How to Become a Dental Assistant in 2019

How to Become a Dental Assistant in 2019

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

How to Become a Dental Assistant in 2019

If you’re considering a career as a Dental Assistant (DA), and you’re curious about the benefits and requirements that go along with it, this article will serve as a great resource for you. Below you’ll find a wealth of information about how to start your career in oral hygiene.

Dental Assistants have great interpersonal skills, and they prefer to work with their hands rather than at a desk. They also have an eye for detail, maintain impressive dexterity, and support dentists while patients are treated. Some benefits of Dental Assisting include a sunny job outlook and career stability. If you’re interested in helping others, then learn more about this hands-on profession!

Table of Contents
1. How to Become a Dental Assistant10. Dental Assisting Program
2. What is a Dental Assistant?11. Dental Assistant School Cost
3. Dental Assistant Job Description12. Dental Assistant Certification
4. Dental Assistant vs. Dental Hygienist13. Dental Assistant Jobs
5. Dental Assistant vs. Dental Technician14. Dental Assistant Salary
6. Dental Assistant Soft Skills15. Where do Dental Assistants Get Paid the Most?
7. Dental Assistant Requirements16. Dental Assistant Job Outlook
8. How Long to Become a Dental Assistant?17. Why Pursue Dental Assistant Training?
9. Dental Assistant Degree vs. Certificate18. Dental Assistant Program at Unitek College

How to Become a Certified Dental Assistant


Our comprehensive career guide will cover the following questions:

  • What qualifications do you need to be a Dental Assistant?
  • Do you make good money as a Dental Assistant?
  • How long do you go to school to become a Dental Assistant?
  • How much does it cost to become a Dental Assistant?
  • Are Dental Assistants in demand?
  • Where do Dental Assistants get paid the most?
  • Do you need a license to be a Dental Assistant?
  • What are key traits a Dental Assistant needs to have?

But first, let’s start with the definition of a Dental Assistant…

What Is a Dental Assistant?

Dental Assistant Definition

Dental Assistants play a major role in dental health. On any given day, they might do everything from disinfecting instruments to taking dental X-rays and assisting the dentist during exams. Dental Assistants are responsible for putting a diverse group of patients at ease, while providing encouragement to patients that range in age and background.

Dental Assistant Job Description

What Does a Dental Assistant Do?

What Does a Dental Assistant Do

Dental Assistants play a vital role in the dental office, supporting dentists as they examine and treat patients. Essentially, they are the dentist’s extra hands. While job duties may vary depending on the location and employer, a Dental Assistant’s role typically includes the following:

  • Ensure patients are comfortable in the dental chair
  • Prepare patients and the work area for treatments and procedures
  • Assist with oral surgeries
  • Sterilize dental instruments
  • Hand instruments to dentist during procedures
  • Evacuate oral cavities and keep patient’s mouth dry by using suction hoses and other equipment
  • Make dental impressions
  • Instruct patients in proper oral hygiene
  • Take and process dental X-rays and complete lab tasks, under the direction of a dentist
  • Install fixed prosthodontics
  • Maintain inventory for dental practices
  • Schedule patient appointments
  • Work with patients on billing and payment


Dental Assistants are allowed to perform the following procedures in some states, including California:

  • Coronal polishing – Removing soft deposits such as plaque, which gives teeth a cleaner appearance.
  • Sealant application – A thin, plastic substance that’s painted over teeth to seal out food particles and acid-producing bacteria, which will help prevent cavities.
  • Fluoride application – Fluoride is put directly on the teeth as another anti-cavity measure.
  • Topical anesthetic application – Applied to an area of a patient’s mouth, temporarily numbing it to help prepare them for procedures.

 

Dental Assistant vs. Dental Hygienist

Dental Assistant vs. Dental Hygienist

Dental Assistants and Dental Hygienists are two separate professions.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), Dental Assistants “work under the supervision of dentists and work closely with Dental Hygienists in their day-to-day activities.”

Dental Hygienists have a wider range of job duties and responsibilities. While Dental Assistants assist the oral hygiene team, Dental Hygienists clean teeth, examine patients for signs of oral diseases, and provide other dental care.

Dental Assistant vs. Dental Hygienist: Education

Some states require Dental Assistants to complete an accredited program and pass an exam. Others do not require a formal education, though many employers will only hire trained applicants.

