Learn About the Educational Journey of Aspiring Dental Assistants
Did you know there aren’t just dentists and dental hygienists at your teeth cleanings? There’s one other professional who’s been there the entire time: the Dental Assistant (DA)! These individuals play a significant role in dental health. From disinfecting instruments to taking dental X-rays and assisting the dentist during exams, Dental Assistants must juggle multiple responsibilities on any given day. In fact, Dental Assistants are often the first and last face a patient will see during their visit.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) has projected significant job growth for Dental Assistants in the coming decade. By 2032, DAs should see a 7% increase and about 55,000 job openings every year. This rate is significantly higher than the national average for job growth, which only sits around a 3% increase.
A sunny job outlook is just one of many Dental Assisting benefits. Their programs require less schooling than other professions (i.e., dental hygienists). This allows them to gain experience much sooner, not to mention potential office management opportunities, additional licenses and credentials, specialties, and more. Our guide will help you explore the DA profession and all the advantages a formal education has to offer.
(Click here to learn How to Become a Dental Assistant.)
1. High Demand and Stability
Aspiring Dental Assistants can look forward to a job growth rate that’s more than double the average of all occupations. In addition, DAs have more than three times as many job openings as other professions, such as dental hygienists. Not only is there high demand and more opportunity but these rates are only expected to grow as the population ages.
This is because people are keeping more of their original teeth than previous generations. Thanks to advancements in technology and education, there is a great demand for preventive dental services. Plus, as dental practices grow, more Dental Assistants will be needed to support dentists. This means that DAs can enjoy a certain degree of job stability in addition to career growth opportunities.
(Click here to learn more about Dental Assistants vs. Dental Hygienists.)
2. Shorter Training Period
Unlike many other programs in healthcare, Dental Assistant training takes much less time and is more affordable. For instance, the Dental Assisting program at Unitek College can be completed in as little as 10 months. Most Dental Hygienist programs require about three years of your time. This means that DA graduates can enter the workforce sooner and start earning money, gaining experience, and networking on the job.
There are two main routes you can take to become a formally educated DA:
- Option 1: Dental Assistant Diploma. In some states, you must graduate from a Dental Assisting certificate or diploma program. They usually require about a year of school. Most of these programs are offered by vocational schools or community colleges. Dental Assisting classes often cover topics like infection control, medical emergencies, dental X-rays, and dental instruments.
- Option 2: Dental Assistant Degree. Some schools offer an associate degree program for aspiring Dental Assistants. In these degree programs, general education courses are combined with Dental Assistant education. According to the BLS, however, degree programs that last two years are less common for entry-level DAs.
(Click here to learn How to Prepare for Dental Assistant School.)
3. Job Opportunities
Dental Assistants can work in a variety of job settings. Most commonly, you’ll find them in the offices of dentists. However, some DAs also work in physicians’ offices, governmental roles, and more. The dual nature of a Dental Assisting job allows them to perform both clinical and administrative functions. This supportive role also lends them a degree of versatility in oral healthcare, opening doors to more diverse job opportunities.
Though Dental Assistants can find employment anywhere in the country, there are some states with more opportunities than others. According to the BLS, the highest-paying states for Dental Assistants are:
- District of Columbia
Interestingly, the top-paying U.S. cities for DA salaries are in California:
- San Francisco, California
- San Jose, California
- Minneapolis, Minnesota
- Mankato, Minnesota
- Santa Maria, California
- Cloud, Minnesota
- Bismarck, North Dakota
- Burlington, Vermont
4. Competitive Salaries
According to the BLS, Dental Assistants earn about $45,000 per year or about $22 per hour. Keep in mind that Dental Assisting salaries can vary depending on many factors that affect salary, such as your location, employer, and experience. Your salary might also be affected by the type of education on your resume. In other words, formal training can lead to higher earning potential and salary opportunities.
Your chosen industry can impact your pay as well. For instance, home healthcare services is one of the top-paying industries for Dental Assistants. Compared to the national average from the BLS, DAs in this industry earn about $10,000 more at $54,000 per year.
5. Hands-On Training
If you’re someone who thrives in hands-on roles, then you should consider Dental Assisting programs. At schools like Unitek College, you can learn from comprehensive curriculums that delve into critical areas of the profession, from sterilization techniques to dental X-rays, medical emergencies, and dental instruments.
DA programs often use medical mannequins and simulation rooms to create a realistic practice area. This type of hands-on experience is key to providing you with enough real-world readiness for success.
6. Diverse Work Environments
If you’re familiar with healthcare careers, you might know about the dynamic profession of Medical Assistants. Dental Assistants are very similar in that they fill both clinical and administrative roles. On the job, their tasks can range from helping dentists during exams to scheduling appointments and greeting patients. There’s never a dull moment for a Dental Assistant!
