Dental Assistant FAQ

What does it take to become a dental assistant? If you enjoy working with your hands, completing detail-oriented tasks, and interacting with patients, dental assisting might be a good career path for you. Dental assistants often are responsible for both clinical and clerical tasks within a dental office. Read on to learn more about what you can expect if you pursue a career as a dental assistant.

Though the specific requirements to become a dental assistant vary by state,  in most cases, you need to graduate from an accredited dental assisting training program and complete an exam. Some employers don’t require any formal education. Most dental assistant training programs can be completed in less than a year. 

To learn more, check out How Long Does it Take to Become a Dental Assistant?

Depending on where you live, education requirements vary for dental assistants. Most states do not require entry-level dental assistants to be licensed. You should research the dental assisting requirements of your state. Many employers prefer dental assistants to have completed an accredited training program through a trade school or community college. Some dental assisting roles require additional training or licensing. MTI’s Dental Assisting Program in Illinois and Missouri uses a combination of classroom and hands-on instruction to train you in both clinical and administrative duties.

The cost of dental assisting programs depend on the type of institution. However, many schools provide opportunities for financial aid. At MTI, for example, most students receive some form of financial aid or assistance, including scholarships. To learn more, visit Financial Aid and Tuition & Cost.

The Dental Assisting Program at Midwest Technical Institute is nine months. 

Midwest Technical Institute offers a hands-on Dental Assisting Program that trains students in both clinical and administrative duties. You’ll learn a range of skills including dental radiology, prosthodontics, restorative dentistry, infection control, office administration, dental specialties, and employment preparation.

MTI’s Dental Assisting Program is led by  instructors with real-world experience in the dental field. They will teach you the skills you need  through both hands-on and classroom instruction.  The program concludes with an externship where you’ll use the skills you’ve learned in the lab and apply them in a real working environment sitting alongside a licensed dentist. 

Dental assistants are a critical component of all dental offices because they can complete both administrative and clinical tasks. Their responsibilities include coding, scheduling, billing, record keeping, and serving as a liaison between patients and the dental practice. Dental assistants also educate patients on proper oral hygiene.

Dental assistants possess a range of clinical skills. These can include assisting the dentist during exams, x-rays, lab work, sterilizing equipment and instruments, and performing four-handed dentistry, which refers to operations in which the dental assistant and dentist work in unison. In Illinois, dental assistants are permitted to operate x-ray equipment and evaluate dental radiographs, as long as they’re under the supervision of a licensed dentist.

To learn more, check out What Does a Dental Assistant Do?

To become a dental assistant, at a minimum you need either a high school diploma or GED. Many states also require dental assistants to complete an accredited training program. Dental assistant certification can potentially help increase your employability, but certification requirements vary by state.

In Illinois, for example, dental assistants are permitted to perform x-rays without additional certifications. However, Illinois dental assistants can only perform expanded functions after meeting state requirements.

At MTI, students are required to take two of the three DANB (Dental Assisting National Board) certification exams: RHS (Radiology Health & Safety) and ICE (Infection Control Exam) or the Missouri Test of Basic Dental Assisting Skills (MBDA) exam. To view the certification requirements for your state, visit the Dental Assisting National Board (DANB) website.

As of May 2022, the median annual wage for dental assistants was $44,820. Wages can vary significantly depending on the employer, position, experience, location, and several other factors. 

Advancements in dental treatment, procedures, and cosmetic dentistry are expected to drive an increase in the number of dental assisting jobs available. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates demand for dental assistants will increase 7% through 2032, which is faster than the national average (3%). The 7% growth rate equates to roughly 55,100 annual openings for dental assistants over that period.

Dental assistants can work in a variety of environments, including hospitals and military bases, but the most common setting is, unsurprisingly, dentists’ offices, according to the BLS. The Dental Assisting Program at Midwest Technical Institute prepares students for entry-level roles in these environments. 

Common job titles include clinical dental assistant, dental office administrative assistant, or dental laboratory assistant. Individuals pursuing jobs in more specialized environments often hold different titles, however, like those who work with oral surgeons or in geriatric and pediatric practices.

The scope of practice for dental assistants varies by state. Some states allow entry-level dental assistants to apply sealants, fluoride, or topical anesthetic and polish teeth, while others require specialized training or certifications.

In simple terms, dental assistants work alongside dentists during routine procedures while dental hygienists work more closely with patients and perform comprehensive cleanings and examinations without much supervision.

Tasks dental assistants often perform include preparing patients for procedures, making impressions, performing x-rays, and assisting with suctioning and rinsing. Duties also often include clinic administration and clerical work.

Dental hygienists require substantially more training. They are often required to complete an associate degree in dental hygiene, which typically take three years to complete. Hygienists’ duties include performing routine cleanings, examining patients for oral cancer, performing gum treatments and instructing patients on healthy oral hygiene. Hygienists are also permitted to refer patients to dental specialists for certain procedures.

Interested in learning more? Check out Dental Assistant vs. Dental Hygienist: What are the Differences?

The primary difference between registered dental assistants (RDA) and certified dental assistants (CDA) is the level of certifications they’re required to hold and the tests they’re required to pass. These standards vary by state. 

The Dental Assisting National Board (DANB) serves as the industry’s governing body and issues certifications for dental assistants, including the Certified Dental Assistant (CDA) exam. 

American Medical Technologists (AMT) also offers a different credential called Registered Dental Assistant (RDA). 

Most dental assistants will need to perform patient x-rays in addition to their other duties. Many dental assistant training programs include radiology as part of the coursework. In certain states, however, the Radiation Health and Safety (RHS) assessment is required for dental assistants. This exam covers all the necessary skills to take x-rays. 

All students in the Dental Assisting Program at Midwest Technical Institute are taught radiology and have an opportunity to take the RHS exam.

Dental assistants who work alongside oral surgeons often have opportunities to assist with surgical procedures. Depending on the procedure, dental assistants can help sterilize instruments and equipment, prep work stations, and educate patients about post-operative care.

The U.S. military offers a few different paths for dental assistants. In the Army, the position is referred to as a dental specialist. In the Navy and Air Force, however, the position is called a dental assistant. Training to become a dental assistant for any of the armed forces typically takes an additional eight weeks after recruits complete eight-ten weeks of basic training. 

The job duties of a dental specialist in the military mirror those in the civilian world, including both clinical and clerical tasks. The skills learned in the military’s Advanced Individual Training programs include training on x-ray operations, preventative dentistry, dental office procedures, and common hygiene procedures.

Background checks are required by the Dental Assisting National Board (DANB). As part of the certification, applicants must answer questions about their past. Officials may follow up if any answers indicate past criminal behavior, though policies vary from state to state. Currently, 38 states recognize or require DANB certification. Background checks may also be a part of the hiring process, depending on the employer.