How to Become a Dental Assistant

Have you ever considered a career within the dental field? Perhaps you have gone to your own dentist visits from time to time and wondered what working as a dental assistant would be like and what the role itself entails. The process required to become a dental assistant is not a long one, and could be an ideal program for individuals looking to enter a role with significant potential without spending a huge sum of money on schooling.

Dental assisting offers financial stability, relatively swift entry into the field, and provides individuals filling these positions the ability to render essential help and care to others in maintaining oral health, which is crucial to overall health. If you have ever wondered how to become a dental assistant, but are not quite sure where to start, this comprehensive guide will equip you with the tools you need to move forward.

What Is a Dental Assistant?

Overview

Portrait of smiling dental assistant using digital tablet

Dental assistants play an essential role in the function of their office, fulfilling a wide array of duties in addition to what takes place in the dental chair. They are responsible for administrative duties, including scheduling appointments, taking x-rays, and keeping records. Dental assistants also aid dentists in conducting a variety of procedures, which diverge in normalcy and complexity.

Dental assistants must be able to multi-task, maintain a high attention to detail, and be exceedingly knowledgeable regarding human anatomy, radiography, dental materials, standard and emergency procedures, and the role’s innate function. Dental assistants must have an excellent manner towards patients and be willing and ready to do whatever is asked of them to assist the dentist with performing his or her duties.

Job Aspects

job aspect of dental assistant

If you are pondering how to become a dental assistant, the best place to start is in understanding what the job description itself entails. After completing any education-based requirements, which we will examine in detail further down, a dental assistant may begin work immediately. On the administrative side of things, dental assistants not only confirm and schedule patient appointments, but work to compile and preserve crucial patient records, and even order office supplies.

On the more procedural side of the role, dental assistants not only provide routine oral cleanings and assist with treatments but also render essential aid to the dentist by handing him or her instruments, sterilizing these tools, performing x-rays, making dental impressions for braces or retainers, and maneuvering suction devices.

Why Become a Dental Assistant?

Career Prospects

career prospect

If you are wondering how to become a dental assistant, a key factor to consider is what your career prospects are if you choose to enter the field. Working as a dental assistant offers not only the potential to be fulfilled professionally, but to enjoy financial security as well. Salaries do vary considerably based on location and experience, but the median salary is around $36,000 per year, with those on the higher end of the earning spectrum bringing home close to $50,000 per year.

If you want to make more as a dental assistant, you will need to be willing to put in the time and effort to obtain the necessary training. As with many other fields, your earning potential grows the more experience and education you have under your belt. The dental assistant field is growing rapidly, providing excellent opportunities for skilled professionals. States that have experienced some of the highest rates of job growth as a whole for dental assistants are North Carolina, Georgia, Virginia, Arizona, Indiana, Utah, Kentucky, and Florida.

Opportunities

dental treatment

In considering how to become a dental assistant, it is important to bear in mind that you can choose a specific concentration within the field if you so desire. Areas of focus include dentofacial orthodontics, pediatric dentistry, and periodontics, to name a few.

Whether you choose a specific area of focus or choose to stay within general dentistry, there are a plethora of job opportunities available. Several years back, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimated that the field would grow 25% nationwide between 2012 and 2022, which is considerably higher than the overarching job growth average.

Furthermore, dental assistants who want more opportunities for career advancement and enhanced earning potential can earn a more advanced degree within the field after obtaining some years of experience. For example, if you earned a two-year associate’s degree initially and later wanted to obtain your 4-year degree in dental hygiene, you would very likely be able to transfer credits for faster completion. Again, similarly to other fields, a 4-year degree can open more doors for you down the line than your initial certification or degree.

How to Become a Dental Assistant

Educational Requirements

registered dental asistant

The most important aspect of learning how to become a dental assistant is to understand what educational requirements are involved. It does not take long to receive the necessary education in the field, with many dental assistants obtaining a certificate from their local community college. Other schools that offer educational programs for dental assistants include technical institutes, vocational schools, dental schools, or a university.

Most of these programs take anywhere from around 9 to 11 months to finish. However, a number of schools offer students the option to speed up their training to graduate sooner, enroll on a part-time basis, or receive their education via online classes.

Some states do not require dental assistants to be registered or obtain a license, but it is always recommended to become certified so as to open up more job opportunities both currently and down the road. It is important to choose a program accredited by the Commission on Dental Accreditation, of which there are around 270 nationwide.

In examining how to become a dental assistant, it is crucial to remember that there are often individual requirements based on state regulations in addition to specific programs and certification. This is especially true when it comes to registering to obtain the designation of a Registered Dental Assistant or Certified Dental Assistant.

Training 

dental training

The next point to bear in mind when learning how to become a dental assistant are what types of classes you will be required to take and training you will need to undergo. Classes cover dental terminology, anatomy, law and ethics in dental practices, operative dentistry, preventative dentistry, dental emergencies, diseases, business administration, pharmacology, and radiology.

Training should also educate students regarding more specialized topics such as orthodontics, pediatric dentistry, periodontics, and endodontics. Your program training will include gaining on-the-job experience through an externship as well as practice and guidance within the classroom.

Licensure

studying orthodontics

In addition to obtaining your associate’s degree or certificate through an accredited school, it is also extremely common and recommended to achieve certification through the Dental Assisting National Board. Options for additional certification can open more fluid career options and a higher pay scale.

Certifications issued by the Dental Assisting National Board include the designation of Certified Preventative Functions Dental Assistant, Certified Orthodontic Assistant, Certified Dental Assistant, and Certified Restorative Functions Dental Assistant. If you opt to become a Certified Dental Assistant, you may be required to pass multiple exams regarding Infection Control, Radiation Health and Safety, and General Chairside Assisting.

Depending on your state, you may only be required to take one of the above exams to become registered and certified in your state as a Certified Dental Assistant. Alternatively, you may be required to pass more or all of them. In order to qualify to take the exam to earn the designation of Certified Dental Assistant, you must be a graduate of an accredited program or have at least two years of full-time work experience on the job.

Final Thoughts

If you are in the process of deciding how to become a dental assistant, or simply considering what your options are to pursue work within the field, it is important to examine what is required and which avenues will provide the most potential for you to grow as a professional.

Dental assistants must be educated on a wide array of medical topics and clinical aspects particular to the dental field. As a dental assistant, you must be incredibly detail-oriented and able to handle many different tasks simultaneously and efficiently. Whether you are ordering supplies, scheduling appointments, performing routine teeth cleanings, taking dental imprints, assisting with standard treatments, or aiding the dentist in a complex procedure, the role requires an individual with professionalism, diligence, and a calm and pleasant demeanor.

States do tend to vary as to their individual certification and registration requirements, so it is always a good idea to see what additional licensure aspects may need to be attended to when considering entering into this field. Be that as it may, becoming educated and certified as a dental assistant is a relatively short process, with the schooling programs themselves typically lasting less than a year. You will learn everything from office practices to anatomy to dentistry and beyond. On receiving comprehensive training regarding how to become a dental assistant, you will graduate after a brief period, armed with the tools and knowledge necessary to make a successful career within this exciting field.