Becoming a Dental Assistant

As a dental assistant, you’ll work as a member of a dental health team and assist dentists in all phases of dentistry. Unlike dental hygienists, who work directly with patients, dental assistants work directly for the dentist. They are normally chair side and help with procedures at the direction of the dentist.

Becoming a dental assistant is one of the fastest ways you can enter the world of dental medicine. You can complete most programs in less than a year. When you finish your training, you will be able to confidently tell any employer you can:

  • Use the terminology, equipment and materials commonly encountered in most dental offices.
  • Assist the dentist, other members of the dental healthcare team and dental patients in the delivery of quality dental health care.
  • Apply your education to the effective administration of a dental office.
  • Perform as an ethical professional in any dental setting, with the ability to exhibit sound reasoning and effective communication in an increasingly diverse world.

Typical responsibilities

Although a a dental assistant is an entry-level position, it is one of the most important roles in a dental office. The required duties are comprehensive and span the inner workings of any dental office or clinic. Regulations may restrict certain tasks from state to state, but most will include the following responsibilities:

  • Assist the dentist during a variety of treatment procedures.
  • Clean dentures, take impressions of patients’ teeth and perform other assigned lab procedures.
  • Engage with patients and suppliers by scheduling appointments or ordering supplies.
  • Follow infection control procedures.
  • Greet patients and show them to exam rooms putting them at ease as you do.
  • Perform office management tasks such as updating records, scheduling and filing.
  • Prepare instrument trays.
  • Take and develop dental x-rays (radiographs).
  • Take a patient’s medical history.

Although not all dentists use assistants at chair side, if the procedure they are performing is complex, you may be there to hand them instruments and perform other duties that create more efficiency.

During your training you will also learn how to take vital signs and sometimes be asked to take them before patients see the dentist or hygienist. Even patients who come in for cleanings could have elevated blood pressures and racing hearts. Dentists want patients to be as calm as possible, and part of your job will be to sooth fraying nerves.

Although hygienists educate patients on oral care, in some offices this may be your job. You will instruct people on how to brush, floss and gargle..


dental assistantAs in most fields of medical care, you are dealing with people who are anxious or don’t feel good. Even though you report directly to the dentist, you may still have to interact with the clientele. Employers will be looking for individuals who can:

  • Communicate effectively.
  • Demonstrate sufficient manual dexterity to grasp and manipulate small tools.
  • Listen and respond appropriately.
  • Observe and record details accurately.
  • Organize efficiently.

One thing that is important to understand when working in any medical profession is that you are part of a team. While you’re an assistant, be eager to participate, take initiative, and become a reliable go-to person. By doing so you will quickly become an integral part of the office staff.


Most dental assistant programs are a year or less in duration. Some schools offer accelerated programs that you could complete in six to nine months.

Your local community college or vocational school may offer a dental assisting program. It’s also possible that a larger dental office in your area will provide training as part of their overall services. Programs like these allow you earn while you learn.

Other than a high school degree or equivalent, there are no pre-requisites for entering a dental assistant training program.

In a certificate program, general education courses are minimal. Concentration courses focus on:

  • Anatomy and physiology.
  • Chairside assisting.
  • Dental administrative practices.
  • Dental materials.
  • Dental radiologic techniques.
  • Head and neck anatomy.
  • Medical terminology with a focus on dental terms and vocabulary.

Most training programs also require you to complete a certain number of hours in a dental practice applying the theory you have learned in the program. Most externships are unpaid, but sometimes lead to permanent employment.

Differences between a dental assistant and dental hygienist

You may be wondering what the difference is between a dental assistant and dental hygienist.

The answer depends upon your resources and how quickly you want to get into the field. If you want to enter dental medicine as soon as possible, your best option is to enroll in a one-year dental assistant program. If your eventual goal is to become a dental hygienist, you can continue your education while working as an assistant. Some employers may even pay your tuition costs.

Each role provides a vital function in dental offices. If you would rather not interact with patients directly, your better option is to be a dental assistant, although the wages aren’t as high.

The following chart gives you a quick snapshot of the differences between the two positions.


dental assistantAlthough you don’t have to become certified, if you do it demonstrates to potential employers that you can perform up to the standards expected by dentists and their patients. By becoming certified, you add value to your training that non-certified candidates won’t have.

To become certified, you’ll have to take the Certified Dental Assistant (CDA) exam offered through the Dental Assisting National Board (DANB). To be eligible to take the assessment, you must have completed a dental assisting program accredited by the Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA). By visiting their website you can find a CODA-accredited program in your area.

If you are not a graduate of a formal accredited program, but were trained on the job, you can take the national certification exam after you have completed two years of full-time work experience as a dental assistant.

Because state regulations vary, you may be required to be registered or licensed in addition to securing national certification.

Career Opportunities

It isn’t unusual that a practice hires more than one dental assistant, so you may find employment opportunities to be plentiful. Careers exist at:

  • Group practitioner dental practices.
  • Public health dentistry (schools and clinics).
  • Single practitioner dental practices.
  • Specialty practices (e.g. orthodontics, pediatric, etc.).

Job outlook

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), roles in dental assisting are projected to grow 19% from 2016 to 2026, much faster than the average for all occupations. Continuing research linking general health with oral health has resulted in increased the demand for preventive dental services and is the primary explanation for the quick growth.


The median annual wage for dental assistants was $37,630 in May 2017, $18.09 per hour.

The field of dental medicine doesn’t appeal to everyone. But if you want to work within a mission dedicated to improving people’s oral health care, then becoming a dental assistant may be a good career for you.Becoming a Dental Assistant

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