Do you find the intricate and highly specialized field of dentistry interesting and exciting? Are you looking into a career as a dental assistant? The first step toward such a job is getting the right education. Not just anyone can become a dental assistant. Instead, there are a series of dental assistant education requirements you’ll have to meet before a dental office will consider you for such a position.
If you’re determined and ready to work, however, there’s no reason you can’t meet the necessary requirements and launch yourself into just the dental assistant career you want. Before you can begin such an educational track, you’ll first need to figure out exactly what education is necessary to become a dental assistant.
To help you figure out your future, we’ve pulled together a guide to dental assistant education. If you’re serious about choosing this as a career path, then browse through this list and start thinking about how you can check these items off and move toward your goal.
What Is a Dental Assistant?
Before diving into a discussion of the education required to be a dental assistant, let’s begin at the beginning by establishing who exactly a dental assistant is and what they do.
A dental assistant is a highly versatile profession that can look slightly different depending on the dental office you’re employed in. In some cases, a dental assistant might find themselves scheduling appointments and providing backup for the office’s administrative staff. In other cases, they might find themselves helping out the dentist by performing tasks like taking X-rays or helping out with other routine procedures involving the patients. They find themselves retrieving paperwork, greeting patients, and performing other various duties throughout the office.
As a dental assistant, you will need to be constantly on your toes and flexible, ready to complete any and all tasks required of you. You’ll need to be good with people, good with details, and quick to pick up new skills and knowledge.
What Is the Difference Between a Dental Assistant and a Dental Hygienist?
In researching this field and profession, you’ll want to be careful to avoid confusing what dental assistants and dental hygienists are. If you don’t have prior knowledge of the field, it might be easy to assume that they are different names for the same thing. However, they are two distinct professions and have very different educational requirements.
A dental hygienist is a licensed dental professional who is responsible for carrying out dental procedures on their own. They remove plaque from teeth, administer fluoride, run diagnostic tests, and get the patients’ teeth looking clean before the dentist arrives. While they are still part of the larger dental team, they have a high level of responsibility and perform dental work directly on the patient.
A dental assistant, on the other hand, usually does not work directly with the patient. They might do things like hand the dentist tools, sterilize the equipment, and gather files, but they will not perform actual dentistry on the patient. In this way, their level of responsibility is far lower and requires less education and fewer certifications to achieve.
Why Become a Dental Assistant?
Perhaps you’re considering becoming a dental assistant, but you aren’t entirely convinced it’s the right move for you yet. There are plenty of reasons many people just like you choose this career path.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the national average annual salary for a dental assistant was $37,630 in 2017. While this data is variable based on location as well as the number of years at your job, you can certainly see that work as a dental assistant has the potential to be financially rewarding.
The dental assisting field is also expected to experience 19 percent growth in the decade between 2016 and 2026, meaning that if you do choose this career path, you can reasonably expect to find plenty of job opportunities to apply for.
In addition to this, most dental assisting programs can be completed in a relatively short span of time — often in less than a year. This short period is extremely desirable, especially when compared to other fields that require a four-year degree or masters and doctorate programs.
Dental assisting is also an ideal way to get a foot in the door in the field of dental work. If you are interested but aren’t sure you want to commit to becoming a dentist or a hygienist, working as a dental assistant is a great way to start. In this position, you can learn about the field and decide if it’s something you’d like to pursue more. From there, you can always go back to school and obtain higher degrees and certifications to help you advance in the field.
What Are the Education Requirements for a Dental Assistant?
Because different dental offices will expect their dental assistants to perform varying tasks, most offices will have their own unique sets of requirements. Some offices will only require a high school diploma, while other offices will want to see that you have completed post-secondary education. It is impossible to predict what different offices will require.
However, to increase your chances of being hired for a position, it is wise to assume that all potential employers will want to see the very highest levels of qualifications.
To find a job in the field of dental assisting, we recommend following this educational path:
1. Complete a High School Diploma
As this is the basic requirement for many professions, this should come as no surprise. Begin by performing well in high school and taking classes in things like biology. Once you have your high school diploma in hand, you can look into your next steps, but this is the fundamental first step.
2. Decide What Type of Program You’re Interested In
Typically, you’ll complete a dental assisting program at your local community college, tech school, or vocational school. Even if your employer does not require it, the education you gain from such a program will be invaluable.
