What is a Dental Assisting Degree?

Dental assisting degree, diploma, and certificate programs teach the clinical and administrative components of working as a dental assistant. Students learn in classroom, laboratory, and real-world settings. Those who wish to work in a specialized area of dentistry, such as pediatric or orthodontic care, can often focus on it during the practicum portion of their training.

Coursework at dental assisting schools typically covers these subjects:

  • Orofacial anatomy
  • Dental sciences
  • Oral hygiene and infection control
  • Dental pharmacology
  • Dental materials
  • Dental procedures and techniques
  • Dental radiography (x-rays)
  • Dental office administration
  • Dental health education

Program Options

Students should be sure to select a dental assisting school accredited by the Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA).

Diploma or Certificate – Nine Months to One Year Duration
Dental assisting diploma and certificate programs are designed for students who want to enter the workforce quickly and do not plan on further education. These programs prepare graduates for entry-level positions.

Classes include:

  • Oral Anatomy – study of the oral cavity and surrounding facial structure; anesthesia, mastication (chewing), and occlusion
  • Radiology – digital radiography and X-ray techniques; technology and techniques
  • Dental Materials – materials used in dentistry, including cement, porcelain, bonding agents, metals, and implants
  • Dental Instruments an Equipment – usage and sterilization
  • Clinical Dental Assisting – real-world clinical experiences, to practise working as a dental assistant

Associate Degree in Dental Assisting – Two Year Duration
Dental assisting associate degree programs are targeted at individuals who think that they may eventually be interested in becoming a dental hygienist. The associate curriculum covers the same core dental assisting topics that certificate and diploma programs do, but also includes the following:

  • Dental office administration – dental record keeping, dental practice management terminology and software
  • Medical history documentation – procedures for recording and transferring patient medical histories, including pre-existing conditions, allergies, previous surgeries, and current medications
  • Chairside manner – training in patient communication, care, and compassion
  • General education courses – in subjects like English, math, science, and communication.

Degrees Similar to Dental Assisting

Dental Hygiene
Degree programs in dental hygiene train students how to clean teeth, examine patients for oral diseases, treat tooth decay, and educate patients how to care for their teeth and gums. The dental hygiene curriculum is more clinical than the dental assistant curriculum. It has a greater focus on subjects like dental anatomy, periodontics (the supporting structures of teeth), microbiology, and pathology (disease).

Dental Laboratory Technology
Students who complete a certificate or degree in dental laboratory technology make crowns, bridges, dentures, and other devices for teeth.

Pre-dentistry programs prepare students for admission to dental school. Coursework includes microbiology, biochemistry, physics, anatomy, and psychology.

Becoming a dentist may also be of interest to individuals who first consider a dental assisting career. Of course, earning a dentistry degree takes much longer.

Medical Assisting
This degree program prepares students to work as assistants to medical doctors. The typical curriculum covers medical terminology, medical office administration, insurance, and medical software. As the role of medical assistant may involve some basic clinical tasks, students also learn the fundamentals of human disease, disease diagnosis, and medications.

Surgical Technology
Surgical technology certificate and degree programs teach students how to be effective members of operating room teams. Students learn how to equip operating rooms for specific procedures, how to prepare patients for surgery, how to sterilize surgical instruments, and how to assist doctors, nurses, and patients. Coursework includes anatomy and physiology, surgical patient care, and health law and ethics.

Pharmacy Technology
This degree program prepares students to work with licensed pharmacists as pharmacy technicians. The typical curriculum covers pharmaceutical technology, calculations, record keeping, and law and ethics.

Skills You’ll Learn

  • Teamwork and communication skills – dental assistants must be effective communicators, working closely with dentists and dental hygienists, who provide direct supervision.
  • Empathy and interpersonal skills – establishing rapport with patients, especially those who are anxious or in pain, is key
  • Attention to detail – patients’ safety depends on the ability of dental assistants to closely follow very specific rules and protocols
  • Technology skills – dental assisting students learn how to use the field’s evolving technology
  • Organization and administrative skills – these skills are essential in preparing tools and materials for the dentist or hygienist and in collecting and recording medical histories

What Can You Do with a Dental Assisting Degree?

Dental Assisting
Dental assistants can work in general dentistry or in one of the areas of specialization listed below. Specializing may require obtaining a specific credential through the Dental Assisting National Board.

  • Dental Public Health
  • Endodontics (root canal treatment)
  • Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery (removal of teeth and correction of facial deformities)
  • Oral and Maxillofacial Radiology
  • Oral Medicine and Pathology (non-surgical management of oral diseases and disorders)
  • Orthodontics and Dentofacial Orthopedics (straightening teeth with braces or other devices)
  • Periodontics (treatment of gum problems)
  • Prosthodontics (replacement of lost teeth)
  • Pediatric Dentistry (treatment of children)
  • Geriatric Dentistry (treatment of the elderly)

Dental Assistant Training
Depending on local regulations, experienced dental assistants may be able to work as trainers at dental assisting schools.

Dental Hygiene
Depending on the training they complete, dental assistants may be able to transfer some of their education credits and become a dental hygienist.

Dental Insurance
Insurance companies sometimes hire experienced dental assistants to process dental claims.

Dental Products Sales and Marketing
Dental assistants can sometimes take their knowledge and skills and transition into lucrative positions selling and marketing dental products.

Some school boards hire or contract dental hygienists or dental assistants to create educational programs and to travel to schools to teach children about oral health and proper dental care.

Career Paths

Learn about your career prospects after graduation.

Read about Career Paths