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Dental assistant showing boy how to clean teeth properly

Think about the last time you went to the dentist. Do you remember who greeted you at your appointment? Or who walked you back to the exam room, asking follow-up questions from your last visit? How about the exam room: do you remember the room seemingly prepared for your visit?

While you may have been preoccupied worrying about cavities or whether or not you remembered to floss that day, your dental assistant was focused on making your experience as seamless as possible. That not only includes arriving early to sterilize instruments, but also reviewing the procedures for the day and the patient’s medical history.

If you’re interested in dental care but aren’t sure if a position as a dental hygienist is the right one for you, consider becoming a dental assistant. Dental assistants have important responsibilities that still allow you to be a part of the exciting filed of dentistry.

What Does a Dental Assistant Do?

The responsibilities of a dental assistant may vary by office, but usually include the following:

  • Assisting the dentist in treatment procedures
  • Prepping and developing dental x-rays
  • Maintaining strict sterilization and infection control procedures
  • Preparing and sterilizing dental instruments
  • Performing office management tasks

While these are important responsibilities, there are other skills that are almost always required of dental assistants. The most important of which is patient interaction. As a dental assistant, you’re most likely the first person the patient sees. Are they nervous? Uncomfortable? Scared? Whatever the case may be, you have the unique opportunity to comfort them before their procedure — whether that’s simply talking them through the exam or even holding their hand if they become uneasy.

These interpersonal skills are crucial to a dental assistant’s role. They impress upon the patient your level of care and consideration, but they also illustrate the commitment you have for your practice and the experiences of your patients.

Dental Assistants Vs. Dental Hygienists and Lab Technicians

To the average patient, the differences between a dental assistant and dental hygienist may not be extremely obvious. Both hygienists and assistants care for the patient, or may assist the dentist in one way or another.

While the differences may not be obvious to a patient, there are important distinctions between a dental assistant and dental hygienist. And if you’re attracted to the field of dentistry, you may also be interested in a position as a dental lab technician. To sort through the differences, let’s explore the job responsibilities, years of education, salary benefits, and average hours worked for each position.

Job Responsibilities

Dental Assistants

A dental assistant’s responsibilities can be generally described as “manual.” This means their daily tasks mostly revolve around preparatory measures: sterilizing equipment, reviewing medical documents, assisting during examinations, and prepping patients.

Dental Hygienists

For dental hygienists, their responsibilities can be described as “specialized.” While these may vary by state and educational background, dental hygienists can be responsible for:

  • Assessing patient’s oral tissues and overall dental health
  • Developing patient treatment plans and discussing possible options for care
  • Polishing patient’s teeth and removing deposits
  • Processing dental X-rays
  • Applying cavity-preventative agents

Dental Lab Technicians

If a dental assistant’s responsibilities can be categorized as manual and a dental hygienist as specialized, the dental lab technician’s responsibilities fall somewhere in the middle of the two. Dental lab technicians primarily work directly with the dentist, utilizing the patient’s impressions (molds) to create:

  • Full dentures
  • Removable partial dentures, or fixed bridges
  • Crowns
  • Veneers
  • Orthodontic appliances and splits

While responsibilities may vary, there isn’t always a firm line of distinction. For instance, some dental assistants may remove sutures, apply anesthetics or create molds. The Dental Assisting National Board (DANB) can provide information on what responsibilities dental assistants can perform in each state and what requirements are needed beforehand.

Years of Education Required to Work in Dentistry

Dental Assistants

When discussing education, most dental assistants are enrolled in an educational program for 1-2 years. Depending on the practice, dental assistants may be required to receive a Dental Assistant Diploma or a Dental Assistant Associate of Applied Sciences (AAS degree). Additionally, dental assistants may chose to sit for the Certified Dental Assistant Exam, offered by DANB.

Dental Hygienists

For dental hygienists, the number of years enrolled fluctuates between 2 – 6. At a minimum, dental hygienists must graduate from an accredited dental hygiene program and become licensed in their practicing state. Additionally, dental hygienists who have successfully completed an associate’s program, have the opportunity to pursue a Bachelor’s and/or Master’s degree in Dental Hygiene.

Dental Lab Technician

Depending on the dental office, many dental lab technicians gain their education through direct work experience. Formal training programs vary in length and level of skill. Additionally, Dental Lab Technicians may become certified through the Certified Dental Technician exam, offered by the National Association of Dental Laboratories.

Projected Salaries of Dental Assistants, Dental Hygienists and Dental Lab Techs

Projected Median Salaries - Dental Assistants: $34,900; Dental Hygienists: $71,110; Dental Lab Technicians: $25,000-50,000

Dental Assistants

It’s important to note that salaries vary based on a variety of factors: specialization in the field, location, number of years in the industry, and others.

The national pay scale for dental assistants, based on U.S. News & World Report Money, ranges from $24,220 – $48,350. The national average in 2013 was $35,640 – the median was $34,900.

Dental Hygienists

For dental hygienists, the national median salary in 2013 was $71,110. The best paid earned about $96,690 while the bottom 10 percent earned around $47,880.

Dental Lab Technicians

While dental lab technicians might expect a salary range of $25 – 50,000, these estimates will heavily depend on your level of experience, but also the size of your lab. For example, with a non-experienced technician working in a large lab (>25 people), the average estimated annual wage was $26,000. For an experienced technician working in the same size lab, the average estimated annual wage was $70,000.

