Dental assistants held about 303,200 jobs in 2012. Almost all dental assistants work in dentists' offices. Dental assistants work under the supervision of dentists and may work closely with dental hygienists in their day-to-day activities.
Dental assistants wear safety glasses, surgical masks, protective clothing, and gloves to protect themselves and patients from infectious diseases. They must also follow safety procedures to minimize risks associated with x-ray machines.
Most dental assistants work full time. However, about 1 in 3 assistants worked part time in 2012. Some work evenings or weekends, depending on the office where they work.
There are several possible paths to becoming a dental assistant. Some states require assistants to graduate from an accredited program and pass a state exam. In other states, there are no formal educational requirements.
High school students interested in a career as a dental assistant should take courses in biology, chemistry, and anatomy. Some states require assistants to graduate from an accredited program and pass a state exam. Most programs are offered by community colleges, take about 1 year to complete, and lead to a certificate or diploma. Programs that last 2 years, also offered in community colleges, are less common and lead to an associate’s degree. The Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA), part of the American Dental Association, approved more than 250 dental-assisting training programs in 2013.
Accredited programs include classroom and laboratory work in which students learn about teeth, gums, jaws, and other areas that dentists work on and the instruments that dentists use. These programs also include supervised, practical experience.
Dental assistants who do not have formal education in dental assisting may learn their duties through on-the-job training. A dental assistant or dentist in the office teaches the new assistant dental terminology, the names of the instruments, how to complete daily tasks, how to interact with patients, and other activities necessary to help keep the dental office running smoothly.
Licenses, Certifications, and Registrations
Some states require dental assistants to be certified; requirements vary by state. To obtain certification, dental assistants must pass the Certified Dental Assistant (CDA) exam from the Dental Assisting National Board (DANB). To take the exam, dental assistants must either have graduated from an accredited program or have a high school diploma, and complete the required amount of on-the-job training. Applicants must also have current certification in CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation).
Some states require that dental assistants be licensed or register with DANB to complete regulated tasks, such as coronal polishing, in a dentist’s office; requirements vary by state. In other states, there are no formal educational requirements to become an entry-level dental assistant. Contact state boards of dentistry for specific requirements.
Dental assistants typically have an interest in the Building, Helping and Organizing interest areas, according to the Holland Code framework. The Building interest area indicates a focus on working with tools and machines, and making or fixing practical things. The Helping interest area indicates a focus on assisting, serving, counseling, or teaching other people. The Organizing interest area indicates a focus on working with information and processes to keep things arranged in orderly systems.
If you are not sure whether you have a Building or Helping or Organizing interest which might fit with a career as a dental assistant, you can take a career test to measure your interests.
Dental assistants should also possess the following specific qualities:
Detail oriented. Dental assistants must follow specific rules and protocols to help dentists treat patients. Assistants must be aware of what practices they are allowed to complete in the state where they work.
Interpersonal skills. Dental assistants must work closely with dentists and patients. Sometimes, patients are in extreme pain and/or mental stress, so the assistant should be sensitive to their emotions.
Listening skills. Dental assistants should be able to listen to patients and other healthcare workers. They need to follow directions from a dentist or dental hygienist, so they can help treat patients and do tasks, such as taking an x ray.
Organizational skills. Dental assistants should have excellent organizational skills. They should have the correct tools in place for a dentist or dental hygienist to use when treating a patient.
The median annual wage for dental assistants was $34,500 in May 2012. The median wage is the wage at which half the workers in an occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $23,550, and the top 10 percent earned more than $47,580.
Most dental assistants work full time. However, about 1 in 3 assistants worked part time in 2012. Some work evenings or weekends, depending on the hours of operation at the office where they work.
Employment of dental assistants is projected to grow 25 percent from 2012 to 2022, much faster than the average for all occupations. Ongoing research linking oral health and general health will likely continue to increase the demand for preventive dental services. Dentists will continue to hire more dental assistants to complete routine tasks, allowing the dentist to see more patients in their practice and to spend their time on more complex procedures. As dental practices grow, more dental assistants will be needed.
As the large baby-boom population ages, and as people keep more of their original teeth than did previous generations, the need to maintain and treat teeth will continue to increase the need for dental care.
Federal health legislation is expected to expand the number of patients who have access to health insurance. People with new or expanded dental insurance coverage will be more likely to visit a dentist than in the past. This will increase the demand for all dental services, including those performed by dental assistants.
For more information about becoming a dental assistant and for a list of accredited dental assistant programs, visit
For more information about becoming a Certified Dental Assistant and for a list of state boards of dentistry, visit