Dental Hygienists, on the other hand, typically need to earn an associate degree in dental hygiene. They also must be licensed in all states.

Dental Assistant vs. Dental Hygienist: Salary

As of 2018:

  • The median annual salary for dental assistants was $38,660 (BLS)
  • The median annual salary for dental hygienists was $74,820 (BLS)

 

Dental Assistant vs. Dental Technician

If Dental Assistants are the face of the office, then Dental Technicians provide structure behind the scenes. Typically, Dental Technicians construct, fit, or repair medical appliances and devices (i.e. dentures). One of the biggest differences between these two professions is patient contact. Dental Assistants spend most of their days interacting with patients, whereas Dental Technicians usually work in labs.

Dental Assistant vs. Dental Technician: Education

Like Dental Assistants, Dental Technicians do not always need formal training to find employment. However, unlike Dental Assistants, Dental Technicians often complete on-the-job training. They typically need a high school diploma or equivalent.

Dental Assistant vs. Dental Technician: Salary

As of 2018:

  • The median annual salary for dental assistants was $38,660 (BLS)
  • The median annual salary for dental technicians was $36,690 (BLS)

 

Dental Assistant Soft Skills

What Are the Key Traits a Dental Assistant Needs to Have?

To become a DA, you should have:

  • A detail-oriented nature, as Dental Assistants must follow specific rules and protocols when helping dentists treat patients.
  • Dexterity, as Dental Assistants generally work in tight quarters on a small part of the body, using very precise tools and instruments.
  • Interpersonal skills, as Dental Assistants work closely with dentists and patients.
  • Listening skills, as Dental Assistants often listen to patients and other healthcare workers. They may need to follow directions, assist a distressed patient, etc.
  • Organizational skills, as Dental Assistants should have the correct tools in place for a dentist or dental hygienist to use when treating a patient.

 

Dental Assistant Requirements

What Qualifications Do You Need to Be a Dental Assistant?

In the U.S., there are several paths you can take to become a Dental Assistant. It really depends on your employer and location, as some states require aspiring DAs to graduate from a formal or accredited program and pass an exam. In other states, there are no such requirements.

To learn more about your state’s requirements, visit the Dental Assisting National Board.

 

How Long to Become a Dental Assistant?

Dental Assistant School

There are three routes you can take to become a registered Dental Assistant. Each one requires a different level of time and dedication.

Formal Dental Assistant training may generally take anywhere from nine months to two years to complete, depending on whether it’s a certificate/diploma or degree program. For instance, the Dental Assisting program at Unitek can be completed in as little as 10 months.

Option 1: On-the-Job Training

How to become a Dental Assistant without going to school?

Assuming you live in a state that doesn’t have formal requirements, you might be able to find employment without attending a Dental Assistant program. In these situations, you would gain experience through on-the-job training. A Dental Assistant, hygienist, or dentist in the office would teach you about dental terminology, the names of instruments, how to complete daily tasks, and how to interact with patients.

Option 2: Dental Assistant Certification

In some states, you must graduate from a Dental Assisting certificate or diploma program. They usually require about a year of school. Most Dental Assistant 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.

Bonus tip: High school students who want to become Dental Assistants should take courses in biology, chemistry, and anatomy.

Option 3: 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.

 

Dental Assistant Degree vs. Certificate


To become a competitive Dental Assistant, it would be wise to seek formal training. However, degree and diploma-certification programs have different advantages.

While degree programs lay the foundation for higher study—and potentially more job opportunities—they also require more time in school. Additionally, they are often not necessary for entry-level Dental Assistants.

On the other hand, you can typically complete training for a certificate/diploma program in a year or less. These programs may not set the foundation for higher study, but they will equip you with the necessary skillset to launch a successful dental assisting career. They are also more widely offered than DA degree programs.

 

Dental Assisting Program

What Should You Look for in a Dental Assisting School?

What Should You Look for in a Dental Assisting School

Prospective students may value different things in a Dental Assistant program. Some students feel that a close student-to-teacher ratio is vital to their success in the classroom, while others might place greater value in the number of hours set aside for externships. Take a moment to consider what is important to you and ask the right questions when meeting with admissions representatives.

