Becoming a Dental Assistant: Job Description & Salary Info

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A dental assistant's median annual salary is about $35,000, but is it worth the training needed to enter the field? Read real job descriptions and see the truth about the career prospects to decide if becoming a dental assistant is right for you.
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Pros and Cons of a Career in Dental Assisting

A dental assistant plays a vital role in a dentist's office by providing patient care and handling administrative responsibilities. Consider the pros and cons of the career to see if becoming a dental assistant is a good choice for you.

Pros of Dental Assistant Careers
Strong career growth (25% from 2012-2022)*
Few educational requirements (63% have some college, no degree)*
Fairly low stress career*
Opportunities to work part-time (30% are part-time employees)*

Cons of Dental Assistant Careers
Annual salary of about $35,000 (about $11,000 lower than national occupational average)*
May need to fulfill licensure requirements*
Potential evening and weekend hours*
Work near and within patient's mouths*

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, **O*Net OnLine

Essential Career Info

Job Description

Dental assistants play supporting roles in dental offices. They work with dentists, dental hygienists and patients while on the job. Dental assistants have varied duties, from applying topical anesthetics to removing sutures for patients. Assistants also commonly have lab duties such as casting impressions of teeth or taking and exposing x-rays. Dental assistants can also perform administrative tasks related to patient billing, ordering supplies and record keeping.

Some of the other common job duties that dental assistants perform include prepping patients for dental procedures, sterilizing and laying out instruments, and using equipment to keep patients' mouths dry during procedures. As a dental assistant, you might also be responsible for educating patients on proper oral hygiene.

Salary Info and Career Prospects

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), almost all dental assistants work in dental offices ( Roughly 66% of them work full-time and the others are part-time employees. Dental assistants earned median annual salaries of just over $35,000 in 2014. The top 10% in the field made $49,540 or more, annually. Additionally, in 2008, the Dental Assisting National Board (DANB) conducted a survey which revealed that about half of all dental assistants received full benefits and vacation. They were also seeing an overall rise in salaries in the field.

As the demand for preventive oral care continues to grow, so do the employment opportunities for dental assistants. The BLS predicts a 25% career growth for the industry between 2012 and 2022. The increase in the general population and the growing number of elderly who need oral care should also aid growth in the field. The whole spectrum of dental related careers is growing as a result.

Education and Training Requirements

Education Information

There are a variety of ways to obtain dental assisting education, including through diploma, certificate and associate degree programs. Education is often available through technical and community colleges. Students should seek dental assisting programs that are accredited by the Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA). These programs can typically be completed in 1-2 years. Students learn in a variety of ways, including clinical and laboratory training, standard classroom learning and hands-on, chairside simulated learning. In some cases, dental assistants are able to learn their skills on the job, but proper training and education is generally valuable to employers.

Certification Requirements

Students who complete dental assisting degree programs are eligible to work as dental assistants in many states. However, some states require that dental assistants obtain licensure and certification in order to gain employment. There are currently 37 states that require their dental assistants obtain the Certified Dental Assistant (CDA) credential, which is provided by the DANB. In order to maintain valid certification, students must pass the certification exam, complete continuing education and be CPR certified. According to the DANM, professionals with certification earn more than non-certified assistants.

What Do Employers Look For?

Job opportunities for dental assistants will run the gamut from part-time to full-time positions. Requirements will range as well, with some employers demanding that candidates have experience and certification, and others forgoing that requirement. Having any prior work experience in an administrative capacity might also be beneficial. Listed below are some examples of job postings found in April 2012:

  • A Texas-based dental office seeks a registered dental assistant for full-time position. The job offers continuing education opportunities and a 4-day work week. Requires candidate to complete cosmetic and general practice duties.
  • In North Carolina, a Certified Dental Assistant is desired for a fast-paced general dentist office. Employer desires at least two years of experience. Candidate must also be organized and able to work well in a team-oriented environment.
  • Registered Dental Assistants are needed in California-based oral health maintenance organization. Need experience, CPR certification and x-ray licenses. Full-time positions with chairside duties, including taking patients' blood pressure.
  • In Ohio, a dental assistant is desired by a private dental practice. Position will cross train to include front desk administrative duties. Prefer candidates with 1-2 years of experience.

How to Stand Out

In the dental assisting field, there are a few ways to stand out from the competition when seeking jobs. Some employers only require candidates to have a high school diploma, but in general, obtaining more education is desirable. Several current job postings also note a desire for candidates to have or obtain dental x-ray certification. The requirements to obtain this certification vary by state, so you will likely want to check with your state board of dentistry for specific information.

You might also consider joining a professional organization. The American Dental Association offers members opportunities to connect with other members, learn about job opportunities, have access to continuing education and more ( Networking with other pros can give you inside access to jobs that you might not have otherwise known about.

Alternative Career Choices

Medical Assistant

If being a dental assistant isn't right for you, you might want to consider some related careers. For instance, a medical assistant performs similar duties to dental assistants, but in a medical setting. They balance administrative functions with clinical tasks. Their career opportunities are projected to grow 31% from 2010 to 2020, according to the BLS, which is the same rate as dental assistants. They make a little less money on average by earning median annual salaries of almost $29,000. However, they can gain experience on the job since a high school or equivalent education can be enough to gain an entry-level position.

Surgical Technologist

Another choice to consider might be that of a surgical technologist. They help doctors in the operating room before, during and after surgical procedures. The field is expected to grow by 19% over the 2010-2020, which is still at least as fast as the average projected career growth for that time, and salaries are better in general than those of dental assistants. Surgical technologists make a median annual salary of about $40,000. The education requirements, as far as time needed to complete them, are about the same.

Occupational Therapy Assistant

Occupational therapy assistants also provide both patient care and administrative assistance, working under the supervision of occupational therapists. They earn a median pay of $47,000 annually, and the career is expected to grow at the rapid rate of 43% between 2010 and 2020. Professionals in this career field help patients develop and recover from injuries or illnesses by using therapeutic techniques. An associate's degree is required for career entry, but the extra education may be well worth it in the long run.

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