Smiling dental worker with an X-ray

How to Become a Dental Assistant

Duties, Responsibilities, Schooling, Requirements, Certifications, Job Outlook, and Salary

Smiling dental worker with an X-ray

Many different jobs in the healthcare industry will give you the chance to make people smile, but there’s one career in particular that takes the importance of smiles more literally than most. As a dental assistant (DA), you’ll play a major role in providing dental care that makes a significant difference in your patients’ daily confidence and overall quality of life.

This career guide will teach you everything you need to know about becoming a dental assistant, including the educational requirements, certifications, day-to-day duties, and how long it generally takes to launch your new career.

Not sure if becoming a dental assistant is right for you? Click here to see our full list of the best entry-level medical jobs.

Dental Assistant Definition

What is a Dental Assistant?

Dental assistants are usually the first person a patient interacts with when they schedule an appointment or arrive at the dentist’s office. In addition to clerical duties like record-keeping or appointment-setting, dental assistants help prepare patients and the treatment area and provide dentists with hands-on help during procedures.

Dental Assistant: Job Description

What Does a Dental Assistant Do?

Under the direct supervision of a board-certified dentist, dental assistants handle a wide range of duties from administrative work to more hands-on patient care. Depending on the state in which they work, dental assistants may be tasked with everything from setting appointments to sterilizing instruments and taking X-rays. DAs also serve as a second set of hands for the dentist during procedures, with duties like using the suction hose or passing the dentist any necessary instruments or supplies.

Dental Assistant Duties

Some of the day-to-day responsibilities of dental assistants include:

  • Getting patients comfortable and preparing them for their procedure
  • Sterilizing dental instruments and preparing the treatment area
  • Providing hands-on help to dentists during procedures
  • Instructing patients and their families on proper dental hygiene
  • Keeping patients’ dental health records accurate and up-to-date
  • Working with patients to schedule appointments and handle billing

Dental Assistant Skills

The most successful dental assistants are organized and detail-oriented. You’ll need to follow stringent infection-control guidelines when sterilizing instruments, assisting with treatment, and being thorough when keeping records or preparing the treatment area. You’ll also need a certain level of manual dexterity to use suction hoses and other equipment with the necessary precision. Finally, interpersonal skills are a must, as you’ll sometimes deal with patients who are in pain or nervous about receiving dental care in general.

Dental worker with a patient

Where Do Dental Assistants Work?

As you probably suspected, the overwhelming majority of dental assistants work in dentists’ offices. However, there are also dental assistant jobs available at nursing homes, hospitals, outpatient clinics, and even the federal government. Most dental assistants work full-time, 40-hour weeks. Standard business hours are common, though some shifts may occur during evenings or weekends, particularly at facilities that provide emergency care.

Dental Assistant Schooling & Certification

How Long Does it Take to Become a Dental Assistant?

What Degree Do You Need to Be a Dental Assistant?

To get started in your new career as a dental assistant, you’ll need to complete a Dental Assisting program from an accredited college or university. Earning your dental assistant diploma will equip you with the necessary knowledge, skills, and experience to get certified and land your first job. While some dental assisting programs can take up to two full years, it’s possible to complete your diploma in as little as 40 weeks. That means in less than a year, you could be earning a great living in a rewarding new job (one that’s often much less stressful than other careers in the medical industry!)

Like any long-term goal, working toward a new career as a dental assistant seems much more attainable when you break it down into individual steps.

Here’s a step-by-step guide to the education, experience, and certifications you’ll need to become a dental assistant:

1. Enroll in a Dental Assisting Program

The first step in launching your new career as a dental assistant is enrolling in an accredited Dental Assisting program. You’ll have to buckle down and apply yourself for several months, but it’s a field that’s open to just about anyone who’s willing to put in the time and effort. For example, to enroll in the Dental Assisting program at Brookline College, all it takes is a high school diploma or GED, plus a passing score on a Scholastic Level Exam.

2. Earn Your Dental Assistant Diploma

The first courses in your dental assisting program will start with the basics of dental anatomy and pharmacology. From there, you’ll learn essential fundamentals of microbiology, pathology, and infection control in the context of dental procedures. After building your baseline knowledge of dental treatments and procedures, you’ll move on to more specialized areas like restorative dentistry and radiography (where you’ll learn to safely operate X-ray machines, for example). You’ll also learn the essentials of how to handle medical emergencies, including how to do CPR.

