Dental Assistant: How Do I Start a Career in Dental Assisting?

Learn about the education and preparation needed to become a dental assistant. Get a quick view of the requirements as well as details about degree programs, job duties and licensure to find out if this is the career for you.

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In some states, you can become a dental assistant with just a high school diploma and some on-the-job training, while in others, you may need to have completed a formal postsecondary program. Though not necessary in all states, you may also need to become licensed or certified.

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Essential Information

Dental assistants help keep a dental office running by performing essential office tasks. They may also work directly with patients in the clinic. The education required for dental assistants varies by state, partly depending on whether or not the state mandates licensure or certification for dental assistants. In some states, a high school diploma plus on-the-job training is sufficient. Other states with licensure or certification rules may require formal postsecondary training, such as a certificate or associate's degree in dental assisting.

Licensure and/or certification requirements may also correspond to the duties the dental assistant is qualified to perform. For example, only licensed dental assistants may be qualified to perform procedures such as coronal polishing in some states, and taking X-rays often requires additional specialized training.

Required Education Varies by state; high school diploma and on-the-job training in some states; undergraduate certificate or degree in other states
Other Requirements Additional training for those wanting to perform special procedures, like taking X-rays
Licensure and Certification Varies by state; licensure and/or certification may be required
Projected Job Growth (2014-2024)* 18%
Median Salary (2015)* $35,980

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Step 1: Complete High School

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), many states do not require formal training for dental assistants, allowing them to start after graduating high school. Some high schools offer dental assistant training programs, which work in conjunction with local colleges. Interested high school students may consider volunteering at a dental office and taking science-related coursework.

Step 2: Consider Completing a Postsecondary Program

The BLS notes that some states require dental assistants to be licensed, which may necessitate completing an accredited postsecondary dental program such as a 1-year certificate program or 2-year associate's degree program. Students may consider programs that are accredited by the Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA). A significant portion of these curricula are devoted to topics in dental science such as oral anatomy and radiology. Professional skills, such as office management and record keeping, are also included, and some programs offer an examination preparation course that prepares students to take a state certifying exam.

Additionally, many programs have experience requirements, often in the form of a practicum or internship. During clinical experiences, students work at off-campus facilities under supervision from experienced dental professionals, developing their skills and receiving feedback. Some schools have on-campus clinics where students may work.

Step 3: Become Licensed

Although many states do not have education requirements for dental assistants, the BLS reports that most states have regulations for dental assistants that can vary significantly. Many states have age, education and immunization requirements, plus a certifying exam. The contents of these exams differ by state but may cover topics in safety, anatomy and basic clinical principles. Some states require dental assistants to have additional training for certain duties such as taking x-rays.

Step 4: Find Work

The BLS indicates that employment for dental assistants is expected to increase by 18% from 2014 to 2024. Job opportunities are available with dental offices, physicians' offices and outpatient healthcare centers. As of May 2015, the BLS stated that the median dental assistant salary was $35,980 annually.

Entry-level employees sanitize dental instruments and prepare patients for dental examinations. More experienced assistants may take x-rays, instruct patients on at-home treatments and perform some dental procedures, such as removing sutures. Assistants may also take on administrative tasks, such as keeping patient records, scheduling dental appointments and helping to manage the office.

Step 5: Consider Certifications

Professional certifications or licensing may be required for dental assistants to perform specific tasks. The Dental Assisting National Board (DANB) offers the Certified Dental Assistant (CDA) credential. In order to sit for the CDA exam, individuals must have either graduated from a CODA-approved program or meet experience requirements. The DANB also offers certification for orthodontic and preventive dental assistants.

Licensure in some states may dictate that you hold a certificate or even an associate's degree from a CODA-accredited program before being allowed to practice as a dental assistant. Professional certification may be required, depending on your duties or state licensure requirement. Employment opportunities for dental assistants are expected to grow at a much faster rate than the national average for all occupations.

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