Being a dental assistant is a great job, and a fast and easy way to join the expanding health care industry. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects 64,600 new job openings for dental assistants in the decade from 2016-2026. This is a fast-growing field, driven by an increase in attention to oral health as part of preventive medicine and overall health, as well as the changing needs of an aging population and work practices in dental offices.
In the past, dentists performed most of the direct work on patients themselves, using dental assistants to help during procedures and around the office. However, this approach limits the size of a dental practice, and doesn't allow the dentist to specialize in difficult, urgent, or exceptional cases. Today's dental practice relies on hygienists and dental assistants to manage most routine patient care, allowing more patients to be seen, while also freeing the dentist to spend their time where their advanced skills and education are most needed. As older dentists retire, more and more modern dental practices are managed in this way, creating more need and more demand for qualified dental assistants to join the new wave of dentistry.
Median pay for dental assistants is ~$37,000 per year, although salaries naturally vary from region to region. There are a variety of ways to enter this exciting industry, and it doesn't require extensive education or an expensive four year degree.
What is a Dental Assistant?
A dental assistant is a loosely defined job, with duties largely determined by the expectations, functions, and preferences of individual dental practices.
Dental assistants are frequently expected to:
They often are asked to know or learn these software packages:
And, broadly speaking, they should be familiar with the following areas:
Really, the job of a dental assistant is exactly as the name implies – they generally help and assist in a dental practice, filling in where needed, in ways that work best for the office and their team.
Duties of Dental Assistant
Dental assistants usually attend formal education to become a dental assistant. These programs are frequently offered through community colleges, vocational schools, dental schools, or technical schools. It typically takes 9-11 months to graduate and receive a certification as a dental assistant, although some schools offer accelerated course work to complete the program even faster. And if a person attends school only on nights and weekends, the course work can take longer than average.
After graduation, dental assistants should take and pass the Dental Assisting National Board's Certified Dental Assistant (CDA) exam. If a person lacks a certification from an accredited program, they are still eligible to take the CDA exam if they have been trained on the job, or have completed a non-accredited program, provided they have two years of full-time work experience as a dental assistant.
Some states require additional licensing or registration in addition to completing education and passing a CDA exam, but many do not. It is important to review the requirements for the state that you work in.
Important Qualities of Dermatologist
In addition to simply going to school and getting certified, there are certain personality traits that are helpful when considering whether to become a dental assistant. A good dental assistant should be able to:
The job requires being pleasant with others and displaying a good-natured, cooperative attitude. They need to work well with a team.
Being a dental assistant requires being careful about details and thorough in completion of their tasks. A dental assistant must constantly be attentive to protective equipment and prevent exposure to disease.
A good dental assistant maintains their composure, controlling their temper and avoiding aggressive behavior, even in very difficult situations.
A dental assistant is almost constantly very close to, or actually touching, other people. Some people dislike this degree of personal contact with others, and that can make the work uncomfortable for them.
Being a dental assistant can be a fun, easy-going job. But it can also be stressful, particularly in a busy practice. Many patients have anxiety about visiting the dentist and aren’t happy to be there. And the need to be constantly attentive to details, while remaining friendly and relaxed, can be difficult for some personality types. Think carefully about the work conditions to decide if dental assisting is a good fit for you.
How to Become a Dental Assistant
There are two primary paths to becoming a dental assistant: education, or on-the-job training.
1. On-the-job training
In the past, most dental assistants learned on the job, and there weren't as many specialized schools. Dentists hired and trained assistants in the way that worked best for their practice and the work they wanted done. However, many dentists are now too busy to train new assistants from scratch and prefer to hire people who have already been educated in the basics.
The availability of dental assistant jobs with no prior experience or education varies, depending on your region and the job market.
If you are interested in becoming a dental assistant, do some research on the jobs near you. Are there a lot of vacancies, or very few? Are job listings requiring education and certification as a prerequisite for the job, or are they more flexible?
The fastest and least expensive way to become a dental assistant is to find a dentist's office that will hire you with no experience and no education and provide on-the-job training. Not only does this get you working right away, but, in places where there is high demand for dental assistants, some employers will even offer to help reimburse employees for future education and certification.
As with every industry, if you live somewhere with high demand, it's easier to enter the job market. Do some research to find out about the possibility of on-the-job training in your area before you decide whether or not to pursue an education in dental assisting.
If most dentists in your area require an education and/or certification before they will hire you, it's time to pursue an education. Find an accredited dental assisting program near you. Programs that are accredited by the American Dental Association's Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA) have the best standards and are the easiest ways to ensure that you can pass the CDA exam and become a certified dental assistant. The ADA website has a list of CODA-accredited dental assistant programs, and there are accredited programs in every state.
Tuition for a year-long dental assistant program can range from less than $1,000, to more than $8,000, depending on your state and the school. Many schools include necessary tests and screenings in the cost of tuition, like tuberculosis tests, criminal background checks, or CPR certification.
