dental assistant career  guide

Dental Assistant Job Description: Salary, Skills, Outlook & More

Dental assistants are responsible for a variety of tasks in the dental or dental specialist’s office. The job responsibilities vary depending on the office, the certification requirements of the state, and the training and certification level of the individual assistant.

You can become a dental assistant without attending a program and getting certified, although many offices prefer to hire trained assistants with a diploma or a degree. To become certified, you will need to pass the Certified Dental Assistant exam, which is administered by the Dental Assisting National Board.

Read on to find out more about this rewarding and challenging career.

Dental Assistant Salary

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, as of May 2019, the mean annual wage for dental assistants was $41,170. This varies quite a bit by state: to see the average annual salary for dental assistants in your state, you can check this guide from the American Dental Assistants Association.

According to Payscale, which aggregates national salary and wage information, dental assistants make an average hourly rate of $16.45. Positions may be either full-time or part-time, depending on the needs of the office.

Dental Assistant Responsibilities

Dental assistants perform a variety of tasks, depending on the requirements of the office and the certification level and experience of the assistants.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, typical duties include:

  • Sterilizing instruments
  • Preparing patients and work area
  • Assisting dentists during procedures
  • Wielding suction hose during procedures
  • Processing x-rays
  • Keeping and managing patient records
  • Scheduling appointments
  • Billing and payments
  • Ordering and stocking supplies
  • Educating patients on oral health

In some states, only dental assistants with certification can perform the following duties:

  • Taking x-rays
  • Lab tasks such as dental impressions and preparing materials for crowns
  • Polishing teeth
  • Applying sealants, fluoride, or topical anesthetic

Education, Licensing & Experience

You can become a dental assistant by following several routes. To become certified – necessary to practice in some states and often preferred by employers – you’ll need to complete a dental assistant training program or gain experience as an uncertified assistant before being eligible.

Once you’re eligible for certification, through completing a degree or through 2 years of full-time experience –  you’ll need to pass the national certification exam administered by the Dental Assisting National Board (DANB), as well as the certification requirements unique to your state. You can find the licensing requirements in your state using this guide from the DANB. You’ll also need to be CPR certified.

Many assistants choose to go through a training program, however, for the added educational opportunities, better job prospects, and a faster track to certification. Training programs include both degree and diploma options and can take between 7 months to 2 years, depending on the program. You can find a dental assisting program at a community or technical college near you; there are also online diplomas, although you will likely need to find an in-person externship in order to gain clinical experience.

Getting certified is good for your paycheck: according to a 2012 study by the Dental Assisting National Board (DANB), certified dental assistants usually earn more per hour than their non-certified counterparts. Their research also found higher levels of job satisfaction amongst certified dental assistants.

DANB certification is good for one year, and then you’ll need to recertify. Continuing education credits are necessary to maintain certification, to ensure you’re up-to-date in the latest innovations in dental care.

Top Dental Assistant Skills

According to The Balance Careers, quality dental assistants exhibit a variety of skills:

  1. Technical skill. Dental care is complex and requires comprehensive knowledge of multiple procedures, and the equipment and instruments necessary in each. Dental assistants must have a firm grasp on how to use the many different kinds of materials used in dental procedures, from blood pressure machines, x-ray labs, dental impressions, sterilization equipment, and more. Dental assistants may be required to have CPR certification and/or x-ray licensing, in addition to any certifications required by your state or office of employment.
  2. Critical thinking skills. While the dentist or dental specialist is in charge of designing treatment plans and overseeing procedures, dental assistants will be helping with a variety of these procedures. Being able to think on your feet and adapt to a changing environment is critically important.
  3. Physical skill. Dental work is physically demanding: dental assistants are on their feet for hours at a time, and may be required to help disabled patients in and out of patient chairs. In addition, hand-eye coordination is important for any work involving patient care, including polishing teeth, taking dental impressions, x-rays, and more.
  4. Teamworking skills. Dental offices are busy, team-oriented places. Dental assistant jobs are best for people who thrive in a team. You’ll be working side-by-side with dental hygienists, office managers, dentists, and other dental assistants, so being a good team worker is important.
  5. People skills. One of the most important roles of dental assistants is making patients comfortable and at ease in the dental office space. Many patients – especially children – are intimidated by a dental or orthodontic office, and the dental assistant needs to be able to set people at ease to enjoy the experience and stay calm. Individuals who love being around and connecting with people are naturally gifted in this aspect of the job.

