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What is a Dental Assistant?

In your job, you’ll work directly for the dentist who employs you. You’ll help with various dental procedures while either with or without the dentist present. From the front of the office to the exam rooms, you’ll assist the dentist with different procedures, such as coronal cleaning, taking X-rays, and placing sealants and fluoride on your patient’s teeth. You’ll also discuss needed home care prescribed for your patients and update their records and current treatment plans.

You’re may also a patient greeter, bringing them into the treatment room and making sure they’re comfortable. You’ll sterilize and prepare instruments throughout the day that will be needed for procedures.

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Steps to Become a Dental Assistant

The beginning of any career starts by getting into the school of your choice that offers the career you are pursuing. No matter where you work, your role is vital—all dental offices need their dental assistants.

Consider the pathway you want to pursue into your career. You’ll obtain your education, get your license, and then work as a dental assistant; with the correct training you’ll be ready to accept your first position in a dentist’s office in no time.

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  • Step 1: Complete a High School Education

  • Step 2: Choose to Earn a Certificate, Associate, or Bachelor’s

  • Step 3: Externship

  • Step 4: Graduate and Get Certified


Step 1: Complete a High School Education

Every dental assistant has to have their high school diploma. There is no way around that requirement. If you are still in school, take all the math and science classes you can and do your best.

If you have left high school before earning your diploma, start the process of earning your GED. This equivalency degree is considered to be proof of the completion of your high school education. If you are going this route, take as many math and science classes as you can and earn the highest grades you can.

Step 2: Choose to Earn a Certificate, Associate, or Bachelor’s

When you begin the admission and enrollment process at a community college or trade school of your choice, you’ll realize that you’ll be able to choose between several levels of educational programs. You’ll be able to earn a certificate, associate degree in dental hygiene, or diploma. Any option will allow you to work as a dental assistant, but choosing the lower education level mean it would be more difficult to move into a higher paying position later. Whichever path you choose, your dental assisting program should include classes such as Oral Anatomy, Dental Office Administration, CPR and First Aid, Dental Materials, and Dental Pharmacology. You’ll have other required classes to take as well.

After being admitted, sign up for the classes you need (including general education) and earn the highest grades you can.

Step 3: Externship

Complete your externship, whether it is required or not. This process gives you the real-world experience you need for your first job in this field.

You’ll be completing your externship in a dentist’s office. Show up on time every day that you are put on the schedule. From answering phones and making patient appointments to setting up dental trays and taking X-rays, you’ll be learning highly valuable tasks as a dental assisting student.

Once you graduate and get ready to take your state licensure exam, you’ll be ready to take on your first real job in a dentist’s office.

Step 4: Graduate and Get Certified

Before you get ready to graduate, choose the dental assisting specialization you want, such as orthodontics or endodontics. Take classes in these dental health specializations. As you are nearing graduation, research the Dental Assistant National Board website so you can learn about the requirements for taking your state’s licensing or certification exam.

Your test will have more than 300 question on General Chairside, Infection Control, and Radiation Health and Safety. Study all the material that will be on the exam. You have to score at least 400 out of the 900 points the test is worth. Take a licensing exam for any specialty you may be studying.

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What Does a Dental Assistant Do?

Your duties at work will vary. From the front desk of the dental office, you’ll greet patients as they come in for routine annual appointments or dental emergencies. At this position in the dentist’s office, you’ll have to know how to operate the phone and function within the appointment software the dentist uses.

If you have been assigned to greet patients and take them to the exam room, you’ll help them get settled into their chair so they can be ready to meet the dentist. You’ll update any information the patient has, such as recent dental issues. You’ll take their annual X-rays and prepare them so the dentist can view them before beginning their work.

Depending on the dentist’s office, you may take a medical history, and look at the patient’s teeth yourself to note any changes since their last visit. While you are doing all of this, you’ll also have to talk to the patient and provide a comfortable bedside manner. Being at the dentist makes a lot of people uncomfortable, and you can do a lot to calm them by providing conversation, music to listen to, or tv of their preference if your practice has televisions in the exam rooms.

Before a patient comes in for their routine dental care or specialized dental procedure, you’ll prepare the instrument tray for that patient. This varies from patient to patient, based on the procedures your dentist anticipates performing.

