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What is a Dental Assistant?
A dental assistant is an individual that is trained to assist a dentist in the day-to-day operation of a dental practice. Common duties of a dental assistant include patient intake, office work, surgery assistance, infection control, recordkeeping, scheduling appointments, and other requisite operational tasks. Assistants are responsible for the preparation and cleanup of facilities prior to and after dental procedures.
The role of a dental assistant and the specific duties required will vary by dental practice and state. Dental assistants in a large corporation will typically be specialists focusing on a few tasks. On the other hand, dental assistants perform a wide array of job duties in a smaller dental practice across a typical dental work environment.
Dental assistants may be limited to job duties as prescribed by state regulation. As such, you may be required to have additional education or certification as required by your state dental board to practice as an orthodontic assistant, dental therapist, or registered dental assistant.
What Does a Dental Assistant Do?
Dental assistants are a vital part of any well-functioning dental team. Dental assistants are both customer-facing and administrative by design. Much like a dental hygienist, a dental assistant can be found working closely with patients to provide exceptional customer service and support.
Unlike a dental hygienist, a dental assistant will perform many job functions behind the scenes. From patient charting to sterilizing medical equipment, dental assistant jobs can have a broad array of responsibilities day over day to ensure their dental office is well organized and running smoothly.
Top Dental Assistant Schools
A certified dental assistant must attend an accredited dental college prior to pursuing a dental career in a licensed practice capacity. Generally, dental assistants will need to hold a high school diploma or equivalent in addition to higher education requirements. Typical college requirements include graduating from an accredited postsecondary institution with a certificate or degree mandated by your state.
In addition, you will need to successfully pass state-specific dental examinations prior to employment in the field. Dental assistant training programs can be offered by a number of community colleges, vocational schools, career colleges, and dental assistant specialty schools.
Vocational School or Technical Institute – As a rule of thumb, a vocational school or technical institute is a school that targets skill development making work-readiness a top priority. Most vocational school programs result in dental assistants earning a certificate after completing the requisite coursework. Upon certificate completion, a dental assistant student will often work in a dental clinic or a dental office.
Community College – A community college commonly offers 2-year programs focused on providing students with an associate degree. Students enrolled in a dental assistant program at a community college will be exposed to a number of general education classes along with dentistry courses to best support the evolving dental field. General electives at a community college will typically include math, creative writing, and philosophy. As such, dental assistants will be exposed to various courses and ways of thinking.
Dental Specialty School – A specialty dental school is an industry specific type of school that provide the backbone of classes required by dental assistants, dental hygienists, and dental lab assistants. Certificate programs in dental assisting generally offer more science-rich classes than a community college. Dental schools are known to provide dental operations, health care, and research curriculum to students. Targeted courses are created to help prepare students for vibrant careers in the dental field upon graduation.
Dental Assistant Requirements
A degree in dental assisting qualifies an individual to aid dentists in their daily operations, including administrative work, manipulating new technology, equipment sterilization, gathering materials, and acquisition of patient history and information. Certificate, diploma and associate's degrees are available to those wishing to pursue an education leading to a dental assisting job.
Students who wish to enroll in such a program will become familiarized with a dental setting, including daily operations, operation assistance, terminology, and excellent customer service. Individuals will work along with dentists to ensure that patient care is properly delivered and will also be educated in the process of taking patient histories and the retrieval of past information and documents.
Participants of certificate or diploma program will normally finish their program with a year. DA's in associate programs will generally have two years of study prior to completion due to the addition of general education courses in the curriculum.
Dental assisting programs resulting in an associate degree are slightly less common than diploma or certificate programs and generally found at community colleges. The dental assisting program has increased in popularity due to increased demand and public awareness of oral health management.
Dental Assistant Classes in College
The number and type of dental assisting courses you will take in college will vary from university to university. However, you will typically encounter a series of core classes across the majority of higher education institutions. Classes you may encounter in a dental assisting program will typically include courses such as:
- Dental Radiology
- Human Relations
- Anatomy & Physiology
- Medical Terminology
- Preventive Dentistry
- Emergency Management
- Dental Procedures
- Dental Office Management
Which Dental Assistant School is Right for Me?
