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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, 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 office and state. Dental assistants in a large office will typically be more of a specialist while smaller dental practices will require DA's to wear more hats. Additionally, a dental assistant may be limited to job duties as prescribed by state regulation. As such, you may be required to have additional education or certification(s) 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 office. Dental assistants are both customer-facing and administrative by design. Much like a dental hygienist, a dental assistant will work closely with patients to provide exceptional customer service and support.
Unlike a dental hygienist, a dental assistant will perform many office 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 dental assistant must attend an accredited dental school as a prerequisite to pursue a dental career in any licensed practice. Most states require a dental assistant graduate to successfully pass state mandated examinations prior to working in the field. Dental assistant programs can be part of a community college, vocational school, or dental assistant specialty school.
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 assistant students 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 geared towards 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 needs of the dental field. With electives that may include creative writing, public speaking, or philosophy a dental assistant student will be exposed to material in the classroom to help them think and engage in the workplace.
Dental School – A dental school is an industry specific type of school that provides the backbone of courses for dental hygienists, dental laboratory assistant, and dental assistants. Certificate programs in dental assisting often provide students with more science-heavy courses than a community college. Dental schools are known to provide healthcare, dental operations, and research curricula in an effort to help prepare students for vibrant careers upon graduation.
Dental Assistant Requirements
A degree in dental assistance qualifies an individual to aid dentists in their daily operations, including office work, sterilization, 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 customer service. Individuals will work along with dentists to ensure that patient care is properly delivered, and as such 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. Individuals 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. Dental assisting programs are becoming more popular due to increased demand making them readily available for interested individuals.
Classes one may encounter in a dental assistant program will 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. Accredited schools have been vetted by third-parties and are best equipped to prepare students for state licensure examinations and work in the dental field.
When researching dental assistant programs, seek schools with a CODA (The Commission on Dental Accreditation) affiliation to help ensure the best possible schooling experience for your investment 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 assistant programs could be a great choice.
Specialization – It will come as no surprise that not all dental assistant 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 DAT, Dental Admissions Test, is required by a number of high-level dental programs across the country. The Dental Admissions Test is administered by CODA as is constructed to provide higher education providers with an applicant’s potential for success. For further information, the DAT program guide can be found here.
- 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 – From academic experience to work experience, colleges will likely require more experience with higher-level degree paths. More specifically, the work experience and classroom requirements for a certificate program will be greater than the criteria for a diploma program in dental assisting.
- Letters of Recommendation – A letter of recommendation from current and previous teachers as well as from previous managers is a must for most admissions officers. These written testimonials speak to your work ethic, communication skills, character, and competencies. These letters of recommendation are taken into consideration along with your application and interview to create a holistic profile of you.
Top Dental Assistant Degrees
The 2 primary paths for a dental assistant 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.
Diploma Programs for a Dental Assistant
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.
Certificate Programs for a Dental Assistant
Much like a diploma program, a dental assistant certification will cover oral health 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 learning style and motivation. Online courses offer flexibility to complete courses on your schedule not bound by a traditional classroom but require motivation and focus to keep on track.
Additional Resources for Dental Assistants
For additional information on online college degree and diploma programs, visit our advice articles listed below. The extra information and research are typically well worth the investment of time to ensure your learning style and focus align with the educational offerings from a college or university.
- 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
Dental Employment Opportunities
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.
Dental Assistant Pay & Career 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 median pay is $36,940, with the lowest 10% earning less than $25,460 and the highest 10% earning more than $52,000 annually. As an assistant position the opportunity for career mobility is limited given the flat organizational structure at most dentist offices. Individuals with work experience will be in the upper spectrum of pay, often having worked with the same dentist or dental group for an extended period of time.
Dental Associations and Career Resources
For additional information on a future in the dentistry field, read our comprehensive career guide on our dental career blog post. Our acclaimed career guide in dentistry includes popular career tracks, job duties, common treatments, educational requirements, dental specialties, and a detailed job outlook in dentistry. Popular careers in dentistry include dentists, dental hygienists, dental assistants, and dental lab technicians.
National associations and trade groups may be worth researching. Dental associations provide professional networking opportunities, continuing education, and member benefits worth consideration. Examples include the following trade groups: