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Can You Make a Living as a Dental Assistant?

With the healthcare industry growing by leaps and bounds every year, individuals looking for an opportunity to launch a new and exciting career are searching for their niche in the medical field. For those who enjoy the idea of making their patients’ smiles as white and bright as possible, a career as a dental assistant may be the right fit for them. Dental assistants work very closely with licensed dentists, helping take care of all patient preparation and necessary paperwork. To become a dental assistant, most states require individuals to complete some form of training and licensure before they begin working.

How Much Do Dental Assistants Make?

According to recent studies conducted by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), approximately 303,200 dental assistants work in the United States, making an average salary of $34,500 a year. For those willing to move, dental offices in California pay dental assistants the most, with the average annual salary being $36,660. The greatest draw for new assistants in this industry is the incredible growth over the next few years. As with most healthcare positions, the number of dental assistants is expected to increase much faster than the national employment average, providing numerous advancement opportunities for those who hold several years of experience.

Living as a Dental Assistant

What Training Is Needed to Become a Dental Assistant?

Although some dental offices are willing to provide the on-the-job training needed to get started in this industry, most dentists prefer to hire dental assistants who have completed some type of secondary training before applying. This training is often completed at a trade school, community college, or technical institute, with most postsecondary schools offering some form of dental assistant training program.

Before enrolling in the first dental assistant training program that comes along, individuals should verify the accreditation of their preferred program. Most employers prefer hiring graduates from a Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA) program, helping graduates stand out against the competition during the application and interview process. According to a study conducted in 2009, the CODA has certified approximately 280 training programs across the country.

Career Certificate

Since becoming a dental assistant does not require a college degree, many aspiring dental assistants opt to earn their career certificate. These certificates are specifically designed to be focus mainly on the skills necessary to become a dental assistant, teaching students the exact skills and techniques they will one day be using on the job. With classes often taught by professionals who hold numerous years of real-world experience, students will find a day in class and a day at work to be very similar. Taking upwards of 18 months to complete, the certificate program qualifies individuals for additional job postings and career opportunities in this field of expertise.

Associate’s Degree

Those who have career aspirations beyond dental assistants will often earn their associate’s degree in dental assisting. This educational program not only qualifies students to land entry-level dental assistant jobs upon graduation but also allows students to continue their education to become a dental hygienist or dentist later on in their career. Unlike a career certificate, the associate’s degree programs cover core classes, such as humanities, communication, and mathematics. Students in this program will likely take the following courses:

  • Dental materials


  • Infection control


  • Dental radiography


  • Dental anatomy

Taking anywhere from two to three years to complete, students in this program will undergo hours of hands-on training, with some colleges requiring students to complete external placements at community-based dental offices in order to graduate.

As far as licensing, aspiring dental assistants will need to pass the national certification exam by the Dental Assisting National Board (DANB). Upon successful completion of the exam, students can obtain their Certified Dental Assistant (CDA) credential, with this credential being required by most states to legally work as a dental assistant.

How Do Dental Assistants Get Promoted?

Due to the tremendous growth forecasted for the dental industry, many offices and practices offer promotion opportunities for those who hold the right education and work experience. Upon graduation, dental assistants who have a career certificate or associate’s degree qualify for entry-level positions within the industry. Depending on the company, advancement opportunities are available to those who have at least five years of dental assistant experience.

What Is the First Step to Becoming a Dental Assistant?

For those ready to begin an exciting career as a dental assistant, the first step is to begin researching the different schools and programs that most interest them. Schools accredited by CODA will hold the most weight with future employers, helping graduates stand out more for competitive positions and advancement opportunities. With a little bit of hard work and determination, individuals can become a dental assistant for a promising career of advancement opportunities and job stability.