For those who wish to break into the field of healthcare quickly, becoming a dental assistant is an excellent choice. That’s especially true if you’d like to start earning decent pay immediately – with training taking as little as nine months, it’s easy to see why more and more people are choosing this career path.

Many people use the entry-level position of a dental assistant as a springboard to more advanced positions within the dental and medical fields. Here’s why becoming a dental assistant is a smart idea for those in need of a new career.

What is a Dental Assistant?

Not to be confused with dental hygienists, who work directly with patients, dental assistants assist dentists and other staff with administrative and clinical tasks. On the administrative side, these entry-level professionals’ responsibilities include maintaining patient records, scheduling appointments, and ordering supplies. On the clinical side, dental assistants handle things like processing X-rays, sterilizing dental instruments, operating suction devices, and even taking dental impressions.

A few of the benefits of pursuing a career as a dental assistant include:

  • Job security: According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics¹, or BLS, the field of dental assisting is projected to add more than 64,000 jobs between 2016 and 2026. This represents growth of 19 percent, ensuring long-term job security.
  • Quick training: You can complete an accredited dental assistant program in less than a year and start looking for jobs right away.
  • Competitive pay: Dental assistants enjoy competitive pay — especially when you consider the minimal training requirements.
  • Lots of career options: For many, becoming a dental assistant is just the first step in a career that can head in many directions, including dental hygiene and even dentistry.

One of the most attractive things about becoming a dental assistant is the speed with which training can be completed. Before delving into the process, it’s important to note that some states require dental assistants be licensed or certified while others don’t. Contact your state dental board or the Dental Assistants National Board, or DANB, for clarification.

How to Become a Dental Assistant

Here are the basic steps needed to become a dental assistant:

Complete a dental assistant program: Offered by community colleges and vocational and technical schools, dental assistant programs are widely available. Certificate programs, the most popular and common option, typically require nine months to about a year of training. Associate degree programs, which take about two years, are also available and are advisable for anyone who wants to move into advanced roles down the line. Currently, there are around 270 such programs that are accredited by the Commission on Dental Accreditation, or CODA². In states where a certificate or license is required, you must complete an accredited program to be eligible to sit for the exam, or you must accumulate at least two years of experience as a working dental assistant first.

Complete an externship: Most dental assistant programs encourage students to find and complete externships for valuable hands-on training and experience. During this time, you can hone crucial dental assisting skills, including dental pathology, oral hygiene, oral anatomy, and chairside assisting.

Get certified, if required in your state: In states where dental assistants are required to be certified, certification is handled by the Dental Assistant National Board, or DANB. Upon completion, you’ll receive the Certified Dental Assistant, or CDA, certification.

Pursue additional certifications: Depending on where you’d like to go in your career, you might also pursue additional certifications. Examples include Certified Preventive Functions Dental Assistant, or CPFDA; Certified Restorative Functions Dental Assistant, or CRFDA; and Certified Orthodontic Dental Assistant, or CODA.

How Much Can I Earn?

According to the BLS³, the median pay for dental assistants in the U.S. in 2016 was around $37,630 per year, or around $18.09 per hour. The top 10 percent of earners made around $53,130 per year, or $25.54 per hour; the lowest 10 percent made around $26,170 per year, or $12.58 per hour.

Jobs in This Field

Depending on where they work, some dental assistants focus more on clerical work or clinical work while many handle both. Some move into specialized dental assisting roles; popular areas of specialization include periodontics, pediatric dentistry, prosthodontics and maxillofacial surgery.

Many who start out as dental assistants pursue additional training and education to branch out into different career paths. For example, progressing into becoming a dental hygienist often makes sense; only an associate’s degree is required. Others choose to become dental technicians, who specialize in crafting dentures and other prosthetic devices. Regardless of where your interests lie, you are certain to find many rewarding opportunities by pursuing this career path.

How to Become a Dental Assistant

At this point, it’s easy to see why so many people are choosing to become dental assistants. Training is minimal, and tuition for dental assistant programs tends to be reasonable. However, it’s still crucial to take your time and to explore plenty of options for dental assistant programs.

There are hundreds of accredited programs across the country, including many that are offered online, so finding a flexible option that suits your budget requires a bit of research. Once you’ve landed your first dental assistant job, though, you’re sure to agree it was all worth it.

Like anything, it’s always a good idea to be aware of the latest research. We recommend comparing at least 3 or 4 options before making a final decision. Doing a search online is typically the quickest, most thorough way to discover all the pros and cons you need to keep in mind.