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Dental Assistant: Education and Career Information

Becoming a dental assistant can be a lucrative choice. This career field is expected to grow at least 25 percent from 2012 to 2022, as research continues to show that good oral health is a primary factor in the upkeep of general health. Dental assistants work with dentists throughout a patient’s dental evaluation and procedures. There is some training and certification involved to be able to carry out certain tasks, and there is a certification process in place to help in career advancement. One of the advantages of this career path is that the program is not very long and there are numerous on-the-job training opportunities so you can get to work very quickly after deciding this is what you want to do.

Dental assistants usually work on a full-time basis and in dental offices, but can also work in hospitals, pediatric facilities and adult-care centers. This career path can lead to other opportunities in the dental field, such as becoming a dental hygienist or taking additional coursework to become a dentist.

What does a dental assistant do?

A dental assistant is qualified to carry out a number of tasks. They prep patients for procedures, assist the dentists during procedures, help with the maintenance of patient records and sterilizing instruments. They are also usually qualified to administer sealants, fluoride and can polish teeth. Dental assistants can take x-rays, schedule appointments, educate patients on good dental hygiene, and work on billing and payment for patients. The ability to carry out these tasks depends on what type of certification and license held, and the state you work in. Every state has different rules. Since this is a medical position, all dental assistants must exercise caution and protect themselves by wearing protective clothing, safety glasses and gloves.

How much do dental assistants earn?

The pay scale for a dental assistant can fluctuate depending on certification, location and years of experience. On average, dental assistants make about $35,000 to $48,000 per year. The pay scale will continue to grow in this field as demand for oral care continues to become a primary concern.

What types of skills are needed to be successful in this field?

The skills needed for this position vary based on the dental office and whether or not you are licensed. Generally, a dental assistant needs to have the following skills:

Attention-to-Detail: Dental assistants have a number of rules and regulations they must follow when working with patients and assisting the dentist. Following these protocols is essential – from administering the correct medication, to using the correct tools. Strict attention-to-detail assists in getting the job done and will avoid any problems in treating patients.

Good communication skills: In working with patients and dentists, a good dental assistant must be able to speak naturally and convey important information to both the patient and the dentist. In working with patients, they must be able to get the information they need to make sure all the patients’ needs are met, and give them information on how to maintain good oral hygiene and care.

Good listening skills: Being able to listen to patients to hear what their issues are is key in a good dentist/patient relationship. Hearing what the patient is saying will help in relaying the information to the dentist to avoid any miscommunication.

Organizational skills: A dental assistant must be organized. There are instruments to sterilize, records to keep in order, appointments to track, supplies to order and more. Dental assistants must be organized to be able to retrieve documents on a patient at a moment’s notice. Organization is one of the most important skills you need to succeed in this profession.

Administrative skills: Each patient has a personal record that must be maintained. Understanding dental software, being able to record the procedures used and communication with patients and outside vendors takes good administrative skills.

Ability to work with others: There are a number of roles in the dentist office that must work together to ensure the proper care and safety of the patients. Being able to work in this capacity will help the dentist when treating patients, and will help foster a good work environment. Being able to work with others can be very beneficial, as you will learn what the other employees do to help you gain valuable information that may give you a clearer indication on whether or not you want to pursue more education to become a dentist.

Internship requirements

The internship requirements vary by state, as some states do not require internship hours. A typical internship is about 500 hours and includes oral surgical assisting, dental language, learning dental software, pouring models, taking x-rays and learning a number of dental procedures. Most two-year programs have an internship component that must be completed before graduating. For those individuals who have not done a program, on-the-job training is another alternative.

If you wish to become a Certified Dental Assistant, you need two years of practical clinical experience to sit for the exam, or 3,500 verifiable work hours.

Education requirements

Although there are no set educational requirements to become a dental assistant, the rules governing this career path are consistently changing to accommodate an educational background to be able to successfully assist the dentist.

Because of this, the educational requirements for becoming a dental assistant are not as rigorous as some career paths. Most dental assistant programs take up to a year. You will find dental assistant programs at dental schools, community colleges, technical or vocational schools. These programs offer certificates to begin working. There are some universities who offer more extensive training. These programs take a little longer and teach students about teeth, jaws, gums and other areas where dentists work. Students must also take biology courses to understand how the mouth affects the rest of the organs in the human body. Coursework for a dental assistant program includes:

•Chairside assisting
•Dental Office Administration
•Biodental science
•Dental Materials and Infection Control
•Oral Anatomy
•Fundamentals of Dental Assisting
•Nutrition and Oral Hygiene

There are some 2-year programs that will offer an associate’s degree that has more training, education and clinical work involved. This will help when becoming licensed.

The Certified Dental Assistant (CDA) has a number of requirements to become eligible to take the exam. This certification is required or recognized by the District of Columbia and in 38 states. When pursuing this career path, planning to take the exam to become certified is key, even if it is not required in your particular state. As the demand for dental assistants grow, this certification will become more important. The requirements to sit for the exam include:

•Have a high school diploma or equivalent
•3,500 hours of approved work experience
•Have graduated from an accredited dental assistant program


•Have graduated from an accredited DDS or DMD program, previously held DANB CDA status or have graduated from an international dental degree program.

Dentistry Scholarships

ADA Foundation CBCF Louis Stokes Health Scholars Program CDA Foundation
National Health Service Corps (NHSC) Tylenol Future Care Scholarship American Dental Education Association (ADEA)
Academy of Laser Dentistry U.S. Army Health Professions Scholarship Hispanic Dental Association
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