Q&A: How Long Does It Take To Become a Dental Assistant?

By Indeed Editorial Team

November 4, 2021

A dental assistant is a health care professional who helps dentists provide oral care for their patients. This can be a rewarding position for those who want to work in dentistry or build a foundation for career advancement in the industry. In this article, we answer commonly asked questions about becoming a dental assistant such as how long it takes to become one to how much do dental assistants earn.

What does a dental assistant do?

Dental assistants perform administrative duties in dental offices and support dentists and hygienists during dental procedures. A dental assistant's job responsibilities might include:

  • Completing clerical duties such as greeting patients, scheduling appointments, answering phones, filing insurance claims and maintaining and filing patient records

  • Assessing and stocking inventory

  • Preparing examination rooms

  • Sterilizing dental instruments and equipment

  • Educating patients about dental health

  • Taking patients' medical histories and blood pressure

  • Processing dental X-rays and impressions

  • Supporting dentists during teeth cleaning and procedures, such as handing them instruments

Related: Learn About Being a Dental Assistant

What is a dental assistant's work environment?

Most dental assistants work full time in clean and well-lit offices and treatment rooms. They typically work normal business hours but may be asked to work some evenings and weekends. Dental assistants’ duties require them to sit, stand and bend.

They might work for:

  • Private dental practices

  • Group dental practices

  • Hospitals

  • Colleges

  • Insurance companies

  • Dental suppliers or manufacturing companies

  • Public health facilities

  • Military branches

Dental assistants typically wear scrubs over their work clothes. They wear masks, gloves and protective eyewear and clothing when taking X-rays and helping with dental procedures.

How long does it take to become a dental assistant?

If you have a high school diploma or GED, you can become a dental assistant in nine to 11 months. It may take longer if you choose to pursue advanced certification. Dental assistant training programs are often offered at:

  • Community college

  • Dental school

  • Vocational school

  • Technical school

  • University

These programs take nine months to two years to complete depending on the school and type of program (full time, part time, accelerated or online). Training programs at community college programs, for example, typically last nine to 12 months while an associate's degree can take two years to complete.

Related: Dental Assistant vs. Dental Hygienist: Key Differences

How much do dental assistants make?

The average national salary for dental assistants is $62,719 per year. This amount is typically higher for dental assistants with advanced training or who work for specialty clinics or in high-demand areas. For the most up-to-date salary information from Indeed, click on the salary link.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects employment for dental assistants will grow 11% by 2030 which is faster than the average for all occupations. The professional benefits of being a dental assistant include helping others, job stability, good hours and career advancement opportunities. They can gain experience and continue their education to become dental sales representatives, office managers, research associates, dental technicians, dental hygienists or dentists.

Related: How Much Do Dental Assistants Make? Salary and Career Info

What are the requirements to become a dental assistant?

Dental assistants learn a specific set of hard skills through training and experience that prepare them to work with patients and dental staff. They should have soft skills such as a positive attitude, desire to help others, reliability, punctuality, work ethic and organization. Here are the typical requirements for becoming a dental assistant:

Finish high school and gain experience

You should complete all general math, science and English courses and receive good grades in science topics such as anatomy, biology and chemistry. Some high school graduates get jobs in dental offices to learn about being dental assistants before enrolling in postsecondary education. In these entry-level positions, they learn about dental terminology, dental instruments, how to communicate with patients and office tasks such as filing records and scheduling appointments.

Enter a dental assistant program

Choose from nearly 300 programs accredited by the Commission of Dental Accreditation (CODA). These programs offer classroom and clinical training and teach students about oral anatomy, dental materials, office administration, dental X-rays, medical emergencies, dental health education and other routine dental assistant tasks.

Related: 17 Essential Skills for a Dental Assistant

Become certified

While certification is not required in every state, many employers prefer to hire certified dental assistants (CDAs) since they have demonstrated their skills and knowledge in the field.

After you’ve completed an accredited dental assistant program, you should study for and pass the CDA exam offered by the Dental Assisting National Board (DANB). If you completed an unaccredited program or only have on-the-job training, you can take the CDA exam after working as a full-time dental assistant for two years.

Certification and licensing requirements vary by state. You can learn more about them from your state board of dentistry. Dental assistants should also have current proof of cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) certification.

Related: How To Become a Dental Assistant in 5 Steps

What advanced certification options can dental assistants pursue?

Dental assistants can pursue additional certification to enhance job opportunities and earning potential. These include:

  • Registered Dental Assistant (RDA): Some states require dental assistants to be RDAs to perform tasks such as taking X-rays. To be eligible for this certification exam offered by the American Medical Technologists Association, you must be either a CDA, have military dental assistant training or have at least three years of supervised dental assistant training. You can then apply for the exam through the American Medical Technologists Association. Once you become an RDA, you will need to renew your certification every one to three years to maintain it.

  • Expanded Functions Dental Assistant (EFDA): Depending on the state, EFDAs can perform duties such as taking impressions, administering sealants and polishes and applying anesthetics and fluoride.

Requirements to become an RDA or EFDA vary by state. To see a list of the full requirements by state, visit DANB.

Other related certifications include:

  • Certified Orthodontic Assistant (COA)

  • Dental Radiology Certification

  • Certified Preventive Functions Dental Assistant (CPFDA

  • Certified Restorative Functions Dental Assistant (CRFDA)

  • National Entry Level Dental Assistant (NELDA)

Related: How To Advance From Dental Assistant To Dental Hygienist

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