CareerExplorer’s step-by-step guide on how to become a dental assistant.
Is becoming a dental assistant right for me?
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While it may be possible, in some jurisdictions, to get a dental assistant position without a high school diploma or GED, job candidates who have one invariably enhance their employability. In addition, a high school diploma is generally necessary for certification in the profession, especially for assistants who train on the job.
Throughout high school, aspiring dental assistants should focus on biology, chemistry, and anatomy classes. They should also consider volunteering or working in a customer service field to begin developing interpersonal and communication skills, which are regularly called up on in this occupation.
Formal Post-secondary Education & Externship
Where permitted by law, dental assistants can train entirely on the job.
Students who reside in jurisdictions which mandate formal education to enter the field, or who voluntarily choose to complete a post-secondary program should be sure to select a program accredited by the Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA). These programs are commonly available through community and private colleges and vocational and technical schools. Some high schools may also offer dental assistant programs.
Diploma and certificate programs are designed for students seeking to enter the workforce quickly and who do not foresee undertaking further education. Associate’s Degree programs are targeted at individuals who think that they may at some future date be interested in becoming a dental hygienist, specifically because Associate level credits can be transferred to a Bachelor’s Degree program, if desired.
Diploma and certificate programs are comprised of a number of overlapping courses and equip graduates with the foundational skills needed to be competitive for entry-level positions. Coursework generally includes the following:
Familiarization with the oral cavity and surrounding facial structure, covering topics such as anesthesia, mastication, and occlusion
• Identifying oral anatomical features
• Understanding anatomical variations
• Applying knowledge to the clinical setting
Introduction to digital radiography and X-ray techniques, highlighting advanced technology and proper techniques
• Positioning X-ray for best results
• Recognizing usable versus unusable images
• Developing awareness of latest radiographic technology
An overview of materials used in dentistry, including cement, porcelain, bonding agents, metals, and implants
• Evaluating correct materials to use for procedures
• Establishing proper application techniques
• Understanding properties of individual materials
Clinical Dental Assisting
Clinical experiences, often on a rotational basis, to gain knowledge of common assisting responsibilities
• Practising assisting functions
• Understanding emergency procedures
• Developing professional and ethical assisting skills
Associate’s Degree programs cover the same topics that certificate and diploma programs do, but provide a more holistic and in-depth education, including general education coursework as well as core dental assisting classes.
After completing an Associate level program, graduates’ skill sets will also include:
In addition to assisting dentists with routine and specialty procedures, dental assistants often work with office managers to ensure all records are properly maintained and accurately filed. Graduates should understand common dental terminology and be familiar with dental practice management software.
Ability to record medical histories
Dental assistants often record patient medical histories, ensuring dentists have a full account of any previous surgeries, current prescriptions, allergies, or pre-existing medical conditions. Attention to detail is a crucial component of this skill set, both when recording information initially and when transferring medical records.
Just as doctors and other direct care providers are expected to have an excellent bedside manner, dental assistants must understand how to provide professional, compassionate care to patients. Given the close proximity of this type of care, dental assistant graduates should learn how to set their patients at ease while administering services.
Numerous academic programs at both the certificate/diploma and degree levels include an externship component, which allows students to hone their real-world skills in the areas of chairside assisting, oral anatomy, dental pathology, radiology, oral hygiene, and dental pharmacology. Students aiming to work in a specialized area of dentistry, such as pediatric or orthodontic care, can focus on these areas during their externship.
Where permitted by state law, prospective dental assistants can train entirely on the job after earning their high school diploma. Instruction is provided by dentists, dental hygienists, and senior dental assistants. However, even in jurisdictions that do not require any post-secondary education, some dental assistant positions will demand a year or more of experience and/or completion of a certificate or diploma program. For state by state detailed information, click on the link to the Dental Assisting National Board (DANB) website, in the Licensure section below.
Licensure requirements vary by state. To learn about specific jurisdictional mandates, visit the Dental Assistant National Board (DANB) website.
In states where licensure is necessary, students are typically required to pass the DANB’s Certified Dental Assistant (CDA) examination. This exam is comprised of the following components:
• General Chairside Assisting (GC)
• Radiation Health and Safety (RHS)
• Infection Control (ICE)
The DANB offers two primary certifications for dental assistants. As noted in the licensure section above, the Certified Dental Assistant (CDA) is the licensing credential in many states.
For candidates working toward Certified Dental Assistant (CDA) eligibility, the DANB administers the National Entry-Level Dental Assistant (NELDA) credential.
The DANB also offers a variety of voluntary credentials for dental assistants who specialize in different kinds of dental work. Depending on their needs, employers may require one or more of these certifications:
Among the potential advancement opportunities for dental assistants are:
Specialized Dental Assistant
Some areas of specialization: orthodontics, geriatric dentistry, pediatric dentistry
Dental Assistant Trainer
Depending on state regulations, experienced dental assistants may be able to train entry-level assistants in educational settings.
Dental assistants who obtained an Associate’s Degree during their initial academic training can often transfer existing education credits to a Bachelor’s Degree program in dental hygiene.
Dental Insurance Claims Processor
Insurance companies seeking to hire personnel to process claims often consider experienced dental assistants as potential candidates.
Dental Products Sales Representative
Dental assistants can sometimes take their knowledge and skills and transition into lucrative sales positions.
How to become a Dental Assistant
The duties of dental assistants vary widely across the U.S., largely because some states allow for a wider scope of practice than others. Because of this disparity of responsibility, the training required to enter the occupation also varies considerably from state to state. Some states stipulate that aspiring dental assistants must graduate from an accredited education program and pass a state-administered exam. In jurisdictions that do not require any college education to work in the field, training occurs solely on the job. Licensure requirements differ among states, as well.
Even within a single state, there may be different regulations regarding training, registration, and permits or licenses, depending on the level at which a dental assistant is working. For example, in California, there are four professional dental assistant categories, each of which has a different set of required qualifications and in which only specific duties can be performed.
Students who do enter dental assistant education programs generally learn in classroom, laboratory, and real-world externship settings. They typically earn a diploma, certificate, or Associate’s Degree. Curricula in these programs include courses in orofacial anatomy, dental sciences, infection control, dental pharmacology, dental radiography, dental materials, dental office administration, and dental health education.
Even dental assistants who complete a formal educational program will undergo significant on-the-job training regarding both the treatment and administrative procedures specific to the dental office in which they will be working. This orientation may be provided by a dentist, dental hygienist, or by an already-trained dental assistant.
Dental assistants may pursue a variety of voluntary credentials through the Dental Assisting National Board (DANB).