- Certified Dental Assistant, Exams and Certifications, Dental Assisting National Board, Inc., http://www.danb.org/Become-Certified/Exams-and-Certifications.aspx
- Dental Assistant, American Dental Association, 2014, http://www.ada.org/en/home-ada/education-careers/careers-in-dentistry/dental-team-careers/dental-assistant
- Dental Assistants, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Employment and Wages, May 2013, http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes319091.htm
- Dental Assistants, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, January 8, 2014, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/dental-assistants.htm
- Dental Hygienists, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, December 17, 2015. http://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/dental-hygienists.htm
Dental hygiene is important to many people and so is having white teeth and good oral health, but becoming a dentist is not necessary for entering the field. You can also help people by becoming a dental assistant, who helps in the office by settling patients into exam chairs, sterilizing instruments, processing x-rays and maintaining dental records. The educational requirements and responsibilities to become a dental assistant are much less than those of a dentist, but you can still find challenges on the job. For example, in some states, dental assistants with the proper certification can have more complex responsibilities, such as doing coronal polishing and fluoride treatments.
Dental Assisting Specializations
To obtain an education in the field, check out the dental assistant vocational, trade and technical schools in your area. These programs are often short-term and can prepare you to work in a variety of settings that range from an oral surgeon's office to a pediatric dental clinic. Many dental assistants work in regular dental offices or clinics and focus on general dentistry.
There are also opportunities to specialize in the field, and often this will depend on the specialty and the focus of the dentist or dental office that is doing the hiring. As well, some dental assistant schools offer the ability to receive specialized training. Others may offer training rotations that allow you to experience several specialty areas over the course of your schooling. In addition to general dentistry, you might be able to find a job as a dental assistant working in:
- Endodontics: Specializing in dental pulp as in the case of root canals or cracked teeth.
- Oral and maxillofacial surgery: Specializing in jaw, mouth or face surgery including plastic surgery, dental implants or oral cancer.
- Orthodontics: Specializing in incorrect bites due to irregularities in teeth or the jaw.
- Pediatrics: Specializing in children and families.
- Periodontics: Specializing in gums, membranes, and bones that support teeth and the treatment and prevention of periodontal disease.
Keep in mind that in order to work in a dental specialty, your state or employer may require additional training or certification.
Dental Assisting Certifications and Degrees
Some states do require dental assistants to be certified, and some employers simply prefer to hire certified assistants. To find out what is required in your state, check out the specific requirements listed by state on the Dental Assisting National Board (DANB.org). Even if certification is not required, you may still want to seek out certification to have proof or your skills set or to stand out from others. Some of the certifications available through DANB include:
- National Entry Level Dental Assistant (NELDA) covers anatomy, morphology, physiology, radiation health and safety, and infection control.
- Certified Dental Assistant (CDA) covers general chair-side assisting, radiation health and safety, and infection control.
- Certified Orthodontic Assistant (COA) covers orthodontic assisting and infection control.
- Certified Preventive Functions Dental Assistant (CPFDA) covers coronal polishing, sealants, topical anesthetic and topical fluoride.
- Certified Restorative Functions Dental Assistant (CRFDA) covers anatomy, morphology and physiology, impressions, temporaries, isolations, sealants, and restorative functions.
These certifications are all exam based, but may have one or more components to them. Also, there are some state-specific exams that are offered through DANB including for Delaware, New Jersey, New York and several others. In addition, DANB also offers more targeted certifications, which can often be taken with few or no prerequisites. These include:
- Infection Control (ICE)
- Sealants (SE)
- Impressions (IE)
- Anatomy, Morphology and Physiology (AMP)
- Coronal Polishing (CP)
How to Become a Dental Assistant
Depending on your state regulations and your employer's expectations, requirements for becoming a dental assistant range from a high school diploma and on-the-job training to a one-year certificate or a two-year associate degree, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Some steps to preparing for a dental assistant career are as follows:
- Obtaining your high school diploma or GED: Having a high school diploma or GED is necessary for admission into many vocational schools or community colleges. This can show that you are prepared to continue on in your education, but it can also be advantageous if you take specific classes - like anatomy, biology and chemistry - in high school that can help you prepare for a dental assistant career or education.
- Enrolling in a vocational school or community college program: Dental assistant schools offer educational programs ranging from certificates to full two-year associate degrees. Courses in chairside assisting will teach you about dental tools and terminology while more specialized coursework can help you learn about oral anatomy, such as teeth, jaws and gums. Some dental assisting schools also offer classes in dental science, dental materials and radiology in addition to office skills such as computing and communications. Laboratory classes and supervised practice also provide hands-on dental assisting experience.
- Sitting for certification examination: Although not all states or employers require certification, DANB certification may be advantageous in helping you look for a job. Not every dental assistant is certified, so after studying and passing an examination, you can join the ranks of those already certified (about 36,000, according to the DANB). Eligibility for examination typically requires completing an accredited dental assisting program or having a high school diploma with 3,500 hours of approved work experience. Be sure to check the DANB website for more details.
- Continue on in your education: More opportunities may be available if you like the general dental care field and want to advance in your career or broaden your skills set. If you have a certificate, as an example, you may want to complete an associate degree to become a dental hygienist, a career in which the median earnings are typically higher.
Expert Q&A on Dental Assisting Schools
The path to becoming a dental assistant is usually straightforward, but as with all new careers it may help to hear from someone in the field. To get more information and advice for new students in this industry, we spoke with Lynnette Alexander, a dental assistant at Champagne Family Dentistry in Sparks, Nevada.
Lynnette Alexander is a dental assistant at Champagne Family Dentistry in Sparks, Nevada.
RWM: What is the typical educational path to enter the dental assisting career?
Alexander: Many programs are one-year dental assisting programs and may require you to complete prerequisites. As part of a program, you may need to complete a rotation in offices, specialty offices (orthodontics, endodontics, etc.) and general offices with a rotation while completing a specific number of hours. When you have finished a program, you will need to take the certification board exam, which tests you on three components, clinical chairside, radiation health and safety and infection control. Some offices do on-the-job training after which you can challenge the board for your CDA.
RWM: How long does it usually take to complete education for this job?
Alexander: It varies depending on the program you enter, I have heard of it as short as 6 weeks but for an accredited program it can be two years.
RWM: Why would you encourage someone to pursue a career in dental assisting?
Alexander: Dental assisting affords you many opportunities in the field from oral surgery, orthodontics, endodontics, periodontics, and general assisting. Dental assisting unlike hygiene has numerous procedures so there is never a dull moment if you like variety in life.
RWM: Do you have any advice for people starting out in this career?
Alexander: If you love dealing with people and helping to create a beautiful smile for someone, it's the career path to take for sure. It goes beyond just a filling or crown, there are times where fixing someone's teeth is a life changer for them. It is so rewarding to be part of that.
Dental Assisting Salary and Career Info
Dental assistants are important to any dental office, having the responsibility of completing any simple tasks that keep the office and patients running through smoothly. The salary for dental assistants can vary state to state, but you may even be able to ask for more pay or opportunities if you have certification. Take a look at the chart below for more details about dental assistant salaries.
|Career||Annual Mean Wage||Projected Number of New Jobs||Projected Job Growth Rate|
|Dental Laboratory Technicians||40,520||4,200||10.8|
|Dentists, All Other Specialists||171,040||600||8.5|