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Dental Assistant Careers

Dental assistants occupy valued positions in a dental office. Dental assistant jobs include working alongside the dentists during patient procedures, record keeping and scheduling, and preparing treatment rooms for patients. The vast majority of dental assistants work in dental offices. The career does have certain hazards: Dental assistants routinely wear surgical gloves, masks and safety goggles to protect themselves and their patients from infectious disease, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports.

How to Become a Dental Assistant

There are several different paths for aspiring dental assistants. Some begin their careers through on-the-job training, but a common approach -- and one preferred by some dental offices -- is to complete training at a vocational school or community college. Some states require assistants to complete an accredited dental assistant training program and pass a standardized exam. Dental assistant schools culminate in one of the following:

  1. Diploma
  2. Certificate
  3. Associate degree

The length of study time for each program varies. Some diploma programs can be completed in as little as five months, but many programs take about a year to complete, the BLS says. An associate degree usually takes two years of full-time study at a community college and may include general education topics that can help develop business skills, such as math and English.

Training also can include hands-on clinical work or externship in a dental office. More than 285 dental assistant training programs were accredited by the Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA) as of 2011, the BLS notes. The CODA provides a list of accredited dental assisting programs by state.

Employment regulations vary by state. While no degree can guarantee employment, the following steps can help one become a dental assistant:

  1. Complete a high school or GED program. This background is required for most positions and training programs. High school courses in biology, chemistry or anatomy could help provide a foundation for career training.
  2. Earn an associate degree or certificate in dental assisting from a community college, trade school, vocational school or other school. Courses may include both classroom and clinical work.
  3. Look into certification standards from industry groups and meet state requirements for employment.
  4. Seek and apply for entry-level dental assisting positions in one's current or desired location.
  5. Stay up to date on industry trends through professional development and training programs.

Post-Education Requirements: Certifications and/or State Licensing

Some states require dental assistants to complete the Certified Dental Assistant (CDA) exam, following completion of an accredited training program. The Dental Assisting National Board (DANB) offers different paths to meet eligibility requirements for the CDA exam, for example:

  • Graduate from an approved dental training program
  • Graduate from high school and accumulate 3,500 hours of workplace experience
  • Pass the CDA exam and graduate from a dental training program outside the U.S.

All the paths for eligibility require completion of an approved cardiopulmonary resuscitation program as well.

Dental Assisting Specialties

There are several different specialized paths within the field of dental assisting, including:

  • Pediatric dentistry (dental assisting for children)
  • Endodontics (working with dentists who specialize in root canal treatments)
  • Orthodontics (straightening of the teeth)

Dental assistants who start out in dental offices may gravitate toward these different specialties. In some cases, additional formal training is not necessary, and skills can be learned through on-the-job training. The DANB offers an examination for Certified Orthodontic Assistants.

Dental Assistant Job Growth and Average Salary

The field of dental assisting is growing rapidly in the U.S., the BLS reports. Employment for dental assistants from 2010 through 2020 is projected to grow by as much as 31 percent, much faster than the national average for all occupations.

Much of the growth is likely to arise from continued research linking oral health to overall well being, the BLS says. An increase in dental assisting staff for more routine tasks may allow dentists to spend more time educating and working with patients. Also, the growing demographic of aging baby boomers is expected to require more dental services through the end of the decade.

Employment for dental assistants in the United States was just over 300,000 in May 2012, the BLS reports. Annual dental assistant salary figures are as follows for 2012, nationally:

  • Median pay: $34,500
  • Top 10 percent: More than $47,580
  • Bottom 10 percent: Less than $23,550

Dental assistant salary can vary depending on geographical location and specialty training, such as pediatrics or orthodontics. For instance, 2012 mean annual salaries topped $40,000 in New Hampshire, Minnesota, Alaska, Washington, D.C. and Massachusetts, the BLS reports. However, dental assistants in the Greater San Francisco Bay Area had the highest national mean wages at $47,280. More than three-quarters of U.S. dental assistants were employed at dental offices as of 2012, the BLS finds.

List of Related Careers

The ability to work closely with patients and a highly trained medical professional can apply in many different careers. Find out more information on different related occupations below:

  1. Medical Assistants: Medical assistants work on both clinical and administrative tasks, primarily for physicians and other healthcare practitioners. Many learn from on-the-job experience, but physicians often prefer medical assistants who are certified and have completed formal training programs (BLS.gov).
  2. Surgical Technicians: Surgical techs assist doctors with surgeries by preparing operating rooms and helping out during surgery. A postsecondary degree is required, the BLS says.
  3. Physical Therapy Assistants: These assistants usually work with physical therapists to help patients recover from injury and illness. Physical therapy assistants usually need an associate degree from an accredited training program, the BLS reports, while physical therapy aides often start with on-the-job training.

Links to Sources and Associations

American Dental Assistants Association

American Dental Association

Commission on Dental Accreditation

Dental Assisting National Board

Dental Assistants, Occupational Employment and Wages, Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2012

Dental Assistants, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2012

O*Net Online, Summary Report for Dental Assistants