How To Become A Dental Assistant

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At Transizion, we specialize in helping students enroll in the college of their dreams – but we want to help all young people as they transition to life as an adult, whether or not college is the right path for them at this point in time. In this series of articles, we’re exploring a wide range of rewarding professions that don’t require four-year degrees.

Today’s post focuses on how to become a dental assistant. We’ll cover education, working conditions, salary, job outlook, and more. Let’s get started.

What Do Dental Assistants Do?

Dental assistants assist dentists. Great, done, next question!

Just kidding. Let’s take a look at what dental assistants are typically responsible for.

Unlike dental hygienists, dental assistants are not permitted to work on patients without the direct supervision of a dentist. When you go to the dentist’s office for a cleaning, that work is typically performed by a dental hygienist, not a dental assistant.

Dental assistants help to keep the practice running smoothly. They’re responsible for scheduling appointments and keeping records. Depending on what’s needed, they may also provide support to dentists directly in their work with patients. Some dental assistants work with orthodontists, and their daily work may center on braces and other such orthodontic gear.

Typical tasks for dental assistants include:

  • Sterilizing dental instruments
  • Overseeing inventory and ordering supplies
  • Preparing work areas for treatments and procedures
  • Greeting patients and getting them settled in dental chairs
  • Taking patients’ medical history, blood pressure, and pulse
  • Handing instruments to dentists during procedures
  • Drying patients’ mouths using equipment such as suction hoses 
  • Preparing materials for dental impressions or temporary crowns
  • Removing sutures after inspection of the site by the dentist
  • Instructing patients in brushing techniques and proper oral hygiene
  • Processing x-rays under the direction of a dentist
  • Monitoring the administration of nitrous oxide
  • Taking impressions of patients’ teeth
  • Keeping records of dental treatments
  • Scheduling appointments and follow-up visits
  • Presenting patients with bills and arranging payment plans

Additional training is required to qualify dental assistants to do certain tasks, such as taking x-rays or administering nitrous oxide. The scope of practice permitted varies by location. Tasks such as removing sutures, applying sealants, or polishing teeth to remove stains and plaque are allowed in some states but not in others. The American Dental Assistants Association offers state-by-state information here.

Working Conditions

Dental assistants work full-time in dentist’s offices. They work closely with dentists and take an active role in managing patients. Working indoors under fluorescent lights day after day can take its toll, and some of the materials used in dentists’ offices can be detrimental to health, particularly with repeated exposure. Dental assistants wear gloves, surgical masks, protective clothing, and sometimes safety glasses while they work.

How to Become a Dental Assistant

To become a dental assistant, you might need to complete an accredited program and pass an exam (again, it depends on your state of residence). The program will include both classroom and laboratory work as well as supervised practical experience. 

Most states don’t require licenses for entry-level dental assistants, so it’s theoretically possible to start work immediately. Some people are able to start work as dental assistants without formal training and learn on the job. If you find a dentist’s office that’s willing to take you on, you could start work right away. You will still need to pass certain exams before being permitted to assist with certain procedures. 

If you’re unable to find a job with no experience, an accredited program is a good way to get started. Additional certifications such as radiology will further improve your job prospects. 

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Important Qualities

Dental assistants are most likely to enjoy their jobs if they enjoy interacting with people all day long. You should have good people skills and excellent organizational skills, since you may be responsible for appointments and patient records. Good dental assistants are detail-oriented, ensuring that all equipment is properly sterilized and appointment notes are accurate. 

Here are some important qualities to foster if you’re interested in working in a dentist’s office:

  • Interpersonal skills: This job requires you to work closely with dentists and dental hygienists. You’ll also need to be good with patients who might be anxious or in pain.
  • Dexterity: You must be good at working with your hands in tight spaces with precise tools and instruments.
  • Organizational skills: Your work will require you to have the correct tools in place for each procedure, and also to maintain office records and patient schedules.
  • Listening skills: You must pay close attention to patients and coworkers and be able to follow dentists’ instructions exactly. 

If you’re still in school, consider taking courses in biology, anatomy, and chemistry. You could also earn CPR certification, which is required in some states and/or practices. 

Education

There are hundreds of Dental Assisting programs available, and these can be a great place to begin if you’re starting from scratch and have no experience working in a dentist’s office. 

Boston University offers a nine-week Dental Assisting Training Program that includes both lectures and hands-on classes. The only prerequisite is a high school diploma or GED. The total program fee is six thousand dollars. Students are given the opportunity to assist in clinics throughout the duration of the program, giving them valuable real-world experience. Rotations include: 

  • General Dentistry
  • Sterilization
  • Prosthodontics
  • Periodontology 
  • Implantology
  • Oral Surgery
  • Orthodontics
  • Endodontics
  • Radiology

Radiology and CPR certifications are also available as part of BU’s Dental Assisting Training Program. At the end of this two-month course, students are prepared to take the Dental Assisting National Board (DANB)’s National Entry Level Dental Assistant certification exams, including Radiation Health and Safety, Infection Control and Anatomy, and Morphology and Physiology.