The final stage in your dental assistant diploma involves completing a clinical practicum or externship. This will give you a chance to perform some of the same tasks you’ll be expected to carry out on the job in a supervised setting. It’s a fantastic way to gain real-world experience and ensure you’re confident and prepared to hit the ground running after landing your first job as a dental assistant.

Wherever you decide to pursue your dental assistant diploma, consider applying to colleges or universities that offer job-placement assistance once you’re finished with school. It takes a lot of the stress out of a job search when you’ve got somebody who can help you make connections and put your best foot forward with potential employers.

3. Pass Your Certified Dental Assistant Exam

While not every state requires entry-level dental assistants to pass a certification exam, becoming a Certified Dental Assistant (CDA) is a great way to show potential employers you’ve mastered all the essential skills to jump right in and contribute your first day on the job. The Dental Assisting National Board is the most recognized credentialing organization for dental assistants and can give you a major leg up on the competition when applying for jobs. Study resources and practice exams are both available on the DANB website.

Expect the test to contain around 100 questions and take about an hour and a half to complete. The CDA exam is a computer-based adaptive test, meaning that a correct answer will lead to a more difficult question, and an incorrect answer will lead to an easier one. While everyone gets nervous on test day sometimes, you should be well-prepared to pass your certification exam after completing your diploma and a clinical externship.

How Much Does it Cost to Earn a Dental Assistant Diploma?

It’s common for colleges and universities across the country to bill students over $20,000 per semester in tuition alone. In many cases, that doesn’t include the cost of books, lab fees, or other course materials. It can become very expensive over multiple semesters in school. Fortunately, the rise in online education has made earning a diploma much more accessible for millions of people. The Dental Assisting Program at Brookline College costs significantly less per credit hour than many traditional universities, and over 80% of Brookline students qualify for some form of financial aid. Best of all, the price you pay includes books, lab and facility fees, and everything else you’ll need throughout your studies. Wherever you decide to pursue your dental assistant diploma, make sure it’s with a college or university that’s transparent about the actual cost of your education.

Dental Assistant and Dental Hygienist at work

Dental Assistant Salary

How Much Do Dental Assistants Make?

According to the most recent data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average salary* among all dental assistants is about $41,000 per year, which is equivalent to over $20 per hour. Dental assistants in the top 25% of earners bring home nearly $50,000 annually, and salaries in the 90th percentile can be $58,000 or higher.

Highest Paying Industries for Dental Assistants

The BLS indicates these industries have the top-paying jobs for dental assistants:

Industry Average Hourly Pay Average Salary
Nursing Care Facilities $22.29 $46,370
Medical & Surgical Hospitals $21.93 $45,620
Federal Executive Branch $21.76 $45,260
Dentist Offices $20.34 $42,300
Outpatient Care Facilities $20.17 $41,940

Highest Paying States for Dental Assistants

According to the most recent BLS data, dental assistants earn the highest average wages in these states:

Location Average Hourly Pay Average Salary
Minnesota $25.80 $53,650
Massachusetts $24.88 $51,750
Alaska $24.63 $51,230
New Hampshire $24.43 $50,820
Oregon $23.23 $48,320

Highest Paying Cities for Dental Assistants

According to the BLS, dental assistants earn the highest average annual pay in these cities:

Location Average Hourly Pay Average Salary
Santa Rosa, CA $28.16 $58,570
Minneapolis, MN $27.04 $56,240
Fairfield, CA $26.23 $54,550
San Jose, CA $26.08 $54,250
Bismarck, ND $25.77 $53,600
San Francisco, CA $25.72 $53,510
Boston, MA $25.60 $53,250
San Luis Obispo, CA $25.52 $53,080
Santa Barbara, CA $25.22 $52,460
Rochester, MN $25.10 $52,210

Dental Assistant Job Outlook

What is the Job Outlook for Dental Assistants?

Because dental care and oral hygiene, in general, have improved over the last few generations, people are keeping their original teeth longer than ever before, which is excellent news for dental assistants! According to the BLS, the number of dental assistants in the workforce is estimated to increase by 7% by 2029. That’s nearly double the projected growth rate (4%) for all other jobs throughout the same period of time, which means certified dental assistants should have excellent job prospects for many years into the future.

African-American woman on a laptop

Ready to Start Your Career as a Dental Assistant?

Dental assistants are some of the most visible faces of any dental practice and play a major part in helping patients look and feel their best. If you love the idea of earning a great living while giving people a smile they’re proud to show the world, becoming a dental assistant could be the healthcare career you’ve been looking for!

Click here to learn more about the Dental Assisting program at Brookline College, and get started on the road to your new career as a dental assistant today.