Decide whether you’d like to pursue a certificate, a Diploma, or an associate’s degree. Whichever program you’d like to begin, your coursework will likely include subjects like:
- Dental Office Administration
- Oral Anatomy
- Dental Materials
- CPR and First Aid
- Dental Pharmacology
Once you’ve decided which type of program you want, research programs of this nature, apply to one, and successfully complete the coursework. Make sure the program you choose is accredited by the Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA).
By completing your dental assisting program, you won’t just be checking off a box that will eventually lead to a job. Your course of study should also teach you the valuable tools and knowledge you’ll need to thrive in your career as a dental assistant. During your studies, expect to learn things like:
- Good communication skills: Imperative for dealing with patients and coworkers alike.
- Administrative skills: Such as how to file records and operate common dental office management software.
- Chairside manner: The appropriate manner of interacting with patients in a calming and caring way.
- How to record medical histories: A crucial task for every new patient your office will acquire.
- How to take X-rays: A common task you may be assigned to do.
- How to use dental materials: As well as understanding what they are and what they’re commonly used for.
3. Do an Externship
This is another step that might not necessarily be required by some dental offices, but it can do wonders to help you stand out from the competition. This is similar to an internship and involves a placement in a real-world workplace — in this case, most likely a dentist’s office — as part of the coursework for your educational program.
This will usually be voluntary instead of mandatory, but the value of such an externship should not be underestimated. It does more than just make you and your application look more attractive to employers. It also gives you valuable experience that will help prepare you and make you more ready to take on the challenges of life and work as a fully-fledged dental assistant.
If you have a specific area of focus within the world of dental assisting, try to find an externship within the scope of your focus. For example, if you’re more interested in orthodontic care, it would be wise to find an externship at an orthodontist’s office.
4. Narrow Your Focus
There are always programs and courses of study that are dedicated solely to the general field of dental assisting. However, you might improve your chances of landing a job by narrowing your focus and pursuing certification in a more specialized sub-field. For example, you might choose to specialize in dentofacial orthodontics, periodontics, endodontics, or one of the many other possible choices.
5. Become Certified or Licensed in Your State
It is difficult to prescribe a single set of requirements that are necessary for certification, as every state has their own process and set of standards that need to be met. For best results, we recommend researching your home state and learning what they will require to gain your certification. You can learn what your state calls for by reaching out to your state dental board or by conducting research on the Dental Assistant National Board’s website.
Some states do not require actual certification, but others do. If your state stipulates you need to be certified, then you will need to take the Certified Dental Assistant exam, or CDA.
This test consists of 320 questions and covers three components:
- General Chairside
- Radiation Health and Safety
- Infection Control
There are 900 available points on the test. To achieve a passing grade, you will need to score at least a 400. Depending on your state’s policies, you may be able to simply retake the test immediately if you fail it the first time, or you may need to complete additional coursework first.
If you are looking to become certified in additional, more specialized areas of dental assisting, you may also pursue licensure in areas such as orthodontics, restorative functions, and more. Additionally, dental assisting students can choose to sit for the National Entry Level Dental Assisting Test if they wish to further boost their credentials.
6. Apply for Entry-Level Jobs
Once you’ve completed a course of study in dental assisting and completed all the necessary certification procedures in your state, you’re all ready to begin applying for entry-level positions as a dental assistant. Remember to include all your certifications and qualifications on your resume and application. If you’ve gone above and beyond, gaining degrees and certifications beyond what the job requires, you’re almost certain to look more attractive to employers than candidates who have done the bare minimum.
Once you’ve been hired for your first dental assisting job, this is your opportunity to begin gaining real experience in the field. Is it something you like? Do you find the work fulfilling and challenging? Could you see yourself pursuing the world of dentistry further? If so, you might be interested in returning to school in the future to complete coursework required to become a dental hygienist. Or, if you’re happy with your work as a dental assistant, this is an excellent position as well and one you should be proud to have achieved.
Get Started Working Toward Your Dental Assistant Diploma Today
Have you decided that dental assisting is the career for you? If you’re aware of the dental assistant education required of you and you’re ready to get started, then you’ll want to find a dental assisting program that will work for you and get you on your career path.
We’d like to invite you to consider our Dental Assistant Diploma Program. We know your time is important and that you want to get started on your career as soon as possible. That’s why our program can be completed in less than one year. During this time, you’ll receive both classroom instruction and real-world experience that will combine to give you that full package employers are looking for. In our program, you’ll learn about oral anatomy, common oral health problems, how to operate dental technology like X-ray machines, tools, and more.
If you want to learn more about this program and how you can become a dental assistant, get in touch with us today.