

  • Teaching patients about dental hygiene
  • Sterilizing equipment
  • Handing dentists the proper instruments during procedures

Dental assistant specializations

By completing formal dental assistant training, professionals in this career field will be qualified to practice in a variety of clinical environments. Different types of dental practices provide varied levels of services, and so the responsibilities of a dental assistant will vary depending on the type of dental facility they work in. Still, the in-depth training of dental assistants leaves them qualified for a wide range of career possibilities, including employment in:

  • Preventative and maintenance clinics – where dental assistants assist with cavity fillings, cleanings, dental checkups, x-rays, impressions, molds, fluoride treatments, flossing, administering sealants, and patient education.
  • Cosmetic and orthodontic clinics – where dental assistants are involved with teeth whitening, bracing and correction, inlays/onlays, composite bonding, whitening of teeth, dental implants, cosmetic assessments, and complete reconstructions.
  • Maxillofacial surgery centers – encompass most aspects of both preventative and cosmetic dental procedures. However, maxillofacial surgeons are licensed to use general anesthesia, so procedures requiring a patient to be put to sleep during surgery can only be done by a dental surgeon.
  • Emergency dental clinics – where dental assistants work by assisting patients with dental emergencies, such as traumatic injuries or tooth infection that has caused extreme pain and facial swelling.

How to become a dental assistant

Most, if not all, dental assistant schools will require you to have graduated from high school, though some will accept a GED. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS.gov) suggests interested high school students should take classes in anatomy, chemistry and biology. Individual schools may have more stringent requirements, especially those offering two-year associate's degrees.

To begin with, schools may require a minimum GPA of 2.0 (C) or 3.0 (B). If you are entering a dental assisting program at a college or university level, you may need to take prerequisite courses to be eligible. Those courses may include:

  • Psychology
  • Computer skills
  • Communication
  • Writing
  • Math
  • Health
  • Nutrition

Some programs require applicants to have completed a period of "shadowing" professional dental assistants or performing clinical observations.

Current CPR certification is be required by some schools prior to admission. CPR certification is generally required for all dental assistants. Some states, as well as some schools, mandate background checks for all students entering the health care field.

Dental assistant degree programs

According to the American Dental Association (ADA), most accredited dental assistant programs take between nine months and one year to complete. Some schools offer a two-year associate degree as well. You can find dental assisting degree programs at career and technical schools, community colleges, and traditional four year colleges and universities.

Applicants to dental degree programs generally need a background in science, like high school classes in biology and anatomy. They also typically need a minimum GPA of at least 2.0 (C), though some schools require a 3.0 (B). You may be required to take prerequisite courses in math, communications, computing or psychology.

Dental assistant certification

To be eligible for certification by the Dental Assisting National Board (DANB) as a Certified Dental Assistant, you will need to have graduated from an accredited degree program or have on-the-job training and 3,500 hours of work experience. Employers in states without a certification mandate may still prefer to higher dental assistants with formal training and national certification. Diplomas and DANB certifications prove you have achieved a level of professional competence. They can help you to advance your dental assisting career, allow you to take on additional responsibilities, or pursue a dental specialty.

Being certified can help prove you have achieved a level of professional competence. Certification can make you more attractive to potential employers even if it is not a state requirement. Also, certain states only allowed certified dental assistants to perform specific duties or advanced procedures. DANB offers certifications for:

  • General chairside assisting
  • Infection control
  • Sealants
  • Impressions
  • Coronal polishing
  • Topical anesthesia
  • Topical fluoride
  • Radiation health and safety
  • Temporaries
  • Orthodontic assisting
  • Impressions

Advanced certifications essentially combine several certificate-level exams. Gaining this level of certification can help you to advance your career or allow you to specialize your practice. Advanced certifications are available for:

  • Certified Orthodontic Assistant (COA)
  • Certified Preventive Functions Dental Assistant
  • Certified Restorative Functions Dental Assistant

Dental assistant training

Accredited dental assisting degree programs combine classroom training with hands-on practice. You'll learn about teeth, gums, and the jaw, as well as the basics of dental assisting. Classes may include:

  • Chairside assisting
  • Dental materials
  • Dental pharmacology
  • Dental emergencies
  • Oral anatomy
  • Dental office management

Your curriculum may cover advanced topics like dental radiology, too. The classroom portion of your dental assisting degree program may be completed on campus or online, depending on what your school offers.

Your hands-on practice may begin in an on-campus laboratory setting. You'll learn about the tools and techniques used by dental assistants. Many programs include some form of externship -- or supervised practice in an actual dental office. Externships provide real world work experience and can help you with references and networking when it comes time to look for your first job.

Some degree programs also offer training and clinical rotations in specialty dentistry like pediatric dentistry, oral and maxillofacial surgery, and orthodontics.

Dental assistant school

The path to a dental assisting diploma begins at a technical, career or community college. Some four-year colleges and universities offer dental assisting programs as well. According to the American Dental Association (ADA), the majority of dental assistant programs take between nine months and one year to complete. There is the option of a two-year associate's degree in dental assisting.

Accredited dental assistant programs include a combination of classroom instruction and hands-on practice. The classroom portion may be done on campus or online. Students should learn the mechanics of assisting on top of learning about teeth, jaw and gums through courses like:

  • Chairside assisting
  • Oral pathology
  • Bio-dental science
  • Dental materials
  • Dental office management

Some schools offer the opportunity to learn advanced skills like radiography or have clinical rotations that allow you to specialize your practice.

Dental assistant skills and qualifications

If you are wondering about specific steps to become a dental assistant, the answer largely depends on the state where you live. Some states only require dental assistants to have a high school diploma, have CPR certification and get on-the-job training. In other states, dental assistants have to graduate from an accredited dental assistant school and pass a state (or national) exam as well. To find out what you need, the Dental Assistant National Board breaks it down state by state at danb.org.

A key component of a dental assistants job involves working with patients. It is therefore important that you have excellent communication skills. This may is especially crucial when working with younger or fearful patients. Your ability to put them at ease during treatments can be critical to delivering quality dental care. Dental assistants should be detail oriented and well organized.

Career outlook and salary for dental assistants

As with any position, pay and job growth for dental assistants varies by things like experience, education level, and location. Here's an idea of what you might expect to earn as a dental assistant, as well as what the job prospects might look like in the coming years:

CareerTotal EmploymentAnnual Mean WageProjected Job Growth Rate
Dental Assistants337,160$38,69019.5%
Source: 2017 Occupational Employment Statistics and 2016-26 Employment Projections, Bureau of Labor Statistics, BLS.gov; 2016-26 State Occupational Projections, Projections Central, projectionscentral.com

Sources:

  • American Dental Association, Education/Careers: Dental Assistant, http://www.ada.org/en/home-ada/education-careers/careers-in-dentistry/dental-team-careers/dental-assistant
  • Dental Assistants, Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2014-15 Edition, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/dental-assistants.htm
  • "Become Certified," Dental Assisting National Board, http://www.danb.org/Become-Certified.aspx
  • Dental Assistants, Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2014-15 Edition, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/dental-assistants.htm
  • "Meet State Requirements," Dental Assisting National Board, http://www.danb.org/Meet-State-Requirements.aspx
  • American Dental Association, Education/Careers, Dental Assistant Education Requirements and Training, http://www.ada.org/en/education-careers/careers-in-dentistry/dental-team-careers/dental-assistant/education-training-requirements-dental-assistant
  • Dental Assistants, Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2014-15 Edition, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/dental-assistants.htm

Dental Assistant Schools