Dental Assistant Skills to Acquire

You need several skills, soft and hard, that you’ll use daily on the job. These will help you as you work with each of your patients;

  • Interpersonal:
    You’ll interact professionally, yet in a friendly way with your patients. They may be nervous, so you’ll need to be able to detect this and help them calm down.
  • Oriented to details:
    You’ll have to follow several highly specific protocols and rules, such as infection control. Your state’s laws will also tell you what procedures you can do. Try to be proactive when you detect problems so they can be corrected.
  • Listening skills:
    Listen closely to the dentist so you understand each direction and carry it out accurately. Listen carefully to your patients so you understand everything they are experiencing. You’ll also have to provide accurate feedback.
  • Manual dexterity:
    Be good at working with your hands, in a very small part of the body. You’ll use small tools and fine muscle dexterity.
  • Organized:
    From verifying an appointment and personal contact information to choosing the right dental tools, you need to guard against disorganization. Try to use your time wisely.
  • Professional appearance:
    Your hair should be cleaned and neatly combed; Wear a professional, clean set of scrubs, to include well-cared for athletic shoes.
  • Passionate about your work:
    Feel pride in the job you do and that you do it well.
  • Basic computer knowledge:
    Be comfortable with computer applications, such as Microsoft Office Suite, and keyboarding. You’ll use the computer daily.

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Alternative Paths

If you want to become a dental assistant, there are a few states where you don’t have to obtain formal training. If this is the route you choose, you should know that you may not be able to do some tasks because they can only be completed by dental assistants who have earned degrees or certificates from an accredited dental assistants’ program. If you pass the Dental Assisting National Board (DANB) exam, then you may be able to perform these functions, but some dentists still may not allow you to do the tasks unless you have the required education.

If your state doesn’t require formal education and training, you may be able to go on and become a dental assistant if you receive on-the-job training. It’s more likely that you may be required to attend a community college for a training program, which can take a year or two to complete. There, you’ll learn about dental terminology, dental anatomy, clinical procedures, dental instruments, lab work, and office procedures.

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In some of those states that don’t require formal preparation, you may be able to get a position as a dental assistant with a high school diploma or GED. Expect to learn biology, anatomy, and chemistry. If you haven’t gone to school for dental assistant training, some expanded duties may be performed by other dental assistants. These include cleaning teeth, fluoride application, sealant application, and applying anesthetic.

Dental Assistant Career & Salary

Where Might You Work?


As a dental assistant, you may work in a private dental practice or for a private company. You may work for the government (Military), assisting in a base’s dental practice, or you may work in a physician’s office.

If you work in a public health office, you may work mostly with patients in underserved populations. Or you may work in a different country altogether. Working in a public health office means your job role is even more vital as you help to educate your patients about proper dental care, brushing and flossing teeth regularly for instance.

If you work in the Armed Forces, you may be in the military as a dental assistant. Depending on where you are hired, you may even work on board a ship. Wherever you are, you will carry out every job duty of a land-bound dental assistant - taking X-rays, cleaning teeth, and assisting in filling cavities. There, you’ll provide dental care to service members and to their families. In this particular role you may also provide dental care to the populations of remote communities that may not have access to modern dental care and today’s dental techniques.

You may work as a dental assistant within the walls of a prison. The demand for dentists and assistants is going up so that prison inmates can maintain good dental health. If you are able to look beyond the circumstances that led to inmates being placed behind bars, then you can provide needed dental care to this population. In this particular population, your rate of pay may be slightly higher, due to the risk of danger and communicable illnesses that inmates can pass on to medical and dental professionals.

Potential Career Paths

Once you get your certification as a dental assistant, you don’t have to stay in one position until you retire. Instead, consider earning more credits for the various specialties in the dental assisting field. Not only will you expand your knowledge, you will make yourself even more highly sought after in your profession.

For instance, you may become a dental assistant in:

  • Pediatric Dentistry
  • Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery
  • Prosthodontics
  • Orthodontics and Dentofacial Orthopedics
  • Periodontics
  • Endodontics

If you need to return to school to get the knowledge you need to assist an orthodontist, periodontist, or endodontist, you will be qualified for even more job openings.

You may choose to work with the government, in an institution, giving dental education talks to school children, or traveling with other dental professionals.

You could work as a registered dental assistant in a family-centered dental practice. You’ll work with patients, educating them about good dental health. You’ll discuss their treatment plans with them. In your role, your work will be more specialized, assisting with crowns, dentures, implants, extractions, and root canals. Expect to work late one day of the week; you will also work on one Saturday per month in most practices, in rotation with other dental assistants. In addition, you might need to travel in order to work in two offices on an as-needed basis. This is especially true in areas where dental assistants’ numbers are low.

