Dental Assisting Overview: Education & Job Outlook

The complete guide to dental assistant programs, certification, careers and advancement opportunities.
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Dental Assistant Career Facts


Oral Health Care is extremely vital to your overall health and it has become a very mainstream topic. Working on a dental team as a dental assistant is a steady growth profession that can be a fun, fast paced, challenging but rewarding career.

Dental Assistants make getting dental treatment great again.

This profession is a vital member to a dental office and is often one the first people to interface with a patient when they walk into their office.

The skills and job duties required by a dental assistant involve both patient care and administrative roles that are among the most comprehensive in the dental field.

Almost every US city has a dental office that offers employment and it is estimated by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) that 38,700 dental assistant job openings will become available from 2018 to 2028.

Steps to Becoming a Dental Assistant

Each state has their own Boards of Dentistry that regulates the dental assisting profession at the state level. There are more than 30 states that require dental assistants to be certified in very specific functions, while other states do not have any formal educational requirements. Although not all states require a certification, most dentists will only hire staff with at least 2 years of experience or associate degrees with certificates.

Registration requirements for these Allied healthcare professionals are quite different depending on the state. If interested in learning how to become a dental assistant, you should always familiarize yourself with the details of your state’s requirements.

For example, in Texas, a radiology certificate (RDA credential) is optional for dental assistants but not in other states. The requirement in Texas is that if one of your duties are one of the following, x-rays, administering nitrous oxide, performing coronal polishing, or apply pit and fissure sealants on dental patients you are required to have the RDA credential.

To become a dental assistant in Washington State, Dental Assistant prospects will have to complete at least 7 hours of HIV/AIDS education and complete an application with the State Department of Health for their review.

The Dental profession certifications is guided by The Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA), an arm of the American Dental Association, and they are responsible for accrediting qualified dental assisting programs at colleges and universities and other accredited schools.

Professional certification through the Dental Assisting National Board (DANB) could be considered the gold standard in dental assisting. More than 30 states recognize DANB credentials for state registration.

DANB certification options include:

  • Certified Restorative Functions Dental Assistant (CRFDA)
  • Certified Preventive Functions Dental Assistant (CPFDA)
  • Certified Orthodontic Assistant (COA)
  • Certified Dental Assistant (CDA)
  • CDA credential consists of three sections and each require exams:
  • Radiation Health and Safety (RHS)
  • Infection Control (ICE)
  • General Chairside Assisting (GC)

Depending on the state, potential dental assistants may be required to take one or more of the above CDA component examinations for state registration/certification, or all three examinations may be taken to achieve the full CDA credential. How you prepare for these exams has several paths as you will see below in the degree vs. certification for Dental Assistants section.

In order to qualify to sit for the 3 examination sections for a CDA certification, candidates must have either graduated from a dental assisting college program accredited by CODA or have at least two years of continuous work experience as a dental assistant.

The other DANB credentials, often referred to as expanded function dental assistant credentials, use these curriculums as “extra credit” to achieve more job opportunities and better pay.

Related: Learn more about dental assistant certifications.

Dental Assistant Education: Degrees and Programs

The Dental Assistant program is not necessarily part of the eligibility requirements to work in this Allied Health field depending on your state, but those that want to excel in this profession and set themselves up for national certification with CODA must complete a dental assisting program to obtain a Dental Assistant certificate.

Many community colleges and trade schools work with their cities and towns to supply the many in demand area jobs in the health profession.

Degree or Certificate?

Dental Assistants can acquire their training and knowledge several ways either with a certificate or a degree.


  • Certificate is obtained for passing a DANB board exam and not dependent on a degree from a school
  • Classes are offered to help prepare for specialized certifications focused solely on dental assisting very similar to preparing for the SAT test (college entrance test)
  • Offered at many community colleges and trade schools

Associates degree:

  • Longer program and more thorough education
  • Often leads to more advanced certifications that could mean higher pay
  • Classes include in-depth dental assisting topics and other liberal arts classes such as English and Math
  • Offered at many community colleges

Dental assisting programs offered by schools have a broad set of topics, such as:

  • Dental terminology
  • Operative dentistry
  • Dental diagnostic equipment
  • Anatomy
  • Law and ethics in the dental practice
  • Preventative dentistry
  • Cavity classification and charting
  • Disease transmission
  • Dental emergencies
  • Pharmacology and radiology
  • Business administration

A typical dental assisting program educates students with the dental specialties of:

  • Endodontics
  • Orthodontics
  • Pediatric Dentistry
  • Periodontics
  • Prosthodontics/Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery

Finally, a Dental Assistant school program will include hands-on training, both in the classroom and through a clinical partnership with dentists who provide training through clinical experience. These programs from accredited school programs will aid you with an passing your accreditation test from the Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA).

State Certification or Registration

In most states, dental assistants may perform basic supportive dental procedures specified by the state dental practice act under the personal supervision of a licensed dentist. There are no education or training requirements for this level of dental assisting.

However, the following 3 states have requirements for dental assistants to register with the state or obtain a state license:

  • Iowa – Registered
  • Oklahoma – Licensed
  • Washington – Registered

Each state provides it’s own regulation over the scope of dental assistants and although a registration, or license, from the state may not be required, 30 states do require certification for very specific dental assisting functions.

Dental Assistant Salaries

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) and detailed statistics which vary greatly state by state but the median average salary for Dental Assistant is $38,660 per year.

A logical career step for many existing dental assistants is to become dental hygienists. This career progression requires additional education and added job responsibility resulting in hygienists earning more than dental assistants. According to BLS, the median annual income for dental hygienists is $72,910.

Many of the undecided career seekers compare dental and medical careers when considering working as a dental assistant vs dental hygienist.