Figuring out which dental assistant program is right for you is a direct correlation to your priorities and your career aspirations. There are a handful of guiding factors you will need to consider during your college match journey regardless of proximity, cost, or geography which include accreditation, timing, program specialization, and curriculum.
Accreditation – If you are intent on bolstering your career through education, we recommend enrolling in an accredited higher education institution. Colleges and universities holding regional and national accreditation are key to your success. They have been vetted by third-parties and are schools equipped to prepare students for state licensing exams and professional work in the dental field.
When researching dental assistant programs, seek schools with a CODA (The Commission on Dental Accreditation) affiliation. A CODA accreditation will generally ensure top-tier schooling experiences for your investment. They have also been proven to provide students with the highest probability of finding work in the dental field upon program completion.
Program Path – You will be best served if you know your goals in advance. Meaning if you are seeking a well-rounded educational experience as you move towards a dental assistant degree, a community college may be a great fit. If , however, your ultimate goal is to move from school directly into the workforce on an abbreviated schedule, a college offering an accelerated dental assisting degree could be a great choice.
Specialization – It will come as no surprise that not all dental assistant degree programs are created equal. In addition to the different types of schools such as community colleges, vocational schools, and dental schools, you should apply to programs offering the specific career path of interest to you.
In other words, if your goal is to teach or perform research in the dental field after graduation, it is incumbent upon you to enroll in an accredited program that emphasizes that specialty.
Curriculum – Within the constructs of a CODA accredited school, the range of programming can vary from school to school. It would be in your best interest to align yourself with programs with a history of quality clinical experiences for students. Put another way, an accredited school with a community partnership with dental offices or an on-site dental office is an indication the school values the clinical experiences for dental students.
How to Become a Dental Assistant
Admission requirements for CODA accredited colleges and dental schools will generally have similar requirements for incoming students regardless of geographic location. The program requirements you should be prepared for regardless of the institution type or location will include:
- Application – The details provided on your dental assistant college application will include personal information, socioeconomic information, and a personal statement. Be prepared to invest both time and money to craft an acceptance-worthy application to any college or dental school.
- DAT – The Dental Admissions Test or DAT is required by a number of high-level dental schools. A DAT exam is administered by CODA to provide colleges with an applicant's probability of success after school. Additional information about DAT exams can be found via the ADA portal.
- Transcripts – Your transcripts are yet another part of the equation for any higher education institution. In real terms, your transcripts are the factual, data-driven component of your college application. Transcripts reveal to admissions officers how you performed in previous classes which are used as an indication of your future success.
- Experience – Employers and colleges will generally require more knowledge, skills, and experience with higher-level degree paths. More specifically, the work experience and classroom requirements for an Associate's degree program will be greater than the criteria for a diploma program in dental assisting.
- Letters of Recommendation – A letter of recommendation from professors, teachers, and former managers is a must for most college admissions. These written testimonials speak to your work ethic, communication skills, character, and competencies. Letters of recommendation are weighted and considered with a student's application.
Top Dental Assistant Degrees
The 2 primary paths for dental assistants include a certificate program or diploma program. Keep in mind there will be some variation from school to school in terms of timing, cost, curriculum, program focus, and teaching methodology so make sure to research schools early and thoroughly. For those seeking to enter the dental assistant field, the tracks below could be worth further consideration.
Dental Assistant Diploma Programs
A diploma program for a dental assistant is geared to provide students with the basics of the job. Diploma programs are typically a one year program regardless of the institution type. Curriculum is structured to help students understand the basics of teeth, jaws, gums, oral health, and dental instrumentation. The diploma program in most CODA accredited institutions fuse classroom time with lab work to get the best from the knowledge acquisition process.
Dental Assistant Certificate Programs
Much like a diploma program, a dental assistant certification will cover oral health care and basic dental instrumentation. However, certificate programs often are structured to take 1-2 years to complete with the longer courses intended to lead students to an associate’s degree.
