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How to Become a Dental Assistant in 6 Steps

A Picture of A Dental Assistant Cleaning Someone's Teeth
Written by Amanda Nunez

If you’re looking for a career in the dental field, becoming a dental assistant is a great option. Dental assistants work closely with dentists and patients, providing support and assistance throughout dental procedures. While the job does have some challenges, it can be extremely rewarding to help people achieve better oral hygiene and health.

The good news is: becoming a dental assistant is relatively straightforward. Whether you’re passionate about dental care or want a stable career with a lot of room for growth, pursuing a career as a dental assistant will require you to clear those same checks and balances before you’re able to call yourself a practicing professional. 

Not only will this education and training help keep your prospective patients safe, it’ll also empower you with transferable skills that’ll improve both your life and the lives of others. 

What is a Dental Assistant?

 Often considered an essential role to a successful dentistry practice, the dental assistant fulfills a bevy of different roles over the course of a regular work day. Dental assistants perform a variety of patient care tasks like x-ray processing, instrument sterilization, providing instruments to a dentist who’s treating or examining a patient, operating devices used for suction, and taking impressions for a patient’s dental fixtures.

A dental assistant may also complete administrative tasks for the practice, including booking and confirming appointments with patients, ordering supplies used during the course of exams and procedures, and helping pull or update records on file for patients of the practice. 

What is the Job Outlook for a Dental Assistant?

The United States Bureau of Labor Statistics places dental assistants in the “faster than average” category for job growth, with an estimated 8% growth between 2021 and 2031. For reference, the average growth for a profession is 5%. 

The bureau lists the median income for the profession at $38,660, but many factors contribute to this total, including cost of living and the number of your state’s necessary accreditations.

How Long Does it Take to Become a Dental Assistant?

Your dental assistant’s education and training position depends on how far you’d like to advance along the career track. If you’re able to take on the responsibilities of a full-time student, a certification degree program can be completed in as little as nine months — that means it’ll take less than a year to break through one of the toughest road blocks between you and becoming a dental assistant. However, an associate degree is a popular choice for those who are interested in furthering their education and earning potential. 

6 Steps to Becoming a Dental Assistant

Decide on Your Educational Path

After completing high school and earning a diploma, you can choose between a quick entry into the workforce or a longer, more useful post-secondary education experience. 

Choosing to pursue a certification program will net you a certificate, setting you up with the formal education and skills necessary to land an entry-level position in as little as nine months. However, if you choose to further your education, the credits you earn during your certification will likely not transfer.

An alternative option is to obtain an associate degree. While it will take twice as long to earn than a certificate or diploma, an associate degree program will help you gain a well-rounded understanding of the dental assistant profession along with credits that will most likely transfer should you choose, such as becoming a dental hygienist.

Regardless of your choice, all dental assistant programs offer information on first aid, office administration, common medicine used by dentists, reading dental x-rays, and learning about the anatomy of the mouth. 

Be sure to attend a program accredited by the American Dental Association’s Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA). Otherwise, you’ll need to complete 2 years of dental assistant work before you’re eligible to try for accreditation through Dental Assisting National Board (DANB)’s testing procedure. 

Decide on A Specialization

There are 12 dental specialties that are ADA recognized, including prosthodontics (dental prostheses), endodontics (root canal therapy), and pediatric dentistry (dentistry that treats children). Deciding on one to follow can open your career prospects and guide further education.

Participate in an internship or externship

Internships and externships are great ways to gain on-the-job experience for dental specializations. Having this sort of nuanced first-hand knowledge can help set you apart from the pack when applying for a job — and help inform your decision if you choose to further your education and specialize. 

Become Certified and Licensed

When approaching your certification exam, consider what kind of certification works best for you. A certified dental assistant (CDA) is Dental Assistant National Board certified and can work anywhere in the US. However, a registered dental assistant (RDA) is only certified to work within a certain state. State requirements for dental assistant licenses and certifications can vary. 

Reference the Dental Assistant National Board or your state’s dental board to find the right accreditation for you. Multiple licenses and certificates are available to students of dental assistantship. 

Begin With an entry-level position

With dental assistant classified as a job with a higher than usual growth rate, finding a starting position to your liking should be less difficult than other professions. 

Even if you are planning to pursue further education, you should consider getting some work experience under your belt. You’ll be more likely to gain acceptance into higher level educational programs as a working professional. Additionally, having work experience will also help you build connections that’ll make it easier to land a future job that utilizes your chosen specialty.

Back to School

The field of dentistry is always evolving. As a dental assistant, there are important benefits to further your education. Returning to school and continuing your formal education will help solidify your status as a specialist and grant you access to higher pay and more prestigious positions. 

How to Land a Dental Assistant Position

It’s recommended that people considering a career as a dental assistant, people in a dental assistant program and people completing their internship or externship put time into researching the job market and staying knowledgeable on current job opportunities. TheJobNetwork is a great resource for just that and can help new dental assistants acquire that all-important first opportunity. Visit and browse the site to find current openings, and don’t forget to check back for new opportunities.

About the author

Amanda Nunez