Medical assistants can earn a median income of $33,610, while physical therapist assistants earn $57,430. Pharmacy technicians bring in a median income of $32,700.

The salary information listed is based on a national average from BLS. Several factors determine the final salary or wage that a Dentist office will pay including specialization within a field, experience, and geography to name a few. The areas with a higher cost of living tend to pay above average. For a Dental Assistant you can expect on average:

Quick Facts: Dental Assistants
2018 Median Pay

$38,660 per year

$18.59 per hour

Typical Entry-Level EducationPostsecondary nondegree award
Work Experience in a Related OccupationNone
On-the-job TrainingNone
Number of Jobs, 2018346,000
Job Outlook, 2018-2811% (Much faster than average)
Employment Change, 2018-2838,700

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS)

Dental Assistant Job Growth

The future is very bright for Dental Assistant job growth. According to the BLS website, they predict employment is expected to grow 11 percent from now through 2028. This is a fast growing occupation in the Allied Health industry in terms of jobs. In other words, the BLS predicts 38,700 dental assisting jobs will be added between 2018 and 2028.

Job growth for Dental Assistants is growing for several reasons. Favorable changes for patients by the Federal government in the health care insurance system have led to an increased number of patients seeing their dentist.

By hiring dental assistants who can complete routine tasks, dentists can treat more patients. With a steep increase in population growth and increased life span compared to 20 years ago, the industry is expanding at an increased rate.

The need for Dental Assistants is in every state but some have a dire need today and are willing to pay more to start.

What you can expect on the job

You may have visited a dental office and the functions described here may be familiar to you.

A typical start to the day for a Dental assistant preparing each room and ensuring supplies like tools, bibs, patient take home samples, and other items are fully stocked. They help the dentist by setting out patient charts and X-rays prior to sitting with the patient. Dental assistants need to be comfortable multi-tasking since more than one patient is treated at a time with very different diagnosis’.

Once the patient checks into the facility, the dental assistant typically takes the patient to the dental chair and prepares them for the Dentist. During the procedure, a dental assistant may help a dentist with certain tasks and make notes on a patient’s charts electronically. After the appointment, the room is cleaned and set up for the next patient. Since no two patients are alike with their issues during their visit, it keeps your day exciting and moving fast.

Dental Assistant Job Duties

The role of Dental assistants is to support the dentist as they examine and diagnose the patient in the chair. A job description for this role could look similar to this:

  • Assist with procedures such as fillings, crowns, and extractions
  • Sterilize or disinfect dental equipment
  • Accompany patients and place them in the specialized dental chair and prepare them for treatment
  • Prior to procedure in chair, make sure the tools and area are set up for dentist according to patient needs
  • Schedule appointments
  • Complete necessary lab work and process X-rays (if certified)

While states only require a high school education to be an assistant, many Dentists will not hire an assistant without an education or certification. States do require certain functions performed by an assistant to be regulated. There are 4 main areas that are regulated by each state and dental assistants may be able to perform these tasks if your state allows it:

  • Topical anesthetics application, which is used to numb an area of patient’s mouth
  • Coronal polishing which removes plaque
  • Fluoride application to prevent cavities
  • Sealant application, another anti-cavity mechanism

Each state regulates these functions differently and your state may require you to take an exam to prove your competency.

Related Jobs in the Industry

The effort to obtain your dental assisting certificate or degree is an amazing feat and some industry options outside of the Dentist’s office could be for you. Some may consider these related fields:

Public health: Schools or community clinic and even non-profit services may be your calling. Dental assistants who want to provide a service to a certain population of people might consider public health.

Pediatrics: Childhood dental habits set the stage for adults. Pediatric dentistry is focused on the development of children’s oral hygiene needs. You’ll need to educate yourself on the transition from baby teeth to adult teeth and the distraction skills needed to keep the young patient still while the dentist performs their job. Communication skills are important with pediatric dentistry.

Dental schools: You spent a lot of time as a student learning the dental industry, why not become the teacher if you have the aptitude? Dental schools often hire graduates and professional dental assistants to work in the learning process and help improve its program’s student success rates.

Dental surgery: Dental assistants are crucial to a successful oral surgery. The industry can’t escape the paperwork preparation for back office needs like billing and accounting but are also needed to be prepping the surgery room and the patient. Oral surgeons are an advanced group and a Dental Assistant will stay busy.

Insurance Industry: Todays insurance needs are complicated. Dental assistants are often employed because of their understanding of dental terms and can be trained on insurance coverage. If you enjoy office desk work and administrative duties, consider a position in processing insurance claims.

Dental equipment sales: Many excel at interacting with people and may even have some sales experience. If you excel at customer service, a career in dental product sales could be a good fit. Your familiarity with a variety of dental products, technology and equipment can help you make a good pitch and land a deal that could be rewarding.

Dental Assistants have several other advanced options other than the obvious dental office. Other related interests with varying degrees of difficulty could be:

Dental hygienist career: More technical dental career roles include other responsibilities such as teeth cleaning and advising patients has many benefits, including increased pay.

Dentist career: A dentist requires acceptance into an accredited dental school and a several years more of education compared to a Dental Assistant but is consistently ranked as one of the top careers to be because of the above average income and work life balance.

Dental Lab Technician career: A dental lab technician works directly with dentists but behind the scenes in a dental lab. Dental lab technicians craft oral prostheses for patients such as orthodontic appliances, veneers, crowns, and bridges.

A dental assistant is an excellent gateway and starting point in the dental industry. If you love the challenge and its rewards, you may want to continue your education and become a dental hygienist, dental laboratory technician, or a licensed dentist. Click the blue Find Schools button to compare dental assisting programs online and nearby.

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