skip to main content

How to Become a Dental Assistant

Are you considering becoming a dental assistant? Dental assistants are an integral part of any dentistry practice, and this career path is exciting for many reasons. For one, there is great demand for dental assistants and plenty of rewarding job opportunities. It’s also a fantastic way to be part of the medical field without spending years studying.

In this article on how to become a dental assistant, we’ll cover the basic steps required to enter the field. We’ll also discuss some information that prospective dental assistants should know.

How to Become a Dental Assistant: A Step-by-step Guide

Here are the steps required to become a dental assistant.

Complete a Dental Assisting Program

The first step is to find and enroll in an accredited dental assisting program. Community colleges are the most common places to find these programs, but training and vocational schools may also offer them.

The length of study depends on the type of program, but they typically last one or two years. During this time, the student learns in both classroom and clinical settings to gain practical and hands-on experience. Upon completion of the training, students receive their associate’s degree.

Not all states require dental assists to graduate from an accredited program. Some states will allow dental assistants to work without obtaining an associate’s degree and in lieu accept on the job experience to replace the schooling. But even if you live in one of these states, you may want to complete a program anyway. Doing so can give you a significant advantage over the competition when trying to secure a job. Or if you move to a state that does require schooling to practice, you will have already obtained your degree.

Find an Externship

Externships are voluntary, but they make an excellent addition to your resume and help you stand out among other candidates. Plenty of academic programs offer externships to students who wish to gain real-world experience.

It’s an ideal time to practice all the skills you’ll need as a dental assistant, such as dental pathology and oral hygiene. And if you already know that you’d like to go into a specialized area of dentistry, such as orthodontics, an externship can provide invaluable experience.

Get Certified or Licensed

The next step is to get certified or licensed. Certification and licensing requirements vary from state to state, so you’ll have to check what is needed where you live. In general, the basic requirements include:

  • Having graduated from an accredited program
  • A high school diploma or equivalent (in states that don’t require program completion)
  • CPR training

The Dental Assistant National Board (DANB) requires students in some states to pass the Certified Dental Assistant exam (CDA). Additionally, some hopefuls decided to take another DANB exam, the National Entry Level Dental Assistant test. If you want to specialize, you may also need to take an exam for that specialty (for example, if you want to be a restorative functions dental assistant).

Find a Job

One of the things that makes this field so appealing are the job opportunities that await graduates. It’s experiencing a lot of growth, so there should be plenty of ways to land a great job.

However, lots of dental assistant positions require several years of experience. When you first graduate, your best bet is to apply for entry-level jobs and always check to ensure that you meet the requirements. Keep in mind that it’s perfectly okay to count supervised training hours or your externship as experience when applying.

Think About an Advanced Degree

Once they have a few years of experience, many dental assistants decide to undertake an advanced degree. They have seen first-hand what the lives of dentists and dental hygienists look like, and they may decide that they want to pursue one of these paths.

If you decide to go back to school, you can transfer existing credits from your associate’s degree to a four-year dental hygienist program. Getting an advanced degree provides more career opportunities and expands your earning potential.

What Skills Do Dental Assistants Need?

Dental assistants need to have a variety of soft and hard skills, which you will use every day at work. Here are a few of the most important ones:

  • Interpersonal. Being able to interact in both a professional and friendly manner with patients is critical. Lots of patients are nervous. Part of your job is identifying which ones are nervous and helping the person relax.
  • Attention to detail. Lots of procedures require you to follow specific protocols, so you will have to take care to ensure you perform them properly.
  • Organization. Many aspects of the job require you to be highly organized, such as when scheduling appointments or selecting the right dental tools for a patient’s treatment.

A dental assistant’s tasks match closely with that of an office manager so it’s critical that dental assistants are organized and attentive to take care of all the clerical office tasks.