There are several possible paths to becoming a dental assistant. Some states require assistants to graduate from an accredited program and possibly pass a state exam. In other states, there are no formal educational requirements. Dental assistants who do not have formal education in dental assisting may learn their duties through on-the-job training. The dentist or other dental assistants in the office teach the new assistant dental terminology, the names of the instruments, how to do daily tasks, how to interact with patients, and other activities necessary to help keep the dental office running smoothly. Most states regulate what dental assistants may do, but that varies by state.
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 take about 1 year to complete and lead to a certificate or diploma and are offered by community colleges. Two-year programs, 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 285 dental-assisting training programs in 2011.
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.
In other states, there are no formal educational requirements to become an entry-level dental assistant. Contact your state board of dentistry for specific requirements.
Some states require dental assistants to be certified; requirements vary by state. To get 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 have graduated from an accredited program or have graduated high school and completed 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. Contact your state board of dentistry for specific requirements.
Detail oriented. Dental assistants must follow specific rules and protocols to help dentists treat a patient. Assistants must be aware of what practices they are allowed to do in the state where they work.
Interpersonal skills. Dental assistants must work closely with dentists and patients. Sometimes patients are in extreme pain or mental stress, and the assistant must be sensitive to their emotions.
Listening skills. Dental assistants must have good listening skills. 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 must have excellent organizational skills. They should have the correct tools in place for a dentist or dental hygienist to use when treating a patient.
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2012-13 Edition