You can search for more dental assistant schools by location here. Or click here for a list of DANB-certified dental assistant programs organized by state. 

Another option for furthering your education is studying online through the ADAA e-learning center offered by the American Dental Assistants Association. The courses offered there are free for ADAA members, and you can become a member for $125. The course catalog includes but is not limited to:

  • Personal Protective Equipment (PPE): Basics for Dental Assistants
  • The Ergonomics of Dental Assisting: Preventing and Managing Work-Related Pain
  • Hazard Communication Standard and Hazardous Waste Regulations in Dentistry
  • Guidelines for Infection Control in Dental Health Care Settings
  • Infection Control in the Dental Office: A Review for a National Infection Control Exam
  • General Chairside Assisting: A Review for a National Chairside Exam
  • Maxillofacial Surgery Basics for the Dental Assistant
  • Wired for Learning: Orthodontic Basics
  • Setting it Straight: Advanced Orthodontics
  • Fabrication of Provisional Crowns and Bridges
  • The Fundamentals of Pain Control in Today’s Dental Practice: Local Anesthesia
  • The Business of Dentistry: Financial Management for the Dental Office
  • Designing a Comprehensive Health History
  • Introduction to Specialized Dental Software
  • The Business of Dentistry: Patient Records and Record Management
  • Introduction to Basic Concepts in Dental Radiography
  • Radiation Biology, Safety and Protection for Today’s Dental Team
  • Complementary and Alternative Medicine Techniques Available for Dentistry

There are dozens more courses available from the ADAA, making this an invaluable resource for both beginners and experienced dental assistants. The downside to receiving your education solely from these affordable online classes is that they won’t provide practical experience. 

Exams and Certification

Every state has its own requirements for dental assistants. The Dental Assisting National Board (DANB) offers a number of different certifications, including National Entry Level Dental Assistant, Certified Dental Assistant, and Certified Orthodontic Dental Assistant. Most states recognize the certifications offered by DANB, but some do not. You can find more information on state requirements here

California, for example, has its own dental board and its own licensing process for dental assistants. To become a Registered Dental Assistant (RDA) in California, you could either complete an approved RDA educational program or work for a minimum of fifteen months as a dental assistant. You would then need to complete courses in radiation safety, coronal polishing, basic life support, and infection control. After that, you would apply to the Dental Board of California for licensure as an RDA and take a written exam. RDAs are permitted to do a number of procedures that unregistered dental assistants are not.

How Long Does It Take to Become a Dental Assistant?

It’s sometimes possible to begin work as a dental assistant immediately – that is, as soon as you secure a job – but if you don’t already have connections at a dentist’s office, completing an accredited program will improve your job prospects. Most programs take about one year to complete, but some take as little as two months. 

Some programs last two years and provide you with an associate’s degree – but you could spend the same amount of time and money on an education that would qualify you to work as a dental hygienist and earn a much higher salary. See the next section for more information on that.

Career Outlook for Dental Assistants

Dentistry as an industry is steadily growing, and job opportunities for dental assistants are projected to increase eight percent over the next decade. The Bureau of Labor Statistics expects to see 56,400 openings for dental assistants each year, on average.

How Much Do Dental Assistants Make?

The median annual wage for dental assistants was $38,660 in 2021, which was less than the national average of $45,760. The lowest-earning ten percent of dental assistants earned less than $29,580, and the highest ten percent earned more than $59,540.

Compare this to dental hygienists, who earned an average of $77,810. Of course, it’s possible to work as a dental assistant while studying to earn the associate’s degree required to become a dental hygienist. If you find that you enjoy working in a dentist’s office, this career move could provide you with an enormous change in salary for a relatively low investment of your time. 

The top-paying states for dental assistants are Minnesota, Massachusetts, and Alaska. In these three states, the average wage for dental assistants in 2021 was over fifty thousand dollars. Other states with higher-than-average wages for dental assistants include Oregon, New Hampshire, Washington, California, and North Dakota.

Working as a Dental Assistant: An Overview

Despite earning lower than average wages, most dental assistants report high job satisfaction. The work isn’t overly demanding, and sociable personalities enjoy spending their days with patients and coworkers in a low-stress setting. Many dental practices offer flexible hours and good benefits. There are ample opportunities to progress to a better-paying job within the same setting, so upward mobility is very possible with this career path.

Here are some other pros and cons to consider:

Pros:

  • Steady work with plenty of job openings
  • You can live and work almost anywhere
  • Potential to move up in the field
  • Low-stress work environment 

Cons:

  • Lower than average wages
  • Repetitive work

If you’re interested in this profession, consider contacting local dental assistants to ask about the possibility of shadowing them to learn more about this line of work. 

Stay tuned for upcoming articles on how to become a personal trainer or a nutritionist.

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