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Is Dental Assistant the Right Job for You?

Posted by Hannah Muniz | Nov 7, 2019 2:00:00 PM

General Education

 

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Passionate about health care? Or maybe you're just super fascinated by teeth (weird flex but OK). Whatever the case, it sounds as though a career in dental assisting might be a viable path for you.

In this article, we go over what a dental assistant does and take a look at the basic dental assistant requirements you must meet to become one. We also give you key information about salaries and employment of dental assistants in the US.

 

What Is a Dental Assistant? What Do They Do?

Before we get into dental assistant requirements, let’s go over the dental assistant description. In other words, what are a dental assistant’s primary duties and daily tasks?

The basic dental assistant description is someone who is trained to assist dentists, hygienists, and patients in a health care setting.

Everyday responsibilities can vary depending on the clinic and needs of the dentist(s), but typically a dental assistant will help with patient care by performing tasks such as taking X-rays, scheduling appointments, and sterilizing dental instruments.

Other duties often included in a dental assistant job description are as follows:

  • Ensure patient comfort
  • Prepare areas and patients for dental treatments and procedures
  • Hand dentists necessary instruments to use during procedures
  • Maintain records of patients' dental treatments and appointments
  • Educate patients about oral hygiene
  • Manage billing and payments
  • Assist with lab tasks, such as taking impressions of patients’ teeth and processing X-rays
  • Apply fluoride, sealants, and/or topical anesthesia (allowed only in specific states)

It’s important to note that every state has its own regulations and policies regarding the scope of a dental assistant’s duties.

Now, you’re likely familiar with the term "dental hygienist." But how exactly does a dental assistant differ from a hygienist? And what about from a dentist?

The following table provides a brief overview of some of the biggest differences between a dental assistant, a dental hygienist, and a dentist:

Job
Minimum Educational Req
Licensed?
Main Duties
Median Salary*
Postsecondary nondegree award / high school diploma
Varies depending on state, but generally no
Aid dentists and hygienists, provide patient care, take X-rays, keep records, schedule appointments 
$38,660
Associate degree
Yes
Clean patients’ teeth, examine patients’ mouths for oral diseases, teach patients about proper oral health
$74,820
Doctoral degree
Yes
Diagnose and treat issues discovered in patients’ mouths, mainly their teeth and gums 
$156,240

*We look at salary potential in more detail later in this article!

If we had to assign a hierarchy to these jobs, we could say that dentists are at the top, hygienists are one level below, and dental assistants are at the bottom.

This isn’t to say that dental assistants aren’t importantjust that they have different tasks, training, responsibilities, educational backgrounds, and skills than hygienists and dentists do.

This is the basics of what a dental assistant does. But how can you become one? We go over dental assistant training and requirements next.

 

body_dentist_dental_assistantErik Christensen/Wikimedia Commons

 

Dental Assistant Requirements: How Can You Become One?

What does it take to become a dental assistant? The answer to this question really depends on what state you’re trying to become one in.

In some states you might be required to graduate from an accredited program and pass a test, while in other states you might learn on the job without needing to have any formal education.

Some states might even require licensure for dental assistants (most don't), especially if you want to be able to perform advanced duties such as coronal polishing. In these cases, you’ll most likely have to take and pass a test administered by the Dental Assisting National Board.

In terms of education, if your state requires you to complete a dental assisting program, it’ll be in your best interest to attend one that’s accredited by the Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA), which is part of the American Dental Association. There are currently around 250 CODA-accredited dental assisting programs available in the US.

Dental assisting programs typically last one year and are offered at community colleges as well as some technical or vocational schools. Once you've completed the program, you’ll earn either a certificate or diploma.

If your state doesn’t have an educational requirement, then you can get a job as a dental assistant and complete your dental assistant training with guidance from the dental hygienists and dentists where you work.

 

Dental Assistant Salary and Job Outlook

We’ve covered what a dental assistant does and the basic dental assistant requirements in terms of education, training, and licensure. But what about salary and job growth for dental assistants?

 

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Dental Assistant Salary Potential

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median annual salary of dental assistants in 2018 was $38,660, or about $18.59 per hour.

Here’s how this salary compares with other similar jobs and fields (arranged from highest salary to lowest):

Job
Median Salary
Minimum Education Req
$74,820
Associate degree
$57,620
Associate degree
$48,090
Associate degree
$47,300
Associate degree / postsecondary nondegree award
$38,660
Postsecondary nondegree award / high school diploma
$34,480
Postsecondary nondegree award
$33,610
Postsecondary nondegree award / high school diploma
$32,700
High school diploma
$27,540
High school diploma

 

Dental assistants usually make more than medical assistants and pharmacy technicians do but far less than occupational therapy assistants and physical therapist assistants do.

The BLS reports that the highest 10% of dental assistants in 2018 made over $54,800 per year, while the lowest 10% made less than $26,940, so there’s a pretty big range of potential salaries for dental assistants in the US.

Dental assistants also reportedly make the highest amount of money working for the government (median: $42,390) and make the least working at doctor offices (median: $35,760). However, 90% of all dental assistants work at dentist offices.

Remember, your salary as a dental assistant can vary significantly depending on the state in which you’re working. Currently, Minnesota offers the highest mean salary for dental assistants: $49,880.

 

Dental Assistant Job Outlook

Now, what about the job outlook for dental assistants?

The BLS reports that for 2018-2028, the employment growth rate for dental assistants is 11%. That’s a whopping 6% higher than the national average and means the occupation is growing at a faster-than-average rate.

Approximately 346,000 dental assistant jobs were available in 2018, and this number is projected to grow by 38,700 jobs through 2028.

Why is dental assisting doing so well? Here’s what the BLS states on the matter:

"Ongoing research linking oral health and general health will continue to increase the demand for preventive dental services. Dentists will continue to hire dental assistants to complete routine tasks, allowing the dentist to work more efficiently. As dental practices grow, more dental assistants will be needed."

As you might have guessed, the demand for dentists is currently growing, too, with an anticipated 7% employment growth through 2028.

What this all means for you is that becoming a dental assistant is a great career path to choose in terms of both stability and employability.

 

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Recap: What Is a Dental Assistant? Should You Become One?

A dental assistant is somebody who helps dental hygienists and dentists with everyday tasks and procedures. Responsibilities can vary but generally involve tending to patients, processing X-rays, maintaining records, scheduling appointments, assisting dentists, and managing billing.

Some dental assistants might be able to perform more advanced tasks, such as applying fluoride or sealants, depending on the state and its licensure requirements.

To become a dental assistant, you’ll need to figure out whether your state has any educational or licensure requirements. Some states make you complete a one-year dental assisting program, while others allow you to receive all your dental assistant training on the job.

Though dental assisting might not make you a ton of money, it does offer the benefit of steady job growth and the potential to make close to $50,000 (salaries will depend on several factors, such as location and experience).

Ultimately, it’s up to you to decide whether a career as a dental assistant is the right path for you!

 

What’s Next?

Dental assisting is an excellent choice for some people—but maybe you're more interested in becoming a dentist. If this sounds like you, then check out our guide to the 13 steps you must take to become a dentist (coming soon).

Considering other career paths? We've got you covered with our step-by-step guides on how to become a doctor and how to become a lawyer.

Before you figure out what career you want, you need to choose the right major for college. Get all the tips you need here.

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Hannah Muniz
About the Author

Hannah received her MA in Japanese Studies from the University of Michigan and holds a bachelor's degree from the University of Southern California. From 2013 to 2015, she taught English in Japan via the JET Program. She is passionate about education, writing, and travel.



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