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A job as a dental assistant can be a rewarding way to help people in your community look and feel their best. That said, you’ll need to know a few things before you apply for jobs.

What is a dental assistant? Here’s a comprehensive guide on how to become a dental assistant.

What Is a Dental Assistant?

A dental assistant completes various tasks to help both dentists and patients throughout their appointments. They offer support to ensure procedures happen as they should. As a result, dental assistants need to have specific technical, administrative, and interpersonal skills.

What does a dental assistant do? Dental assistants perform numerous duties on any given day. These responsibilities may include:

  • Assisting with treatments during visits.
  • Preparing and sterilizing equipment.
  • Operating monitors.
  • Taking X-rays.
  • Sharing information with patients regarding surgical procedures.
  • Performing administrative jobs like scheduling appointments and answering phones.

In short, you’ll note that dental assistants supply crucial support to dentists and their offices. Their position rarely involves actual dental work as a hygienist or dentist performs. Instead, it’s all about providing support in areas where those people don’t have time to work.

The dental assistants should have a few key traits if they want to succeed in their jobs. It helps to be organized, detail-oriented, attentive, professional, and communicative. A dentist’s office isn’t always an intense place, but you’re in part responsible for patient health and safety.

Training Required to Become a Dental Assistant

If those responsibilities seem interesting to you, you may be wondering how to become a dental assistant. Becoming a dental assistant doesn’t require a college degree, unlike dentistry. Therefore, it’s an accessible career path for many people.

man practicing a career in dentistry with real dentists

Here’s a guide for how to achieve that goal:

1. Enroll in a Dental Assistant Certification Program

You may need to take courses at a community college or technical school to obtain a certificate. These programs require one to two years, so you’ll likely need to plan ahead. In any case, you should expect to be working as a dental assistant before long.

These days, it’s possible to take entire programs online. That may be an option you want to pursue if you’re busy with other life responsibilities, such as caring for children. You can follow several avenues to help you start your career.

Be sure to look for a program accredited by the Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA). This organization is the standard for dental assisting programs in the U.S. You don’t want to accidentally spend money on pursuing a certificate that employers won’t recognize.

2. Pursue an Optional Internship

During your one or two years in your certificate program, you’ll take varied courses like oral anatomy, office administration, and more. You may want to get an internship at a dentist’s office during this time to expand your knowledge further. This experience will give you insight into specific roles you may want to pursue.

3. Choose a Focus

What does a dental assistant do? At this point, you get to answer that question for yourself. You’ll begin to explore the paths you can take within dental assisting. You can work for a general dentist, but you can also explore positions with specialists like orthodontists and endodontists. These roles require slightly different training.

4. Take the Certified Dental Assistant Exam

When you’re at the end of your schooling experience, you’ll take the Certified Dental Assistant exam to receive your certification. If you want to work for a dental specialist, you may need to take an additional test beforehand. Then, you can find your first job.

Be sure to double-check your state’s requirements so you can adequately pursue your education. You may not even need to have certification to work as a dental assistant. It’s all up to your state’s regulations.

Potential Salary for Dental Assistants

It’s essential to know how much you’ll make in your new career. This factor can be a determinant of whether you decide to move forward. Fortunately, a job as a dental assistant can provide a relatively decent wage when you first start. The average salary for dental assistants in the US starts at $38,447 as of 2020 but can be as high as $17.86 per hour or $58,861 per year.

Keep in mind that your salary will depend on which state and city you live in while you work. For example, dental assistants in Ohio make less money on average than those in Oregon. Your experience and education levels will also make a difference.

If you plan to work for a specialist, you may be able to earn a higher salary because you took steps to make yourself a more unique employee. If you intend to move up the ranks into a different position, your salary potential will likely increase, as well.

Careers in dental assisting are projected to grow 7% in the next nine years — faster than the average job outlook — so the demand for dental services will only grow, offering you career security and salary growth opportunities over time. 

Different Types of Dental Assistants

There are multiple options for dental assistants regarding career opportunities. The position itself has seen a decent amount of growth over the past few decades. In fact, 350,000 or more job openings were available in 2019 alone.

What paths can you take as a dental assistant? You can work in various roles in different offices throughout your career. You’ll be able to “climb the ladder” after you put some hands-on experience under your belt. Here’s a look at what offices you could work in as a dental assistant.

Where Can You Work as a Dental Assistant?

The dentistry field is diverse. You’re likely most familiar with general dentists, which is the dentist you visit for your biannual checkup. That said, it’s smart to learn about other specialists because you may end up working for them as a dental assistant.

The most common types of dentists aside from general dentists include:

  • Periodontist.
  • Orthodontist.
  • Endodontist.
  • Prosthodontist.
  • Oral surgeon.
  • Pediatric dentist.

As a dental assistant for any of these specialists, you’d perform routine tasks like sterilizing tools, as well as role-specific responsibilities. What does a dental assistant do for specialists? Here’s a closer look at what each specialist does and how you could help:

doctor checking out the teeth of his patient

1. Periodontist

A periodontist treats issues related to the gums. For example, you’d visit a periodontist to fix gingivitis or another gum disease. If you were a dental assistant to a periodontist, you’d perform tasks like patient accommodation to ensure they’re comfortable for treatment.