As we previously mentioned, Dental Assistants can find employment in settings like dental offices, physician offices, and home healthcare services. Some may even find work in general medical or surgical hospitals, not to mention other kinds of specialty hospitals. Others become Dental Assisting instructors at different schools and colleges. As teachers, these DAs will be expected to master their craft and be as knowledgeable as possible.
7. Skill Development
In a Dental Assistant program, you will learn how to perform clinical tasks in a dental office, physician’s practice, or other healthcare setting. You will also learn a number of administrative functions to better support the dental team. The curriculum will provide you with the knowledge, technical skills, and work habits of a Dental Assistant. It usually focuses on the treatment-room care of dental patients through in-class instruction, hands-on labs, and externship experiences.
Class topics often include dental terminology, chairside assisting for general and specialty dentistry, dental materials and prevention, dental radiology, and more. Additionally, most programs offer a supervised externship to give you real-world experience. It’s vital that you learn a variety of skills to provide future patients with the best possible care.
Keep in mind that some states have specific licensing requirements for DAs who’d like to work in radiography (X-ray), infection control, or other specialties. To learn more, you should contact your state’s Board of Dental Examiners. Other states require Dental Assistants to pass an exam before they perform expanded duties (i.e., coronal polishing).
8. Job Satisfaction
Dental Assistants spend most of their days interacting with patients. Whether it’s preparation, assistance, or comfort, they are almost always on hand to make your experience a good one. This can bring great job satisfaction to Dental Assistants across the country. Unlike other dental professionals, who often perform the same daily tasks, Dental Assistants can usually count on variety in their days.
The truth is, there are all kinds of reasons to become a Dental Assistant. Job satisfaction is chief among them, but you might also look forward to unforgettable dental experiences, fascination with teeth, family connections, or something else entirely!
Here are just a few anecdotes from Dental Assistants at the Dental Assisting National Board (DANB):
“I had a very large diastema that was corrected with ortho and was amazed at how much better I felt about myself. So that steered my decision to be a dental assistant.” — Betsy C.
“I always had an obsession with people’s smiles! It is the first thing you see (or don’t see) when looking at a person. I loved the thought of helping people smile again.” — Jennifer W., CDA.
“My father was a certified dental tech. So I learned a lot about dental terminology and basics from him. I started out part-time after school working as an assistant and loved working with patients. After college, I became an ortho assistant and then passed the DANB CDA exam. Love it, even after 34 years!” — Jeanne L., CDA.
9. Career Growth
There is room for career advancement in the field of Dental Assisting. Some states allow DAs to perform expanded duties, like coronal polishing, which requires additional licenses or certifications. At Unitek College, graduates of the Dental Assisting program receive certificates in Infection Control, Dental Practice Act, HIPAA, Radiology, Coronal Polishing, and Pit & Fissure Sealants.
While these certificates are not required for initial employment, they may be of great value depending on a student’s career goals. Graduates may also be qualified to take various professional certification exams, such as the California Registered Dental Assisting (RDA) exam.
If you’re looking for more Dental Assistant advancement opportunities, check out these five national certifications:
- National Entry Level Dental Assistant (NELDA®)
- Certified Dental Assistant™ (CDA®)
- Certified Orthodontic Assistant (COA®)
- Certified Preventive Functions Dental Assistant (CPFDA®)
- Certified Restorative Functions Dental Assistant (CRFDA®)
10. Continuing Education Opportunities
Like other healthcare professions, it’s crucial that you stay up-to-date with advancements in the field. You can only provide patients with the safest, best possible care if you’re properly informed. Plus, continuing education can make your resume pop and help you become more valuable to employers. Everyone wants a dental professional whom they can trust.
Depending on where you are located, here are some organizations to get you started on the path to continuing education:
- California Dental Assistants Association (CDAA): This organization offers more than 50 continuing education units per year to help you grow. The CDAA has in-person classes as well as home-study courses.
- Dental Assisting National Board (DANB): To maintain DANB certification in other states, you must follow the necessary steps to renew each year. Doing so will demonstrate your commitment to Dental Assisting and empower your professional growth.
Start Your Educational Journey as a Dental Assistant
The vital world of dental care is full of great specialties, careers, and people. There are various paths you can choose, as dental workers will always be needed. This is especially evident when you consider the expected job growth for Dental Assistants—which is faster than the average for all occupations—as well as overall growth in the healthcare field.
Without a doubt, Dental Assistants play an important role in dentistry. They not only support dentists on a daily basis, but their actions support the general well-being of their communities. Furthermore, the short duration of DA programs allows busy adults to enter the field quickly, making this profession both convenient and attainable. DAs can gain experience much sooner than other professions, not to mention potential office management opportunities, additional licenses and credentials, specialties, and more.