The dental assistant certification track will generally encompass additional classes not found in a diploma program. Additional classes may include core curriculum in chemistry, biology, anatomy, and administrative courses. More and more states require extra coursework and training to become proficient with radiographic equipment (x-ray) and specialties such as coronal polishing. Consult your local dentistry board for further information on state-specific requirements.
Online Dental Assistant Programs
Online dental assistant programs that lead to a certificate have been rapidly growing in popularity and quality. As these programs gain traction in the marketplace, make sure to find top dental schools that have a CODA accreditation. Upon program completion, students with sufficient work experience are often granted a Certificate in Dental Assisting (CDA).
Before you consider applying to an online dental assistant program, take the time to perform an inventory analysis of your communication style, motivation, and learning style. Distance learning classes offer dental assistant flexibility to engage in school while not being bound to a classroom.
Online Dental Assistant Resources
For deeper analysis of online dental schools and distance learning, we have culled a list of important articles below. Additional research will yield a greater understanding of online courses and dental degrees to help you make a great decision.
- How to Make Online College More Affordable
- Is an Online College or Traditional College Setting Best for You?
- Unique Aspects of Taking Online College Courses
- Are Online College Degree Programs Right for Me?
- Benefits of Earning a College Degree Online
- Which Type of Online Degree or Credential is Right for You?
- Current Profile of Online Students
Career as a Dental Assistant
Though it is not necessary to have a degree or diploma to obtain work, the tasks and increasing responsibilities of dental assistants has created a demand for skilled/trained individuals. Job growth for dental assistants is expected to increase over the next few years at large institutions such as Willamette Dental, Coast Dental, Aspen Dental and various independent offices.
Most states do not require a license to work as a dental assistant, though the duties performed are regulated by each state. Certification may be obtained in some states to increase the duties a dental assistant may perform. Individuals interested in dental assisting should research their state's rules and regulations governing the profession, particularly if certification or licensure is required to work.
Those interested in a career in dental assisting may also be interested to learn more about health care vocations like a medical assistant, physical therapy assistant, or occupational therapist assistant.
Dental Assistant Pay & Job Growth
The dental assisting vocation is expected to grow at 18% through 2024 as the demand for preventative dental care increases. As a result of this inherent demand, dentists will hire more assistants to take on routine tasks and basic patient care, allowing dentists to see more patients and focus on more complex procedures. Additionally, the current aging population has kept more of their original teeth than those of the same age in previous generations resulting in a need for more dental care among older generations.
How Much Do Dental Assistants Make?
Dental assistant annual median pay is $36,940, with the lowest 10% earning less than $25,460. Meanwhile, the highest 10% earn more than $52,000 annually according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Individuals with quality work experience will generally be in the upper spectrum of pay and benefit from working with the same dentist or dental group for an extended period of time. Opportunity for upward mobility in small dental practices is limited given the number of staff coupled with the flat organizational structures found at most privately held companies.
Dental Associations & Dental Career Resources
For additional information on a future in the dentistry field and gainful employment, read our comprehensive career guide on our dental career blog post. Our acclaimed career guide in dentistry includes popular dental careers, job duties, common treatments, educational requirements, safety procedures, dental specialties, and a detailed job outlook in dentistry. Popular careers in dentistry include dentists, dental hygienists, dental assistants, and dental laboratory technicians.
Top Dental Assistant National & International Associations
National associations and trade groups in dental assisting can be tremendous sources of continuing education, dental assistant training, professional networking, discounts, and information. Dental associations have been around for decades and serve a defined group of professionals in the dental field to support their professional and personal endeavors. Top dental assisting associations in the country include the following organizations:
- AAP - American Academy of Periodontology
- AAE - American Association of Endodontists
- AAOMS - American Association of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeons
- AAO - American Association of Orthodontists
- ABPD - American Board of Pediatric Dentistry
- ADA - American Dental Association
- ACOMS - American College of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeons
- IAO - International Association for Orthodontics
- IADR - International Association of Dental Research