Choose a school with an excellent reputation. Check online reviews and seek feedback from current students and graduates to see if they felt their education was valuable and important. If possible, ask working professionals what they would recommend, or find out what schools are preferred by local dentists. Seek a school with effective job placement assistance. If your education doesn't position you for rapid entry into the workforce, then it's not a good investment of your time or money, so be careful and critical in your research.
After completing your coursework in dental assisting, you will need to take and pass the Certified Dental Assistant (CDA) exam. If you have gone straight to on-the-job training, after two years in the field, you should also take and pass the CDA exam.
While a CDA certificate is not required for entry into all dental assisting jobs, it is required for many of them. Certified Dental Assistants earn higher wages and are more in demand by dentists. Also, the certification gives you more flexibility. For example, if you move to a new state or region, potential employers may not know the place you used to work or your prior school, and that may have a negative impact on your job prospects. Holding a CDA certificate is nationally recognized, and helps you get the best dental assistant jobs.
The CDA exam is really three exams in one:
1 General Chairside Assisting (GC)
This exam consists of 120 multiple choice questions, covering collection and recording of clinical data, chairside dental procedures, dental and lab materials, education and oral health management, general dental office operations, and prevention and management of patient emergencies.
2 Radiation Health and Safety (RHS)
This exam is 100 multiple choice questions, covering the exposing and evaluation of radiographs, quality assurance and regulations, radiation safety, and infection control.
3 Infection Control (ICE)
This exam is also 100 multiple choice questions, on topics like standard precautions, prevention of cross-contamination, instrument and device processing, and occupational safety.
The RHS and ICE exams have no prerequisites, and can be taken at any time, for standalone test fees of $250 each. For people who are doing on-the-job training, these standalone tests can be helpful in their work.
The GC exam has the following prerequisites:
Graduation from an accredited dental assisting program and a current CPR certificate OR
High school or equivalent graduation and 3,500 approved work experience, and a current CPR certificate OR
Former CDA status or graduation from a dental degree program outside the US or Canada and a current CPR certificate.
A passing grade on all three exams is required to earn a CDA certificate, and the cost to take them all in a single session is $425. The total testing time is approximately 4 hours long. To take the GC (and therefore all three at once) candidates need to apply at the Dental Assisting National Board (DANB) website, then pay their fees, and schedule their exam date.
The application for the GC exam includes questions regarding your criminal background, professional disciplinary actions, and mental health history. A negative history in these areas does not necessarily exclude someone from becoming a dental assistant. The DANB reviews the information and decides on a case-by-case basis whether the candidate should be allowed to take the GC exam and potentially become a Certified Dental Assistant. There are procedures to appeal the DANB decision if you want to.
The RHS and ICE exams are knowledge-based, and scores are based on correct answers. But the DANB uses computer adaptive testing for the GC exam. If a candidate answers a question correctly, the next question will be slightly harder. If they answer incorrectly, the next question will be slightly easier. For this reason, many say that this exam is the “hardest they have ever taken.” The overall score is not based on a percentage of correct vs. incorrect answers, but on the difficulty of the questions. The test is intended to measure ability level, rather than knowledge.
If you fail the test, you can immediately reapply to take it again, or retake only the components that were failed. However, some states restrict the number of retake attempts, or have increased education requirements for people who repeatedly fail the test. If you fail the CDA exam more than three times, you will need to review your state's guidelines.
If you have passed all your exams and are a Certified Dental Assistant, congratulations! Your certification will be recognized in many states (although you may need to register if you move, so check with your new state's regulatory board), and you are on your way to a career with a lot of employment potential and room to grow.
States with the highest average wages for CDA certified dental assistants are:
States with the highest wages for ALL dental assistants (average between certified and uncertified) are:
If you chose to launch your career with an education in dental assisting, it may be an advantage in the long term. Many dental assistants eventually choose to go back to school to become dental hygienists, and prior attendance at a dental school can make this path easier. Dental hygienists have more education requirements than assistants, but in turn, earn much higher wages. And dental assistants have several advantages when advancing their career further in dentistry:
As we learn more about the ways that oral health connects with whole body health, we increasingly understand the importance of dental care and oral hygiene. Poor health in the mouth is linked to a variety of negative health conditions, including heart disease, digestive and immune disorders, an increased susceptibility to the flu and other viruses, and even a correlation with infertility and poor maternity outcomes. Patients in both the ICU and long-term care facilities recover faster and have a higher quality of life if they receive regular dental care.
This expanding body of research places more emphasis on dental care as part of health and disease prevention and creates more demand for oral health care providers in a wider variety of settings, particularly as the population of America ages and requires more health care services. In the future, we could see dental cleanings be part of all kinds of comprehensive preventive health measures, administered in hospitals and care facilities, and not just in dentist's offices.
The dental field is growing every year, much faster than general employment rates. It's a fantastic time to join the healthcare profession and establish a career in dentistry, because the field will only grow in the future, in exciting and unexpected new ways. Becoming a dental assistant is a fast and easy way to enter the field, earn good money, enjoy job security, and learn new ways to help people every day. Now that you know how to become a dental assistant, there is nothing to stop you from taking advantage of these growing opportunities.