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Everything You Need to Know About Becoming a Dental Assistant

Dental Assistant & Dentist

Thinking of Becoming a Dental Assistant?

Becoming a dental assistant is a popular career choice for many people of all ages and backgrounds. However, like with any career choice, it’s a good idea to get to know the aspects, pros and cons of potential career choices before making a commitment. We’ll make that easy: here you can learn everything you need to know about how to become a dental assistant.

What is a Dental Assistant?

Dental assistants are members of a dental team that work closely with dental patients, dental instruments and equipment to make sure treatments and appointments flow smoothly. They provide assistance to just about anyone and everyone in a dental office, and can perform a wide variety of tasks ranging from office duties to patient care to laboratory duties.

What Types of Duties do Dental Assistants Have?

Dental Tray

According to, the duties of dental assistants vary widely. The duties of a dental assistant can depend on a lot of things, such as the background and licensure of the dental assistant, the dentist and the office the dental assistant works for, and state laws. However, as mentioned by, there are quite a few duties we can infer most people do or will do once they become dental assistants.

The Duties of Dental Assistants Can Include:

  • Scheduling patient appointments
  • Helping patients understand payment and billing procedures
  • Keeping detailed dental records
  • Preparing patients, work areas and instruments for treatments
  • Making sure patients are comfortable
  • Sterilizing instruments
  • Handing sterilized instruments to dental hygienists or dentists during treatments and procedures
  • Completing lab tasks such as x-rays and dental molds under the supervision of a dentist

And if you want to get really in depth about some of the duties dental assistants may have, here are some that are more specific:

  • Exposing and mounting radiographs from x-rays
  • Placing sealants (in some states)
  • Taking and recording patients’ vital signs
  • Placing and removing surgical dressings
  • Placing topical anesthetics
  • Assisting in monitoring sedation techniques such as local anesthesia, nitrous oxide and oxygen
  • Applying fluoride

Skills That Can be Helpful When Going into Dental Assisting

With such a wide range of duties that need to be performed, there are a lot of skills one might want to have or consider having when potentially wanting to become a dental assistant. Some of those helpful skills are:

  • Effective communication and listening skills
  • Good manual dexterity (dental assistants work with their hands a lot!)
  • Organizational skills
  • Customer service skills
  • An understanding of the human body
  • Critical thinking skills

Work Environments and Conditions of Dental Assistants

Dental Chair

Dental assistants typically work in dental offices that can include private practices, group practices, and public health facilities. However, dental assistants can also work for places like hospitals, dental suppliers, educational institutions, and branches of the armed services.

Dental assistants work in close proximity with dentists, dental hygienists and patients. Due to the nature of their work being in a medical setting, dental assistants are typically always required to wear scrubs and protective clothing, alongside surgical masks, gloves and safety glasses.

Salary Ranges of Dental Assistants

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook, the median pay for dental assistants in 2017 was $37,630 per year and about $18.09 per hour. These statistics are known to vary greatly depending on where a dental assistant works, the level of experience he or she has, and a number of other factors. Most dental assistants work full time, but about a third of dental assistants work part time.

There are some states in which the median hourly pay for dental assistants is higher than that of other states.

The 5 Highest-Paying States for Dental Assistants Are:

  • Minnesota
  • New Hampshire
  • Alaska
  • Massachusetts
  • Oregon

Job Outlook for Dental Assistants

It’s important to think about job outlook and job prospects for any career you might be considering going into. Fortunately, dental assisting has awesome job prospects! From 2016 to 2026, employment of dental assistants has been projected to grow at a rate of 19%. That’s faster than the average for all occupations as a whole!

The need for dental assistants is expected to grow and keep growing as the demand for dental services grows. This is great for anyone considering going into dental assisting.

How to Become a Dental Assistant

Dental Assistant 2

There are actually a few different ways to become a dental assistant, but the way someone chooses to become a dental assistant may depend on where they live or where they want to work. Some states require that aspiring dental assistants complete an accredited program and become certified where other states allow dental assistants to be trained on the job.

Dental Assistant Education

Going to school to become a dental assistant is a great choice, especially if you live in a state that requires dental assistants to be certified. Dental assistant programs are typically completed at vocational schools, community colleges, universities, technical schools, and dental schools. According to the American Dental Association, dental assistant programs take anywhere from nine to eleven months to finish.

It’s important to know that the program you choose is accredited. CODA, or the Commission on Dental Accreditation, accredits all dental assisting programs. If you’re thinking of going into a program but don’t know where to start, CODA has a search engine to help you find an accredited program that fits your needs.

Typically, once dental assisting students have completed the chosen accredited program, they will be eligible to take the Certified Dental Assistant (CDA) examination by the Dental Assisting National Board. Passing the CDA examination shows competency in dental assisting practices and regulations and is a route most students take when becoming a dental assistant.

Dental Assistant On the Job Training

Another way for dental assistants to become knowledgeable in the field of dental assisting is by on the job training. On the job training is provided in the dental office a dental assistant is hired in, and dentists, dental hygienists, receptionists, and even other dental assistants may chip in on training a new dental assistant.

Benefits of on the job training are direct experience in the field, direct experience with patients and coworkers, and having to actively engage in customer service.

When becoming a dental assistant by being trained on the job, it’s important to be self-motivated and to try to keep educating outside the office as well as inside the office. Engaging in continuing education courses, reading textbooks related to the field, and practicing terminology are all great ways to stay educated even when outside the office. Dental assistants who have been trained on the job are also eligible to take the CDA examination after two years’ experience in the dental assisting field, so it’s a good idea to study up on your skills!

Pros and Cons of Dental Assisting


As with any career or job, there are pros and cons to becoming a dental assistant. These are always subjective and may differ from person to person, but let’s take a look at some of the good and maybe not so good sides of dental assisting.

Pros of Dental Assisting

  • Great job outlook
  • Good pay
  • A lot of variety in day-to-day tasks
  • Potentially flexible schedules
  • Few educational requirements
  • Safe work environments
  • Room for growth

Cons of Dental Assisting

  • Less pay than other dental careers
  • Work environment can bring exposure to illnesses
  • Cleaning up bodily fluids and used equipment
  • Working in or near patients’ mouths
  • Challenging work tasks

Now What?

Dental Instruments

Choosing a new career is an exciting time in anyone’s life and deserves to be celebrated, but it’s always a great idea to research a potential career or job to make sure it’s a good fit for you.

Think you might want to become a dental assistant? Remember to research these career aspects:

  • Job description
  • Job duties
  • Helpful skills
  • Work environment
  • Salary ranges
  • Job outlook
  • Education requirements
  • The pros and cons

When it comes to dental assisting, examining these aspects can help you get a better feel for the field and possibly even give you the information to get you started in your new career!