Dental hygiene is a vital part of a healthy life, but becoming a dentist is not the only way that you can help people keep their smiles in good shape. Attending dental assistant school online or on campus can train you to help dental patients in ways other than directly working on their teeth.
How long is dental assistant school? How much do dental assistants make? We'll answer these questions and more on this page, as well as going into some basic info about the duties you'll be expected to perform on the job. Dental assistant education requirements are typically less strict than those for an operating dentist, but the position comes with its own set of challenges and rewards. Read on to find out more.
What Do Dental Assistants Do?
Different dental offices may have different sets of everyday tasks for the dental assistants who work there, but there are a few responsibilities that most dental assisting jobs have in common:
- Ensuring that patients are settled into the dental chair
- Sterilizing instruments and preparing the work area for any necessary procedures
- Capturing and processing x-ray images
- Scheduling appointments and managing patient records
- Drying patients' mouths and handing dentists the appropriate instruments
- Giving patients information about proper oral hygiene
Dental Assistant Specializations
Some dental assistant programs offer specialized training designed to prepare students for the challenges of working in a specific type of dentist's office. Others may offer training rotations that allow you to gain experience in several specialty areas over the course of your schooling. Here are a few of the dental specialties that you might study:
- Pediatric dentistry
- Oral and maxillofacial surgery
Keep in mind that your state or employer may require that you complete additional training or certification before you can officially work as a specialized dental assistant. Contact your state's Board of Dental Examiners for more information.
How to Become a Dental Assistant
Dental assistant education requirements can vary from state to state and employer to employer, ranging from no formal education at all to an accredited one- or two-year study plan. Here's a short series of steps that can lead to a dental assistant career:
- Obtain your high school diploma or equivalent. Even if there are no formal dental assistant education requirements in your state, employers are still likely to prefer candidates with a high school education. Certain specific classes -- anatomy, biology and chemistry, to name a few -- can help you prepare for the work and study ahead.
- Enroll in a vocational school or community college program. Formal education can increase your chances of landing a good job. Campus-based and online dental assistant schools offer educational programs that can take anywhere from four months to two years to complete. We'll go into the available types of program a little further down the page.
- Consider certification. The Dental Assisting National Board (DANB) offers a range of state and national certification exams that can either clear you to begin working in the field or prepare you to perform certain specialized duties.
Curriculum requirements may not be identical from one dental assisting school to another, but there are a few subjects of study that many programs across the country have in common:
- Dental anatomy
- Clinical science
- Dental materials
- Chairside assisting
- Oral radiology
- Dental practice management
- OSHA regulations
- Infection control
How Long is Dental Assistant School?
It depends on where you decide to attend. Campus-based and online dental assistant programs are primarily found at community colleges and vocational, trade and technical schools. Depending on the amount of training you're looking for, you might choose any one of these three common program types:
- Undergraduate Certificates typically require the fewest credit hours to complete, but they also cover the essentials of the profession in the lowest amount of detail. Certificates can come in handy if you know you'll be able to get additional training on the job.
- Diplomas can often be earned in around a year of full-time study, although different schools structure their programs differently. Diploma students usually learn more of the finer points of dental assisting than certificate students, but the lack of general education courses may make it difficult to transfer your credits into future college programs.
- Associate Degrees take an average of two years of full-time study to complete and provide the most in-depth training of the three types of program. The standard associate degree curriculum also includes courses in math, science, English and other subjects that tend to transfer more easily into bachelor's programs and beyond.
The associate degree is generally considered to be the highest level of education available for dental assistants. If you decide to move into a dental hygienist's role after some time on the job, a bachelor's degree may be required.
Hands-on Training Dental Assistant Schools
Gaining real-world experience before graduation can give you an added boost of confidence when it comes time to hit the job market. Some dental assistant programs offer job experience sections called externships, during which students travel to working dental offices and put their knowledge and skills to work in a professional setting.
Not every dental assistant training program features an externship section, so make sure to check with an advisor before enrolling if you're hoping to graduate with some hands-on experience.
