If you’re looking for a steady job with a regular, competitive salary and you like working with people as part of a team, the dental assistant career path should be of interest. It can be a challenging job, but helping patients and co-workers can also be extremely rewarding.
Furthermore, one of the most attractive things about this job is that the training is relatively short, meaning you can quickly start looking for work – and to explain just how quickly, in this post, we answer the question, how long does it take to become a dental assistant?
How Long Does It Take to Become a Dental Assistant? The short answer
Before we get into a more detailed discussion of how long it takes to become a dental assistant, we can start with a short answer.
Generally speaking, it takes between nine months and two years to become a dental assistant – although, in some states, you don’t need any particular qualification or certificates, so in theory, in those states, you could apply for a position today.
However, to understand why it takes this amount of time – and what you need to do to become a dental assistant – let’s jump in and look at the topic in more detail.
What does a dental assistant do?
If we want to understand how long it takes to become a dental assistant and why, we need to start by giving ourselves a clear idea of what a dental assistant’s job consists of.
According to the US Bureau of Labor, a dental assistant’s job includes the following responsibilities:
- Ensuring that patients are comfortable in the dental chair
- Preparing patients and the work area for treatments and procedures
- Sterilizing dental instruments
- Handing instruments to dentists during procedures
- Drying patients’ mouths using suction hoses and other equipment
- Instructing patients in proper oral hygiene
- Processing X-rays and completing lab tasks under the direction of a dentist
- Keeping records of dental treatments
- Scheduling patient appointments
- Working with patients on billing and payment
As you can see, a dental assistant’s job brief is broad, and they can be asked to carry out a wide range of tasks every day – something that contributes to the appeal of such a dynamic position.
However, we can group the responsibilities of a dental assistant into three areas – clinical responsibilities, administrative responsibilities and interpersonal responsibilities.
Clinical responsibilities include assisting dentists and hygienists by handing them the necessary instruments for carrying out dental procedures, preparing rooms for procedures and cleaning up after procedures have been completed.
Administrative responsibilities include things like taking records and scheduling appointments.
Interpersonal responsibilities can overlap with both clinical and administrative responsibilities, but they can include things like communicating with the dentist and making patients feel comfortable before and after procedures.
As a result, dental assistants need to learn about all of these things before they can start applying for jobs, which is why it takes at least nine months to complete the training course.
To find out more about what dental assistant do, you can also check out this video.
How do you become a dental assistant?
The requirements to become a dental assistant vary from state to state. For example, in Pennsylvania, dental assistants aren’t required to have any training, certificates or licenses for this work.
However, in most states, you are required to complete a formal accredited training program to learn about the various tasks performed by dental assistants, and the length of course required depends on the state.
You also need to pass exams at the end of your training to obtain the relevant certification and license.
So now let’s break all this down.
Education and training
To begin the training to become a dental assistant, you first need to obtain a high school diploma or GED.
After that, you can enroll in a training course for dental assistants. The duration of the course will be determined by the level of qualification awarded at the end of it, but the course usually needs to be accredited by the Commission on Dental Accreditation.
Since the requirements vary from state to state, you should check local regulations before beginning a course to make sure it will entitle you to work as a dental assistant where you live or plan to apply for a job.
In some states, a nine-month course is enough to allow you to qualify for this position, but in others, it might be longer. State-specific information about the requirements can be found here.
Another thing to be aware of when choosing your training program is that a course that’s valid in one state might not be accepted in another.
Depending on the state, you may also be required to undertake training in things like CPR, and you may also need to study extra components such as radiology if this is not included in your program.
The maximum amount of time to complete training is usually two years.
Obtaining a license
Having completed your training, you will then need to pass the Certified Dental Assistant exam to obtain your certification and your license to work as a dental assistant. These exams are organized by the Dental Assisting National Board.
After obtaining your certificate and license, you are then free to apply for jobs as a dental assistant.
Why become a dental assistant?
The position of dental assistant is attractive for several reasons, not least because the training period is relatively short – as we’ve seen, you can be applying for your first job just nine months after beginning your training.
In addition, demand for dental assistants is high and salaries are competitive, which means you have a good chance of landing a well-paid job after completing your training.
Finally, the work itself is interesting and rewarding.
When working as a dental assistant, you will be required to perform a wide range of tasks, and every day at work is likely to bring fresh challenges.
Although some of the work may be mundane or repetitive, you will become an important and valued part of a team, you will have lots of contact with people and you will enjoy the satisfaction of helping patients in your dental practice on a daily basis.
What is the profile of a dental assistant?
If you’re considering becoming a dental assistant, it’s important not only that the work appeals to you but also that you are a good fit – because this kind of work might not be for everyone.
A dental assistant needs to have great interpersonal skills since a large part of the job involves working with other people, both your co-workers and patients.
For this reason, you should be the type of person who enjoys working with other people, you should be a team player and your communication skills need to be excellent, both in terms of speaking and listening.
You will also need to be able to carry out instructions carefully, and you will need to be able to show a high level of attention to detail. Being able to multitask is essential, as is being able to remain calm in potentially stressful situations.
Finally, it will help if you’re not squeamish since you’ll be required to be present for dental procedures such as tooth extractions and more.
What’s the difference between a dental assistant and a dental hygienist?
A dental hygienist is concerned with the dental hygiene of patients in the practice, and they are responsible for tasks such as dental cleaning as well as advising patients on dental hygiene and oral health.
While there is some overlap between the responsibilities of dental hygienists and dental assistants – for example, dental assistants may also need to help educate patients about dental hygiene – dental hygienists are more specialized, while a dental assistant’s role is far broader.
It also takes longer to study to become a dental hygienist than a dental assistant – a minimum of two years compared to a minimum of nine months – and this also means dental hygienists earn more than dental assistants.
What does a dental assistant earn?
Dental assistants can expect to earn somewhere in the range of $38,660, which was the median salary for dental assistants in 2021 – although with experience and more responsibilities, it’s possible to earn more.
What are the job prospects like for dental assistants?
Dental assistants are in high demand, so job prospects for qualified dental assistants are good.
There are expected to be around 56,400 openings for dental assistants per year over the next ten years, and employment for dental assistants is projected to grow by 8%.
Can dental assistants work part-time?
Most dental assistants work full-time, but it’s also possible to find part-time work as a dental assistant.
Dental assistants usually work during the day on weekdays, but depending on the practice where they work, they may also need to work on weekends or in the evening.
Again, depending on the practice, some flexibility in the hours is often possible.
A short training period for a rewarding position
So as we’ve seen, depending on the state where you plan to work – as well as the level of qualification you decide to pursue – it can take between nine months and two years to become a dental assistant.
However, this training period is relatively short compared to some other professions, and once you have qualified, it is likely to be easy for you to find work, making this a popular career path to follow.