Dental Assistant Career Preparation

Training to be a Dental Assistant

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A career as a dental assistant can be a very rewarding one with plenty of options for career advancement and further training – plus, you get to keep healthy smiles on your patient’s faces! A dental assistant will work hand-in-hand with a dentist as he performs various dental procedures and treatments. An assistant will also help to prepare both the patient and the work station before the dentist begins his work. They will take x-rays and perform basic lab work under the dentist’s supervision. They will also perform many administrative duties, such as scheduling patient appointments and keeping patient records.

The Skinny on Dental Assistant Training

Many states have no established formal education requirements for dental assistants. In these states, some dental assistants are able to find employment with little more than a high school degree, and they simply learn their tasks on the job.

Most states, however, are now requiring that an aspiring dental assistant graduate from a CODA (Commission on Dental Accreditation) accredited educational program. Some states also require dental assistants to obtain licensure or registration before they can perform certain duties. Employers are also being more selective in who they choose to hire, making a formal training program increasingly vital to those who hope to pursue a career in this field.

Aspiring dental assistants may choose to go through a 1-year training program to obtain a diploma or certificate, or they may choose a more extensive 2-year associate’s degree program.

Education Options

A certificate program is generally the most popular option, as it typically requires a year or less of study and focuses almost completely on the skills needed for dental assisting. A certificate program will provide both classroom instruction and clinical experience, giving students a well-rounded foundation in routine dental procedures and other vital skills. Students will learn to assist dentists, take x-rays, and maintain medical records. Some programs will also require students to complete a CPR certification as well as a lab course in biology or other natural sciences.

A typical certificate program for dental assistants will include training in:

  • Chair-side assisting
  • Dental science
  • Dental materials
  • Dental radiology
  • Dental office practices

A diploma program is similar to a certificate program and also requires about a year of study. These programs are typically offered by technical or vocational schools and prepare students for licensing and certification in dental assisting. The coursework will focus on the tools and techniques needed in the career of dental assisting, including topics like:

  • Oral anatomy
  • Human biology
  • Radiology
  • Dental office management
  • Preparation for licensing exam

Some community colleges and technical schools also offer a 2-year associate’s degree program in dental assisting. Graduates of an associate’s degree program are qualified to work in a broader range of settings, including hospitals and dental equipment suppliers.

Students will learn through both classroom lectures and laboratory work. They may also participate in supervised internships or externships, which provide real-life hands-on experience in working with patients. Upon completing an associate’s degree program, a dental assistant will be well-qualified to assist dentists in dental check-ups, cleanings, and even surgery.

A dental assistant associate’s degree program will cover subjects like:

  • Dental anatomy
  • Dental office management
  • Preventative dentistry
  • Oral pathology
  • Dental materials
  • Infection control
  • Radiology for dental assistants
  • Emergency medicine


As mentioned previously, licensing requirements vary from one state to the next. Some states will allow dental hygienists to perform any tasks assigned by a dentist, while other states require specific licensure or registration before a dental assistant can practice in the field. Some states may require completion of an accredited post-secondary program; some expect students to pass examinations, while others simply require registration with the state as a dental assistant. Those states that require state licensing will usually require dental assistants to participate in continuing education in order to maintain their license.


As of 2011, 38 states now recognize and/or require the Certified Dental Assistant (CDA) designation offered by the Dental Assisting National Board. Before applying for certification, an aspiring dental assistant must either have graduated from a CODA-accredited educational program or have 3500 hours of experience in dental assisting in the past 2-4 years. Applicants must also have certification in CPR.

Those who meet these requirements can sit for the CDA examination. The exam is broken into three sections. The first covers safety and infection control, the second covers radiation health, and the third tests an applicant’s general chair-side assisting skills.

CDA certification must be renewed every year. In order to renew their certification, a dental assistant must complete 12 continuing education credits annually.

Continuing Education

Many dentists will also require a degree of on-the-job training even for dental assistants who have graduated from a certified educational program. Each dentist and office will have a unique set of protocols and preferences, and a dental assistant will need to be familiarized with these in order to properly assist the dentist. Changes in dental technology will also present the need for further education as technique change and dentists have new needs.

Of course, as we’ve mentioned, to maintain state licensing and/or registration, a dental assistant will need to meet certain continuing education requirements at regular intervals. Dental assistants may choose from a variety of courses to meet these requirements. Topics range from learning about power toothbrushes, tooth whitening and pit and fissure sealants to studying the basics on local anesthesia, dental implants and medical emergency management.

In some cases dental assistants will choose to continue their education even further and go on to earn an associate’s or bachelor’s degree in dental hygiene. This career option gives dental professionals the opportunity to work more closely with patients and provides a significantly higher salary.