Here are some sample questions you might want to ask when applying for dental assistant school:

  • What are the tuition costs and financial aid options?
  • What are the academic prerequisites?
  • How long does it take to complete the program?
  • What specific topics are covered?
  • Are there any clinical externships or simulations?
  • What percentage of the program’s students graduate?
  • What percentage of the program’s graduates find employment?

 

Dental Assistant School Cost

How Much Does It Cost to Become a Dental Assistant?

Out-of-pocket school costs can vary depending on your individual situation. They will also depend on the location, school, and type of program. Generally speaking, Dental Assistant school prices can range anywhere from $4,000 to $16,000.

Some programs might also charge a higher price for more clinical externships or cutting-edge medical equipment. Again, be sure to research your favored schools and ask the admissions representatives about tuition costs as well as financial aid options. You might be eligible for financial aid, which can cover many college expenses, such as:

  • Tuition
  • Transportation
  • Room and Board
  • Books
  • Computer Equipment
  • Living Expenses

 

Dental Assistant Certification

Do You Need a License to Be a Dental Assistant?

More often than not, states don’t require licenses for Dental Assistants. However, some states might require Dental Assistants to be licensed, registered, or certified. Additionally, some states have specific licensing requirements for DAs to work in radiography (X-ray), infection control, or other specialties. To learn more, 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). These exams are administered by the Dental Assisting National Board (DANB). Educational requirements for DANB exams/certifications often include:

  • Graduating from an accredited program or
  • A high school diploma and the necessary work experience
  • Current CPR certification (cardiopulmonary resuscitation)

National Certification

Below are the five national certifications that DANB offers.

  1. National Entry Level Dental Assistant (NELDA®)
  2. Certified Dental Assistant™ (CDA®)
  3. Certified Orthodontic Assistant (COA®)
  4. Certified Preventive Functions Dental Assistant (CPFDA®)
  5. Certified Restorative Functions Dental Assistant (CRFDA®)

 

Dental Assistant Jobs

Where Do Dental Assistants Work?

Dental Assistants usually find employment in the offices of dentists or physicians. In 2018, Dental Assistants held about 346,000 jobs. The largest employers of DAs are as follows:

Offices of dentists90%
Offices of physicians2%
Government2%

Dental Assistant Work Hours

According to the BLS, most Dental Assistants work full time. Some might choose to work evenings or weekends, though. Keep in mind that, as an aspiring DA, you might be asked to come in at odd hours for dental issues or emergencies.

 

Dental Assistant Salary

How Much Does a Dental Assistant Make?

A Dental Assistant’s pay varies depending on their location, employer, and experience. However, the 2018 median annual salary for Dental Assistants was about $38,660.

Dental Assistant salary in 2019 may increase, given the sunny job outlook for DAs (more on that in our Job Outlook section). Here are the top industries where the highest-earning DAs work:

IndustryAverage Dental Assistant Salary
Government$42,390
Dental Offices$38,670
Physician Offices$35,760

 

Where Do Dental Assistants Get Paid the Most?

Top States for Dental Assisting Employment

Though Dental Assistants can find employment anywhere in the country, there are some states with more opportunities than others. Currently, the highest-paying states for Dental Assistants are Minnesota, District of Columbia, New Hampshire, Alaska, and North Dakota.

Here’s the breakdown by location and average salary:

StateDental Assistant Hourly SalaryDental Assistant Annual Salary
Minnesota$23.98$49,880
Washington DC$23.66$49,220
New Hampshire$23.44$48,760
Alaska$22.75$47,330
North Dakota$22.43$46,640

 

Highest-Paying Cities for Dental Assistants

Now that we’ve covered the top states, let’s delve into the U.S. cities with the best salaries for Dental Assistants (BLS).

CityDental Assistant Hourly SalaryDental Assistant Annual Salary
Santa Rosa, CA$25.57$53,190
Minneapolis, MN$25.03$52,060
Napa, CA$24.92$51,830
Rochester, MN$24.74$51,460
Fargo, ND$23.77$49,430
Portsmouth, NH$23.74$49,370
San Francisco, CA$23.61$49,100
Washington DC$23.46$48,800
Salisbury, MD$23.39$48,650
Waterbury, CT$23.16$48,170

 

Dental Assistant Job Outlook

Are Dental Assistants in Demand?