Online Dental Assistant Schools
A few career schools across the U.S. offer online dental assistant programs, which can be a great help to prospective students who are too busy to attend a traditional, campus-based program. Lab work is difficult to replicate in the digital environment, so most online programs lead to certificates, but the absence of lab sections can also help keep your dental assistant school costs to a minimum.
It must be said, though, that attending dental assistant school online is by no means an easy way to get your certificate. If you're comfortable keeping yourself motivated, communicating via email and message boards and completing work with limited supervision, then online programs might be right for you.
Dental Assistant Certifications
Whether your state requires it or not, earning certification can help you stand out from the pack and boost your chances of landing a top dental assisting position. Here's a list of some of the certifications offered through DANB:
- National Entry Level Dental Assistant (NELDA)
- Certified Dental Assistant (CDA)
- Certified Orthodontic Assistant (COA)
- Certified Preventive Functions Dental Assistant (CPFDA)
- Certified Restorative Functions Dental Assistant (CRFDA)
The path to earning any of these national credentials consists of passing a set of component exams, which can also be taken separately to demonstrate your skill in a particular area. Here are a few of the subjects covered in component exams:
- Infection control
- Anatomy, morphology and physiology
- Topical anesthetic
- Coronal polishing
Certain states may also require dental assistants to pass particular component exams before they can perform certain duties on the job. For specific information on the certification requirements where you live, check with your state's Board of Dental Examiners.
Career Advancement Options for Dental Assistants
Dental assistants with plenty of job experience, several certifications or more education than others may be in shape to find employment at the most prestigious and highest-paying dental clinics. Doing high-quality work and maintaining a good relationship with your employers can also set you up to land more desirable positions.
If you want to move up the ladder in the dental profession, however, it's typically necessary to return to school and train for a more technical career. You can qualify for dental hygienist careers with an associate or bachelor's degree, and completing the right prerequisites at a community or junior college can put you on the path to dental school and a career as a full-fledged dentist.
Financial Aid for Dental Assistant Programs
Skills and Abilities for Dental Assistants
Certain skills and abilities can be especially useful to dental assistants. The Occupational Information Network (O*NET) lists around 25 of these valuable traits -- here's a list of a few of the top entries and a brief explanation of why they're important:
- Active listening ensures that you can be attentive to the needs of patients and instructions from your dentist
- Service orientation, or the desire to find ways to help people, can bring a human touch to your work
- Social perceptiveness can help you be aware of the meaning of a patient's actions and reactions and respond accordingly
- Arm-hand steadiness is essential when assisting your dentist with cavity surgeries and other delicate procedures
- Speech clarity helps a great deal when guiding patients through the treatment process and providing oral health tips
Dental Assistant Salary and Career Outlook
It's clear by now that they perform essential support functions in a dentist's office, but how much do dental assistants make? The average pay in the state where you work and your levels of education and experience may each have an influence on your individual dental assistant salary, but the national figures can give you some idea of what to expect once you graduate and hit the career market. Here's some salary and job outlook data for dental assistants, compiled by the BLS:
Projected Job Growth
|Dental Laboratory Technicians||34,480||$43,180||10.7%|
|Dentists, All Other Specialists||4,490||$178,800||4.7%|
Professional Organizations for Dental Assistants
Membership in a professional organization can provide a wealth of career resources for dental assistants, whether they're industry veterans or just starting out on the job. Check out these brief explanations of a few such organizations at the national and state levels:
- The American Dental Assistants Association (ADAA) offers free online continuing education, access to job search site DentReps, opportunities for professional fellowship and a subscription to The Dental Assistant.
- The California Dental Assistants Association (CDAA) serves as a regional branch of the ADAA, providing state-focused legislative advocacy and access to the state's local dentist assistant societies.
- Overseas professionals can join the Dental Assistants Professional Association (DAPA), a non-profit organization in Australia that dedicates itself to advancing the careers and recognition of dental assistants.