2. Orthodontist

An orthodontist helps patients with teeth and jaw alignment. If you’ve ever had braces, you’ve visited an orthodontist. A dental assistant to an orthodontist may help with braces adjustments alongside other routine duties.

3. Endodontist

An endodontist works to solve problems with a tooth’s nerve. You’d visit an endodontist to have a root canal since general dentists don’t often perform them. In this case, you might perform some preparatory care for patients before they have a root canal.

4. Prosthodontist

A prosthodontist offers cosmetic fixes to repair the teeth’s appearance. Examples include dentures and crowns, as well as teeth whitening. A dental assistant may help by fitting patients with molds to prepare for their treatment.

5. Oral Surgeon

An oral surgeon performs surgery on the teeth and jaw. A standard procedure includes removing wisdom teeth. As a dental assistant, you’d help with surgery preparation to ensure the process goes smoothly.

6. Pediatric Dentist

These specialists work with children and youth who aren’t ready to see a general dentist. They’re otherwise known as pedodontists. If you worked at a pediatric dentist’s office, you’d have to be good with kids because they’d be your primary patients.

It’s worth researching each dental specialty so you can figure out how to become a dental assistant in those fields. These examples are only a few that you can explore. You might end up liking general dentistry just fine, but it’s worth looking into other kinds before you get your certification.

Career Opportunities for Dental Assistants

While you can work with multiple types of dentists, you can also grow in your career as a dental assistant and take on different responsibilities. Like most careers, it’ll take more experience and training to discover these possibilities, but you can achieve it.

As an entry-level dental assistant, you’ll take on general daily duties, as discussed above. You’ll also perform tasks specific to the type of dentist’s office you work in when you start. Those duties can evolve as you progress through the years.

Beyond being a dental assistant, you could eventually pursue roles like:

  • Expanded function dental assistant (EFDA).
  • Team administrator.
  • Sales representative.
  • Dental consultant.
  • Dental hygienist.
  • Dentist.

Keep in mind that some of these roles will require further education. You’d be surprised to see how many doors open when you become a dental assistant. This role can be a stepping stone to many great opportunities.

Here’s a more detailed look at the roles mentioned above:

1. Expanded Function Dental Assistant

An EFDA is certified to perform duties beyond those of a general dental assistant, like placing fillings. They become licensed by the state, and in most cases, they have to work as a certified dental assistant beforehand. You have to work as a dental assistant for two years before applying to become an EFDA.

This path can be a great way to stay in your role as a dental assistant but make more money. After all, employers are willing to compensate more for special qualifications.

2. Team Administrator

If you end up liking the administration side of things, you can work as your office’s team administrator. You’d be the lead for all things business, such as filing, scheduling, billing, and more. It can help to be a dental assistant prior because you’ve already built a rapport with your office’s patients.

3. Sales Representative

You can also become a sales representative. If you have an outgoing, friendly personality, this may be an excellent role for you. These individuals ensure dentists and specialists have the proper supplies and technology to serve their patients. Inside knowledge of dentistry can give you a leg up because you’ll know exactly what professionals need to thrive in their practice.

4. Dental Consultant

Eventually, you may work your way up to a career as a dental consultant. A dental consultant oversees a dental practice to ensure everything runs smoothly. This job is rather business-heavy, so it’s best for someone who likes management.

You don’t have to be a dental assistant to become a consultant. However, the role may open up during your time at your workplace. Since you’ll have sufficient experience performing administrative duties, you could eventually do well as a consultant.

Consultation with Doctor

5. Dental Hygienist

A dental hygienist performs much more technical work that’s in line with that of a dentist. They examine and clean patients’ teeth and gums. They do other particular tasks like using X-rays and teeth models to explain oral hygiene.

You have to go to school to become a dental hygienist. Like with dental assisting, this is usually at least one or two years at a technical college. Many dental hygienists have associate degrees. In any case, your experience as a dental assistant will undoubtedly come in handy on your path to becoming a dental hygienist.

6. Dentist

Of course, you could always become a dentist one day. Many dental assistants fall in love with the practice and decide to go to dental school as a result. A general dentist takes care of oral hygiene by cleaning teeth, removing the decay, examining X-rays, administering anesthetics, and more. You could even study to become a specialist like the ones mentioned previously.

There’s a whole world beyond dental assisting that you can explore. If you find you love your job, you can always stay in your role. But it’s worth noting you can move beyond that if you wish. You don’t have to be a dental assistant to pursue all of these careers. These are simply options you can look into after you become one.

Dental Assisting Can Be a Rewarding Career for Many

A career in dentistry is perfect for those interested in the medical field and jobs that include helping others. If you’re organized, attentive, and professional, you can start a lifelong career as a dental assistant. As long as you pursue the correct certificate programs, you’ll be well on your way to pursue this career.

Written By
Ginger Abbot is a college, career, and learning writer who helps students and professionals study and self-develop. She is Editor-in-Chief of Classrooms.com, where she also regularly publishes articles. Follow her work there.

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