The Dental Assisting profession is expected to grow. In fact, the BLS predicts that employment opportunities will increase 11 percent by 2026! Ongoing research linking oral health and general health will likely continue to fuel the demand for preventive dental services, which will push dentists to hire more assistants.

Are Dental Assistants in Demand

How to Get a Job as a DA

We know it isn’t always easy to start a new career. Time and money can be two major obstacles to overcome, not to mention the fear of jumping into something new. However, it’s no secret that while some industries are cutting back, healthcare professions are on the rise.

Here are some practical tips to help you get ahead while looking for that perfect Dental Assisting job.

  • Career-services. Pick a school with a stellar career-services team who will provide you with employment assistance. Additionally, they can often help you with job-search strategies, resume cleanup, and interview prep.
  • Network. Don’t forget to make connections in your DA program. You could also seek a mentor within the Dental Assisting faculty.
  • Resume. Make sure your resume is polished and ready. Check for typos, fix messy font, and make sure your skills are displayed concisely and efficiently. Remember, a resume is your chance to make a good first impression.

 

Why Pursue Dental Assistant Training?

Why Pursue Dental Assistant Training

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 wellbeing 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.

 

The Dental Assistant Program at Unitek College

At Unitek College, we offer a Dental Assisting program with a career-driven curriculum. Our 10-month program provides the skills, experience, and knowledge that students will need to excel in the field.

Courses cover all aspects of the profession, including infection control and sterilization techniques, handling medical emergencies, taking dental X-rays, making impressions, and the use of dental instruments. Plus, students benefit from a supervised externship and employment assistance.

You can find the DA program at these three campuses:

The future is yours—you just have to take that first step!

DA FAQ

Frequently Asked Questions About Dental Assisting

DA FAQ

In our last installment of the series, we looked at FAQs for the Vocational Nursing profession. This latest segment delves into frequently asked questions for Dental Assistants. If you are detail oriented, have good interpersonal skills, and enjoy working with your hands, then Dental Assisting might be a great career choice for you.

Check out these FAQs to learn more about the hands-on profession!

FAQs for Dental Assisting

1. Q: What does a Dental Assistant do? 

A: Dental Assistants play a vital role in the dental office, supporting dentists as they examine and treat patients. Essentially, Dental Assistants are the dentist’s extra hands. While job duties might vary depending on the location and employer, they typically include the following:

  • Ensure that patients are comfortable in the dental chair
  • Prepare patients and the work area for treatments and procedures
  • Assist with oral surgeries
  • Sterilize dental instruments
  • Hand instruments to dentist during procedures
  • Evacuate oral cavities and keep patient’s mouth dry by using suction hoses and other equipment
  • Make dental impressions
  • Instruct patients in proper oral hygiene
  • Take and process dental X-Rays and complete lab tasks, under the direction of a dentist
  • Install fixed prosthodontics
  • Maintain inventory for dental practices
  • Schedule patient appointments
  • Work with patients on billing and payment

Dental Assistants are allowed to perform the following procedures in some states, including California:

  • Coronal polishing—Removing soft deposits such as plaque, which gives teeth a cleaner appearance.
  • Sealant application—A thin, plastic substance that’s painted over teeth to seal out food particles and acid-producing bacteria, which will help prevent cavities.
  • Fluoride application—Fluoride is put directly on the teeth as another anti-cavity measure.
  • Topical anesthetic application—Applied to an area of a patient’s mouth, temporarily numbing it to help prepare them for procedures.
2. Q: Is a Dental Assistant a dental hygienist? 

A: No, these two professions are not the same. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), Dental Assistants “work under the supervision of dentists and work closely with dental hygienists in their day-to-day activities.” While on the job, Dental Assistants often wear safety glasses, surgical masks, protective clothing, and gloves to shield themselves and patients from infectious diseases. They also follow “safety procedures to minimize risks associated with x-ray machines.”

3. Q: Where do Dental Assistants work?

A: Dental Assistants follow their namesake and typically find employment in the offices of dentists or physicians. Some work full time, and others might work evenings or weekends. The BLS predicts that employment opportunities will grow 19 percent by 2026. They state that “ongoing research linking oral health and general health will likely continue to increase the demand for preventive dental services, which will drive dentists to hire more assistants.”