Hours on the Job for Dental Assistants, Dental Hygienists and Dental Lab Techs

Hours on the Job - Dental Assistants: 35-40 hours/week; Dental Hygienists: 40 hours/week; Dental Lab Technicians: 40 hours/week

Dental Assistants

Most dental assistants hold flexible schedules, with more than one-third working part-time. If you’re pursuing other certifications or responsibilities, the ability to work part-time is an enticing benefit. For dental assistants holding full-time positions, 35-40 hour workweeks are usual and may include Saturday or evening shifts.

Dental Hygienists

Dental hygienists have similarly flexible schedules, with roughly half working part-time. It is usually common for a dental hygienist to work for more than one dentist.

Dental Lab Technicians

Depending on the size of the lab, most salaried technicians’ schedules include 40 hours/week. Self-employed technicians generally work longer hours. Long hours can be attributed to the delicate and time-consuming nature of the job.

The Job Market

U.S. News and World Report ranked dental assistants as #30 in their Best Health Care Jobs report and #67 in their 100 Best Jobs report. The Bureau of Labor Statistics also estimates more than 74,000 new openings for dental assistants up to the year 2022. Whether that’s due to an increased focus on dental health in recent generations, or because of national health insurance, dental assistants are definitely in demand.

Let’s take a look at the states with the highest employment level, via the Bureau of Labor Statistics May 2013 report:

Equally important to identifying areas with increased career opportunities is identifying areas where competition may be higher. Here are the top five states with the highest concentration of jobs:

While we may already know the national average wage for dental assistants, that doesn’t mean there aren’t greater possibilities out there to earn more. Listed below are the five top-paying states, including their hourly mean wage and annual mean wage:

A Closer Look at Dental Assistants

Although this post should serve as a reference if you’re considering a position as a dental assistant, nothing quite compares to hearing real-life stories. How better to understand if dental assisting is the right career path for you than by comparing stories from others in the field?

Jane’s Story and Ashley Brown’s interview are great examples of individuals who have found fulfilling careers as dental assistants.

Overcoming Challenges

Realistically, even the most rewarding jobs have their own unique set of obstacles. In that respect, dental assisting is no different. Some common challenges dental assistants may likely face include:

  • Overloaded Responsibilities: Depending on the day and number of appointments, it can be easy to fall behind in paperwork, or feel overwhelmed juggling the multiple “shoes” a dental assistant can fill.
  • Physical Demands: Some dental assistants complain of back pain, especially from bending down/over for long periods of time. Wrist/carpel tunnel pain can also be a common complaint

In order to keep yourself emotionally and physically stable, maintain an open dialogue with your supervisors and members of your team. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, take a minute to rest. Ask a colleague for a helping hand, or even take a short walk outside to catch some fresh air. For physical pain, buy proper shoes with strong rubber soles for your feet, and be attentive of your shoulders while sitting or bending over. If they’re hunched, try to bring them back, as this can help alleviate some of the tension/pain.

Become a Dental Assistant at Vista College

With flexible career programs with day and night schedules and classes starting every 5 weeks, Vista College is making it simple to start your journey towards a career as a dental assistant. Taught by real-world expert instructors, our program offers hands-on learning ensuring that our students are fully equipped to deal with the real situations they will face in the field. With small class sizes, students can take comfort knowing they won’t be lost in the crowd.

Dental Assistant Diploma

Our dental assistant training program will take you through classroom instruction and real-world practical experience, all in less than one year. The certified dental assistant program includes instruction in:

  • Dental Sciences
  • Practical Infection Control
  • Dental Materials
  • Preventative Dentistry
  • Dental Radiography
  • Dental Office Management
  • Dental Procedures

After completing the prerequisite course, students will be eligible for an externship in a dental office. Externships are a great way to get your foot in the door and experience a real-life practice. Better yet, a strong externship may lead to a job offer.

Dental Assistant Associate of Applied Science (AAS)

For students looking to further their dental assistance education, the Dental Assistant Associate of Applied Science can add to the foundational learning you received in the Dental Assistant Diploma program. The Dental Assistant AAS Degree program provides extensive training in:

  • Dental sciences
  • Dental materials
  • Radiography
  • Preventative dentistry
  • Infection control


In addition, students will also learn dental office administrative skills, including database management and customer service/communication. The best part? Students can complete the Vista College Dental Assistant AAS program in as little as 80 weeks.

Student Assistance and Taking the Next Step

Whether you’re enrolling in the Dental Assistant Diploma Program or continuing on to receive your AAS degree, Vista College wants to provide you with every chance to succeed. Our Financial Aid advisors will guide you step-by-step through the entire process and can quickly determine your eligibility for college financial support.

While our programs can prepare you for your next step into the exciting field of dental assisting, landing that first job can still be challenging. Upon completion of your Dental Assistant Diploma or AAS degree, you can also get assistance from our Career Services team. We’ll help you prepare your resume and cover letters, develop a job search strategy, and practice your interview skills.

If you’re ready for a new career in dental assistance, Vista College is ready to help. Contact us today to learn more about our Dental Assistant Diploma Program or our Dental AAS degree.

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