Dental Assistant Career Guide

Jennifer King Logan

Written By: Jennifer King Logan

Published: 6/24/2022

Becoming a dental assistant is just one of several possible career opportunities in the dental field. Dental assistants play a key role in the operation of a dental office because they enable the dentist and other employees to function more effectively and productively.

Many find a dental assistant career to be both rewarding and mentally stimulating because it involves clinical tasks, such as working with patients and assisting the dentist with complex procedures, as well as administrative tasks, including scheduling appointments and handling bill payments. Perhaps one of the biggest advantages to becoming a dental assistant is that you can prepare for this career fairly quickly and soon enter the workforce in an entry-level position.

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What Is a Dental Assistant and What Do They Do?

Dental assistants are trained to do a wide range of tasks that support the functioning of a dentist's office. Depending on the regulations established by the state where they work and their employer's needs, dental assistants may provide primarily clinical services or administrative services, or they may be expected to perform a combination of both.

In terms of clinical roles, dental assistants typically assist dentists during procedures so they can operate more efficiently. An assistant may need to make sure the patient is comfortable, organize supplies, hand tools and materials to the dentist, and possibly take x-rays and conduct other diagnostic tests, as supervised by the dentist. Other functions may include sterilizing the tools and treatment rooms.

Dental assistants may also be required to work with patients in a clerical way. They may be asked to update patient records, schedule appointments, answer billing and insurance questions, and take payments for services.

Required Skill Sets

Given the diversity of the tasks performed by dental assistants, it's not surprising that professionals need several different skill sets.

  • Dental assistants must have strong interpersonal skills. They need to be able to listen carefully and communicate clearly with both patients and co-workers. Since they often interact with people who are fearful or in pain, it's helpful for dental assistants to be able to express compassion and reassurance while still maintaining a professional demeanor.
  • Dexterity is an important trait for dental assistants as they often work with small tools in compact spaces. Because they are responsible for keeping these tools and spaces prepared for use, dental assistants also need to be organized and detail-oriented.
  • Dental assistants need to possess an aptitude for computers and other technological equipment. Every day they use computers and specialized software to update patient records and handle other administrative tasks. They may also need to use digital imaging equipment, x-ray machines, blood pressure cuffs, and other medical equipment with or without the supervision of a dentist.

Advice From Professional Dental Assistants

We asked two dental assistants to discuss their insight about the career, and they agree that this occupation requires many specific characteristics and abilities, especially strong interpersonal skills when providing patient care.

Arah Ko, an experienced dental assistant at Midas Dental Clinic, says she loves her job and notes, "Dexterity skills and good memory are a must for any dental assistant, but you also need to have good communication skills. Dental assistants often take on receptionist duties, so you need strong administrative and customer service skills."

Evan McCarthy, CEO of SportingSmiles LLC, began his career as a dental assistant. He says, "Other than having the obvious certifications, I think being able to effectively and authentically communicate with customers/patients is a needed skill. You need both empathy for patients dealing with severe pain as well as the ability to communicate clearly with your fellow employees. Dental assistants are often the first point of contact before seeing the dentist. Patients are often in distress and they find it difficult to speak, so being able to read non-verbal cues will help your patient immensely. Having a nurturing personality is also a bonus for this type of work."

Dental Assistant vs. Dental Hygienist

Dental assistants play a different role than dental hygienists. Assistants typically work directly under the supervision of a dentist, assisting in procedures. Hygienists, on the other hand, generally work independently on cleaning patients' teeth, educating patients on proper oral hygiene, taking x-rays if needed, and relaying information to the dentist. Depending on where they work, both hygienists and assistants may be asked to perform some administrative duties.

How Much Do Dental Assistants Make?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), there are more than 330,000 dental assistants currently employed in the US who earn a median annual income of $38,660. Assistants who work for the government tend to earn slightly more, with a median of $46,090. The BLS also reports that demand for routine dental care is on the rise, so they expect the need for dental assistants to increase by 11% through 2030, which is higher than the average for all US occupations.

Where Can I Work As A Dental Assistant?

According to the BLS, 90% of dental assistants work in dental offices while the rest work in doctor's offices, government-run dental practices, or dental laboratories. Dental assisting can be a physically demanding job, as you're on your feet for much of the day and some practices are open for extended hours. Health and safety are critically important, and dental assistants typically wear protective clothing, safety goggles, masks, and gloves to prevent the spread of infectious diseases. Those who work with x-ray machines must also follow relevant safety procedures.

Locations

As expected, some of the most populous states employ the most dental assistants. The BLS notes that the metropolitan areas with the highest employment levels include Los Angeles, California; New York City, New York; Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas; Chicago, Illinois; and Miami, Florida.

Additional data provided by Emsi Burning Glass shows that the top three employers offering the most job openings for dental assistants are Hospital Corporation of America, Aya Healthcare, and Ascension Health. Other prominent employers include Bayada Home Health Care and UnitedHealth Group.

FAQs About Dental Assistant Careers

How Long Does It Take To Become a Dental Assistant?


The length of time it takes to become a dental assistant depends on several variables. If your state requires dental assistants to receive formal training, you may need to spend one to two years in school. Another variable is the amount of time you need to prepare for and pass the certification exam, if needed.

How Much Does It Cost To Become a Dental Assistant?


The cost of becoming a dental assistant varies widely. Annual tuition for online programs, for example, ranges from $5,552-$30,710 based on our internal data. Many schools offering dental assistant programs accept financial aid, such as federal grants and private scholarships.

Can You Become a Dental Assistant Without Going to School?


Yes, depending on your state's requirements for becoming a dental assistant, you may not need to go to school. You may be able to learn all of the necessary skills through on-the-job training.

Should You Pursue a Career as a Dental Assistant?

If you're passionate about dental care, a career as a dental assistant just may be the perfect choice for you. It's a stable occupation, given that trained professionals are in demand in nearly every city and town across the country. Plus, you can earn your dental assisting credential in a relatively short amount of time and quickly become part of a dental team, providing quality care for your patients.

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