You can assist dentists who work with underserved Native American populations. You will assist dental hygienists, dentists, and other assistants as you provide primary care. You will also work at the front of the office, answering phones, calling patients to give them appointment reminders, scheduling appointments, and billing or collecting payments. You should be knowledgeable about instrument sterilization and preparation, as well as controlling the inventory of supplies and instruments.

You can become a pediatric dental assistant. If you are bilingual, this will make you more attractive to the staff of dentists. For the front of the office, you should know how to use Dentrix software for scheduling purposes. You are required to show that you have completed formal dental assisting training; a certificate in radiology may also be required. New graduates are welcome, as staff are often willing to train.

Dental Assistant Teacher Salaries

Occupation Entry-Level Mid-Career Late-Career
Dental Hygienist, AAS $40,000 $60,000 $80,000
Dental Hygienist, Cert. - - -
Registered Dental Hygienist $40,000 $61,000 $81,000
Dental Office Manager $38,000 $51,000 $69,000
Dental Insurance Coordinator $30,000 $39,000 $60,000
Practice Administrator $56,000 $73,000 $81,000

Career Outlook

Between 2016 and 2026, the employment of dental assistants throughout the country is expected to rise about 19%. This is much faster than what is considered to be average for all occupations. An earlier Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) report stated that the job growth for dental assistants between 2014 and 2024 would be about 18%, which still outpaced the average growth rate for all occupations.

Continuing research into dental (and general) health is helping to fuel the demand for preventive dental health services. In addition, dental practices that want to function more smoothly will hire even more dental assistants. One additional contribution to the increased hiring of dental assistants is the aging of the baby boomer population. Members of this demographic group want to ensure they enjoy good dental health, so they will make the effort to care for their teeth and visit their dentist at least once per year

In 2015 dental assistants earned, on average, $17.30 per hour; annually, their median annual salary was $35,980.

Looking at return on investment (ROI), this is still excellent. That is, the average ROI for a dental assistant is higher than what they paid for their educations. From small towns to big cities, dental assistants are likely to enjoy a higher salary than workers in other industries or professions.

Advancing From Here

When you decide the time is right for moving away from dental assisting, you have a few avenues available to you:

You could work full-time in dental office management. Here, you’ll be responsible for administration of the dental office. You’ll answer phones, order supplies, and greet patients when they come in for their appointments. You’ll oversee the bookkeeping and cover inventory.

Another option is to return to the classroom as a dental assisting instructor. Use your professional experiences to teach new dental assisting students who want to earn their certification. All you will have to do is earn a certification that will enable you to become an instructor. Along with working in a community college, you may work in private or public schools, educating the students on everything they need to know to succeed in their chosen profession.

You could also return to school and earn your degree and licensure to become a dental hygienist. Here, your job role becomes even more defined. You’ll work one-on-one with patients, cleaning teeth and applying sealant.

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If you’re ready to get away from the dentist chair, you could process dental insurance claims. You know what dental procedures are necessary, so you’ll be able to verify treatments given and decide if the insurance company should cover them.

Your experience as a dental assistant may also give you the knowledge you need to sell dental products. Your specialized knowledge of dental health, the running of a dental office and oral health will give you an edge in sales and you’ll have the possibility of earning even more in this position.

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Frequently Asked Questions

How long do you have to go to school to be a dental assistant?

Most dental assistant programs take 9 to 11 months to complete.

Where do dental assistants work?

Most dental assistants work in dental offices but they may also work in veterinarians' offices, coroners' offices, professional dental support organizations, and detention/correction centers.

What are the job duties of a dental assistant?

Some of the job duties of dental assistants include:

  • Talking with patients
  • Performing administrative tasks
  • Preparing examination areas
  • Assisting with fillings, crowns, and extractions
  • Operating equipment and monitors
  • Sterilizing equipment
  • Taking & pouring dental impressions
  • Preparing patients for surgery
  • Cleaning up after procedures

How much do dental assistants make?

On average, dental assistants make $41,000 per year.

What skills make a good dental assistant?

A good dental assistant has excellent organizational skills, detail- oriented personality, good dexterity skills, professional demeanor, strong communication, and resilience.

Trade Career Paths

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