4. Q: How much does a Dental Assistant make an hour? 

A: As with many other professions, a Dental Assistant’s salary varies depending on the location, employer, and experience of an individual DA. In May 2018, the BLS indicated that the median annual wage for Dental Assistants was $38,660. They state that the “median annual wages for Dental Assistants in the top industries in which they worked” were as follows:

  • Government—$42,390
  • Offices of dentists—$38,670
  • Offices of physicians—$35,760
5. Q: How long does it take to become a Dental Assistant?

A: According to a helpful website called Learn How to Become, some states require formal licensure or training while others may not. This means that paths to the workforce can greatly vary. Generally speaking, though, a Dental Assisting program might take “anywhere from nine months to two years to complete, depending on whether it’s a certificate, diploma or degree program.”

About the DA Program at Unitek College

Dental Assisting Program in Concord California

Founded in 2002, Unitek College is an accredited, private institution that combines unique academic and technical specialties to provide excellent training programs in healthcare and nursing. With seven campuses in California, Unitek offers educational programs in the cities of Fremont, San Jose, Hayward, Concord, South San Francisco, Sacramento, and Bakersfield.

Our locations in Concord, Sacramento, and San Jose offer a Dental Assisting program that can be completed in as little as 10 months. It provides a strong foundation for the skills and experience needed to succeed as a Dental Assistant. Courses cover all aspects of the profession, including infection control and sterilization techniques, handling medical emergencies, taking dental X-rays, making impressions, and the use of dental instruments. Unitek’s DA curriculum combines in-class instruction with a hands-on skills lab and a supervised externship.

For more information, please visit our contact page and reach out to a school representative. Change your career path with Unitek!

dental x-ray

Internship versus Externship: What’s the Difference?

The nine-month Dental Assistant program at Unitek College covers a wide range of job responsibilities. Not only will our students be able to learn chairside assistance during dental procedures, but they can also leave with a full understanding of dental radiology, terminology, dental lab duties, management, and dental techniques—because the more you know about the dental profession, the better you can anticipate needs within your office. One final aspect of the Dental Assistant program is the medical externship—a term that raises eyebrows on occasion. Most people are familiar with internships—paid and unpaid—but an “externship” isn’t a term you hear every day. So to get everyone on the same page, we’ve compiled some points that explain the difference between the two educational programs.

Job Responsibilities

One of the biggest differences between internships and externships is the level of work responsibilities within each. During an internship, students are often put right into the workforce: you may be asked to do low-level jobs with few responsibilities, but you are actively working and actively gaining job experience within that company. An externship, on the other hand, is far more focused on educa tion than job performance. Rather than woTooth Xrayrking, an externship typically involves job shadowing—your opportunity to follow a medical professional and observe them in their day-to-day duties. You can ask questions, explore, and observe—rounding out your classroom knowledge with real life application.

Paid vs Unpaid

Internships are sometimes paid, sometimes unpaid, and sometimes, employers find little ways to help their interns make ends meet aside from a paycheck. Externships, on the other hand, are short bursts of exposure to days in the life of medical professionals, and typically don’t offer any sort of pay or stipend.

Time Spent

An internship generally requires participation for long periods of time. Some can even last up to a year or longer. An externship is much, much shorter. The advantage to shorter experiences is that students can have multiple externships within their program, opening up more and more opportunities to learn from professionals in the field. And with the Unitek College dental assistant program only spanning as little as nine months, time efficiency is everything.

Future Employment

Internships, for the most part, are designed to fill positions within a company. If the managers like what they see from a student, they will do what they can to keep that student around after graduation—which is why most internships take place in the final semesters of a student’s degree. Externships are designed to give students experience and insight into the field as a whole, not just one company, and so by design aren’t designed to transition into jobs. However, because students get greater exposure to industry professionals through externships, these educational moments can lead to future opportunities as students network, explore multiple practices, and make personal connections. New Dental Assisting Program Hopefully this gives you a better understanding of the difference between the two educational experiences, and a little extra insight into the life of a Dental Assistant student at Unitek College. We believe the experience you’ll gain while following dental professionals is priceless, but as always, with internships and with externships alike, the experience you get depends completely on the how much you put into it. Give your externship your full focus and effort, and you may be amazed where it leads. You can read more about the Unitek College Dental Assistant program by following this link: https://www.unitekcollege.edu/programs/dental-assistant