Are you interested in dentistry and passionate about helping people? Then a dental assistant career could be for you. Dental assistants work in dental offices under the supervision of dentists. They have excellent interpersonal, organizational and listening skills.
Dental assistants perform a variety of patient care and administrative duties. They take x-rays, schedule patient appointments and assist dentists during dental procedures. They’re different, however, than dental hygienists. The biggest difference between the two is that dental hygienists have less supervision and work more frequently with patients.
For those curious about dentistry and eager to gain practical experience, becoming a dental assistant is a great place to start. This guide covers the following topics as they relate to dental assistant careers:
- Job outlook
- Salary information
- Necessary skills
- Licensure and certification
- What to look for in education programs
- Jobs and relevant organizations
Why Become a Dental Assistant in California?
The job outlook for dental assistants is bright. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), employment of dental assistants is expected to increase 7% from 2019 to 2029, which is much faster than the average across all occupations1.
Employment of dental assistants is related to the need for dental care. The BLS notes two possible causes increasing the demand for dental care and preventative services. The first is continued research tying oral and general health together. The second has to do with the baby boomer population; as they age and keep their original teeth, the need for dental care increases. As the need for dental care and practices grows, dentists will need to hire more dental assistants to work efficiently.
Becoming a dental assistant can also lead to additional career opportunities. If you want to further your dental career and continue working with patients, you can work toward a career as a dental hygienist or dentist.
Dental Assistant Salary
The May 2019 median annual salary of dental assistants in the U.S. was $40,080, according to the BLS2. The highest 10% of earners made more than $54,930. Dental assistants made the most in government settings, dentists’ offices and physicians’ offices.
California has competitive dental assistant salaries. The annual mean wage of dental assistants in California was $43,280 in May 2019, according to the BLS3. This was slightly higher than the May 2019 national mean annual wage of $41,170. Be advised, salary for entry level positions may be lower than the national average.
Additionally, four California areas were noted in the BLS’ list of ten top-paying metropolitan areas for dental assistants4. The mentioned metro areas and their May 2019 annual mean wages include:
- Santa Rosa, CA – $56,010
- San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, CA – $52,380
- San Francisco-Oakland-Hayward, CA – $51,510
- Napa, CA – $50,420
Dental assistants are critical members of dental care teams and enjoy many career benefits. In fact, the American Dental Association (ADA) notes the following advantages of dental assistant careers5:
- Variety: Dental assistants must be versatile and willing to take on different tasks.
- Flexibility: Dental assistants enjoy the career flexibility of being able to pursue full- or part-time positions.
- Superior working conditions: As a dental assistant, you’ll work in a clean, pleasant, people-oriented environment.
- Personal satisfaction: Dental assistants can gain personal satisfaction from helping patients through their one-on-one interactions.
What Does a Dental Assistant Do?
Dental assistants provide patient care and support dentists through a variety of tasks. Their duties vary by job but typically include6:
- Help patients feel comfortable for their dental appointment
- Prep patients and the dental work area
- Clean dental instruments and provide them to dentists during procedures
- Educate patients regarding oral hygiene best practices
- Take x-rays and accomplish lab tasks, under dentist supervision
- Maintain dental records
- Schedule appointments
- Assist patients with billing and payment
During a procedure, a dental assistant helps dentists by passing equipment like suction hoses, syringes, probes, matrix bands, etc. While dental assistants are highly involved in the preparation and execution of dental procedures, they cannot actually perform dental procedures; that is the role of the dentist.
Dental Assistant vs Dental Hygienist
Dental assistants perform several roles related to patient support, administrative, and clinical work. Some of which involves performing office management duties, assisting the dentist during treatment procedures, and sterilizing equipment.
Dental hygienists focus on the cleanliness of a patient’s orthodontic health. Their responsibilities might include cleaning or polishing a patients’ teeth, performing dental health examinations, and educating patients on at-home dental safety.
What is a Day in the Life of a Dental Assistant Like?
A day in the life of a dental assistant includes working with dentists, dental hygienists and patients in a dentist’s office. Dental assistants work under the supervision of dentists, and many work full-time. Some also work evenings or weekends, depending on the dental office they work for.
One of the most important roles of dental assistants is providing chair-side support to patients and dentists. This is often done through preparation tasks such as ensuring instruments and equipment are sanitized. Dental assistants can prep materials for impressions or temporary crowns as well.
They also prepare patients for dental care and procedures by documenting their medical history, blood pressure or pulse. Additionally, dental assistants explain dental hygiene to patients and play a critical role in making patients feel at ease before a procedure.
Find Your Path as a Dental Assistant
SJVC is committed to hands-on training in the skills you need as a dental assistant. Learn more about our program and exciting opportunities.
Skills for Dental Assistants
Dental assistants need a combination of technical and soft skills. Many of the technical skills can be learned through classroom knowledge and developed through hands-on training. Dental assistants typically need technical skills related to:
- Dental equipment and software
- