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Dental Assistants Review

Dental assistants have one of the shortest training periods of any of the vocational careers we reviewed. Most certificate programs last for one year, or you can complete an associate's degree program to gain more qualifications.

Our Verdict

Well-paying job with one of the lowest education requirements.


  • Vocational career offers stable employment often with flexible schedules.


  • Dental assistants must wear protective gloves, masks, eyewear and clothing.

Dental assistants have one of the shortest training periods of any of the vocational careers we reviewed. Most certificate programs last for one year, or you can complete an associate's degree program to gain more qualifications. A license or certification is required for the assistants to perform more advanced tasks such as patient x-rays.

Individuals in this profession clean and sterilize equipment and instruments used by the dentist or dental hygienists at a dentist's office. They prep a station by laying out tools that will be needed for a cleaning or a particular procedure. They also prepare patients and obtain and update patient records. They may assist the dentist during procedures by keeping patients' mouths dry and clear using gauze or a suction device. Under a dentist's direction, individuals may also process dental x-rays and prepare materials for impressions and restorations.

Some individuals in this profession have office duties such as scheduling and confirming patient appointments. They receive patients, maintain the file room with patient records, work with accounts payable and accounts receivable and order dental supplies. Being able to establish good rapport with patients and coworkers is an important part of this job.

Individuals who excel in this job enjoy keeping things clean and have attention to detail. They also enjoy serving people and working with people, as so much of their job is helping to make patients comfortable.

Starting salary for this vocational career is about $25,000 annually, with the potential to earn $47,000 annually. These figures are based on full-time employment, although about one-third of individuals in this profession work on a part-time basis. The part-time schedule is appealing to individuals who have family obligations or who are pursuing additional education.

Demand for this career path is expected to increase over the next 10 years by more than 35 percent, and 161,000 jobs are expected to open during the same time period.

Most individuals in this profession are employed by dentist offices, with the highest concentration presently in California, Washington and Utah.

The Commission on Dental Accreditation administers the certification exam for dental assistants. A high school diploma or equivalent and college-level science and computer coursework is often required to enter an educational program that will to prepare you for the certification exam.

Certification and experience in this profession provides advancement opportunities with increased responsibilities such as performing patient x-rays. In addition, many individuals in this profession continue their education to become dental hygienists, who have a starting salary of $50,000 annually.

Work Environment
Individuals work in a well-lighted, clean environment on a full-time or part-time basis. Those who work part-time in one office may also fill a 40-hour week in an additional office. Usually they work during office hours during the day, although some dentist's offices are open on weekends or evenings. In this job, you will work in teams and individually, and you will have the opportunity to interact with many patients.

Although some dental assistants do not have certification or formal training, all individuals in this vocational career path generally go through a period of on-the-job training as all dentists have a unique way of doing things. In addition, training is necessary as new technologies become available.

Physical Requirements
This job requires wearing latex gloves, masks, eyewear and protective clothing frequently throughout a business day. A uniform, usually medical scrubs, is often required. You will be on your feet most of the time, so it is important to wear comfortable shoes that support your feet. Because you will look at patient records on a computer screen frequently, being able to see detail at close range is important.

Basic Office Skills Required
Verbal communication, including English speaking proficiency, is an important part of this job. Basic math, typing, data entry and 10-key skills are also important. You may also use MS Outlook for interoffice communication. Data entry will most likely be done in a proprietary database designed for the office in which you work.

Dental assistants have a promising vocational career because of the expected growth in their profession over the next 10 years. It is a stable job that can be obtained quickly with little or no prior work experience.

A Dental Assistant's Typical Work Day

Stacy chose a vocational career as a dental assistant because of her interest in dentistry and orthodontics after she wore braces as a teenager. A healthy mouth makes such a difference in a person's appearance, self esteem, as well as their overall health.

Stacy works for an independent dentist's office, where she assists the dentist and dental hygienists by cleaning and sterilizing the tools they use and by preparing exam rooms. In addition, she greets and escorts patients to exam rooms. She asks them if they have been experiencing any tooth sensitivity or pain and makes notes for the dentist regarding specific problem areas, if there are any. She often assists at the reception desk by scheduling appointments with patients. Sometimes she will make phone calls to insurance companies to verify coverage for certain types of procedures. She also assists with filing and accounts payable as needed.

One of Stacy's most important responsibilities as a dental assistant is cleaning and sterilizing the equipment and tools that the dentist and dental hygienists use in their work. She also preps stations by laying out the tools they will need for scheduled procedures. She works closely with the dentist and other staff at the office. The dentist usually gives her tasks such as developing x-rays or explaining to patients about what to expect during an upcoming procedure such as a root canal or bridge. She prepares packets of gauze and numbing medication for patients to use following procedures. She also explains to children how to properly brush and floss their teeth.

During the past six months, Stacy has been able to assist the dentist chair-side while he is performing dental work. This is a task that the dentist only assigns staff that he trusts the most. She will hand tools to the dentist, and she will keep mouths clear throughout the procedure using gauze or a suction device. Working chair-side with the dentist is the part of her vocational career that she enjoys most because it is where she learns the most about dental procedures. The work that her dentist does is truly an art form, and she is lucky to work for a very good dentist. Rarely will patients return needing a filling fixed that he has done, although he fixes many fillings that patients have had done elsewhere in the past.

Stacy is presently in the process of going back to school to become a dental hygienist, which will make her more marketable in the dental industry and increase her salary. She is pursuing a two-year program which will qualify her to perform cleanings as well as some minor dental procedures, and it will also increase her salary.

There is an emphasis on cordiality and customer service in Stacy's vocational career as a dental assistant. The office where she works is always clean and orderly, and she is never at a loss for things to do. She enjoys helping put patients at ease, and she likes working in an office where the morale is so positive and so focused on serving people. Her organizational skills and attention to detail make her an asset to her office.