What Is a Dental Assistant? Your 2022 Career Guide

Written by Coursera • Updated on

Working as a dental assistant can be a satisfying career in dentistry. Learn more about dental assistant jobs, salaries, and how to get started.

[Featured Image] A female dental assistant in blue scrubs assists a dentist who is treating a patient in a dental chair.

Whether it's your entry into the field of dentistry or your ultimate career goal, working as a dental assistant can be a rewarding experience. Dental assistants play a vital role in the success of  any dentistry practice, supporting the dentist and dental hygienist as they treat patients. Let’s take a closer look at what dental assistants do and how you can get started today.

What is a dental assistant?  

A dental assistant handles several important tasks within the dentist's office, including sterilizing equipment, preparing patients for procedures, and updating records. They work closely with the dentist and dental hygienist to care for patients and handle administrative duties in the office. Some responsibilities in this role include:

  • Assisting the dentist or dental hygienist during procedures

  • Escorting patients to treatment rooms

  • Processing payments from patients

  • Scheduling appointments

  • Sterilizing dental equipment and tools

  • Taking x-rays and impressions

  • Updating patient records

Your job description may vary depending on state regulations and the dental practice's needs. Some dental assistants have additional training to perform tasks like placing and finishing fillings and applying fluoride treatments.

What is the difference between a dental assistant and a dental hygienist?

The primary difference between a dental assistant and a dental hygienist is the level of direct contact they have with the patient's teeth. Both roles interact with patients and support the dentist. However, the dental hygienist's job involves cleaning and examining teeth, applying sealants, and educating patients about oral hygiene, typically without supervision. Dental assistants also work with patients, but the role also includes administrative duties in the front office. The education requirements for these jobs also differ, as dental hygienists usually have a college degree, and dental assistants may need just a few courses before starting to work. 

What are the requirements to become a dental assistant?

To become a dental assistant, you likely need to graduate from a training program and earn certification or licensure. Each state defines their own requirements to work as a dental assistant. Some states allow learning on the job, while others require attendance at an accredited dental assistant program. Depending on where you plan to work, you may need to apply for licensure with the state's regulatory board, which may include passing an exam.

Education

You can find dental assistant programs at community colleges, vocational schools, and technical schools. The Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA) accredits about 250 of these schools [1]. These programs usually take about one year to complete, and students receive a certificate or diploma.

In a dental assistant program, students divide time between the classroom and the lab. In these two environments, students explore the anatomy of the mouth and the types of instruments dentists use during examinations and treatment. In the lab, students get to put their knowledge into practice under direct supervision.

A school may require the completion of an internship as part of the certificate program. This gives students direct experience inside a dental office where they can practice and refine newly acquired skills. Not only does an internship give students an overview of the type of work they'll do, but it can also serve as experience on a resume, which can be helpful when applying for a job.

Certification

Depending on where you plan to work, you may need to take a certification exam like the Certified Dental Assistant (CDA) exam. This exam, offered by the Dental Assisting National Board, assesses your knowledge of general chairside assisting (GC), radiation health and safety (RHS), and infection control (ICE). Even if you don't need certification to work as a dental assistant, earning the credential may help you qualify for certain jobs.

What skills do dental assistants need?

Dental assistants need a combination of technical and human skills like communication and organization. You need to be able to follow directions, collect information, operate equipment, and work in tight spaces. Dexterity tends to be helpful when you work with your hands in someone's mouth, and infection control should be part of your standard operating procedure.

Listening to patients and supervisors is essential in your work, as is being considerate to patients. You have to respect their privacy and should show some empathy if they're nervous about dental procedures. All of this can happen in a very busy office, so it helps to know how to manage your time when you're juggling several tasks at once. The following skills can lead to success in the field:

  • Basic life support

  • Communication

  • Dexterity

  • Listening

  • Organization

  • Time-management.