Schedule & Work Environment

Most dental assistants work full-time, but a significant portion work part-time, some in multiple offices. High demand for dental assistants means that you often have above-average negotiating power in setting your schedule.

Schedules vary depending on the office setting and specifics: many dental practices are open 7 days a week and will require dental assistants to work some weekend days. Others may be open only Monday through Friday.

According to the BLM, 90% of dental assistants work in dentists’ offices (including specialists like orthodontists and endodontists). 2% work in physicians’ offices, and 2% work in government, with the remaining 6% working in miscellaneous areas.

When working in a dental office you can expect a busy, bustling place with a lot of activity. While small practices may have only one dentist and a small number of assistants, hygienists, and/or office managers, larger practices may have several doctors and dozens of assistants.

All dental practices are subject to federal and state health and safety measures, including OSHA and HIPAA regulations to protect staff and patients. Sterilization and infection control are important parts of the dental assistant job, as maintaining clean and hygienic medical facilities is critically important for a successful dental practice.

Dental Assistant vs Dental Hygienist


Although it can be hard to tell who is who when visiting a dental office, dental assistants and dental hygienists are different jobs requiring different training and certification.

Dental hygienists are required in all states to complete a degree or diploma program in dental hygiene and must become certified through the National Board Dental Hygiene examination, which confers the title of Registered Dental Hygienist (RDH). RDHs also have to pass state licensing requirements to practice dental hygiene.

Dental assistants do not need to attend a training program or get certified, although as mentioned above many select to do so. Dental assistants often go on to become dental hygienists, as the salaries for dental hygienists tend to be higher.

While some duties overlap, dental hygienists perform more dental care themselves, including cleaning teeth, screening for oral health issues, and applying protective materials like sealants and fluoride.

Job Outlook

Dental assisting is an excellent career choice if you are looking for stability and excellent job prospects. U.S. News notes that the dental assistant field is expected to grow 11.2% between 2018 and 2028, growing about 38,700 jobs. In addition, the unemployment rate is only 2.2% for trained dental assistants.

Nearly every dentist and dental specialist office will employ at least one dental assistant – and with a constant demand for quality dentistry across the country, you can bet on finding job openings in your area!

Dental Assistant Jobs

If you’re set on a career in dental assisting, there are a variety of options to pursue. You can look for jobs that provide on-the-job training and do not require any experience. This is a good way to get started in the career; after two years of full-time work, you can take the DANB exams to become nationally certified.

If you opt for the educational route, you can search programs in your area or an online dental assisting program. The dental assisting program you attend must be accredited by the American Dental Association’s (ADA) Commission of Dental Accreditation (CODA). You can find a list of CODA-accredited programs with this ADA guide: there are currently around 250 accredited programs in the United States. Canadian programs are generally accepted in the U.S., but be sure to find out before you invest in the training program.

When you’re looking for jobs, try any of the following resources:

  1. Job resources from your dental assisting program. Ask about an online job board, email listserv, or any dedicated career counselors that can help place you.
  2. The office where you trained in an externship. If you’re already built a relationship with an office, they may be more inclined to hire you. Ask about any open dental assisting positions and whether you are eligible to apply.
  3. Online job boards: CareerBuilder, ZipRecruiter, Indeed, etc. You can search for jobs on these sites, as well as post your own profile to let potential employers know you’re looking for work. You can also set filters for your job preference, including the number of hours, distance from home, etc.
  4. Dental career webpages: DentalPost, ADA, or the DANB. If you’re searching for dental assisting jobs, check resources dedicated to dental assistants to see if they have job postings.
  5. Federal government employment websites. The federal government hires thousands of dental assistants across the country for its medical facilities. These jobs often offer good benefits and job security. Check VA: Careers for more information.