Reasons to become a dental assistant

People who choose to become dental assistants do so for many reasons, such as job security and the chance to work in a fast-paced environment. For some, it's an entry-level position that allows them to learn more about the dental field. Others enjoy the ability to help people. Ultimately, it's a personal decision, but you may appreciate the following benefits:

Flexibility

Working as a dental assistant could allow you to choose where and when you work. The United States has nearly 200,000 dental practices open across the country, ranging from small private practices to corporate dentistry groups [3]. You may be able to choose between full-time and part-time hours and which days of the week best fit your schedule. Although dentists traditionally have closed their offices in the evening and on the weekends, some operate only when most offices are closed. 

Personal fulfillment

As a dental assistant, you can enjoy knowing you help people every day. Taking care of teeth and gums is a vital part of an overall health care plan, according to the American Dental Association. When you schedule an appointment, take x-rays, or escort a patient to a treatment room, you're helping them take care of their bodies.

Positive job outlook

Job prospects for dental assistants are positive. The Bureau of Labor Statistics expects jobs in the field to grow at 8 percent, faster than average through 2031 [1]. As demand for preventative dental care increases, so should the need for dental assistants who take care of routine tasks so dentists and dental hygienists can focus their attention on the patients. Best of all, you can work just about anywhere, depending on the licensing requirements in the state.

Variety

No two days seem to be the same in a dental office, as the patients you see and the care you provide change every day. Some days can be fast-paced, while others may offer some downtime. In your role as a dental assistant, you also get to work with people — both patients and co-workers — from diverse backgrounds.

The average annual salary for a dental assistant is $38,644. You may increase earning potential by going back to school and pursuing additional opportunities within the field. On average, dental assistants with at least 15 years of experience earn $62,178 [2]. You also may choose to pursue different jobs within the dental practice.

Expanded function dental assistant

An expanded function dental assistant assumes additional responsibilities within the practice, like applying sealants, polishing teeth, and smoothing fillings. In some states, you may have the title Certified Dental Assistant, Licensed Dental Assistant, or Registered Dental Assistant. The average salary for this position is $50,490 [4].

Dental hygienist

If you want to work more independently, you may consider earning a degree to become a dental hygienist. In this role, you get to spend more time with patients and can see a significant pay increase. The average salary for dental hygienists is $101,767 [5].

Dental office manager

Your work as a dental assistant can be a good foundation for a job as a dental office manager. You can apply your working knowledge of office operations, organization, and leadership skills to this new role that typically includes supervising staff, interacting with patients, and overseeing billing. Dental office managers earn, on average, $49,377 per year [6].

Dental laboratory technician

As a dental laboratory technician, your focus shifts from working directly with the patients to helping them indirectly. In this role, you create and repair dental appliances like crowns and dentures. The average annual salary for dental laboratory technicians is $44,506 [8].

Dentist

You may decide to skip right to the top of the dental practice and pursue a career as a dentist. Before you can examine, diagnose, and treat patients, you'll have to earn your Doctor of Dental Surgery (DDS) or Doctor of Medicine in Dentistry (DMD). Dentists earn, on average, $156,610 per year [7].

Ready to take the next step in your dental career? 

If you're ready to take the next step in your career as a dental assistant, check out the course  Introduction to Dental Medicine from the University of Pennsylvania. Through this course, you can explore dental anatomy, dental diseases, and the relationship between oral health and overall health.

You may prefer to begin building or brush up on some of the human skills you'll use in your role. Consider a course like Foundational Skills for Communicating About Health from the University of Michigan. These courses and more are available on Coursera.

Placeholder

course

Introduction to Dental Medicine

The mouth is the window into human health. This course provides an overview of dental medicine to engage, educate, excite and assist you in improving the ...

4.8

(1,248 ratings)

52,708 already enrolled

BEGINNER level

Average time: 1 month(s)

Learn at your own pace

Article sources

1

US Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Occupational Outlook Handbook: Dental Assistants, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/dental-assistants.htm#tab-1." Accessed September 14, 2022.

Written by Coursera • Updated on

This content has been made available for informational purposes only. Learners are advised to conduct additional research to ensure that courses and other credentials pursued meet their personal, professional, and financial goals.

Learn without limits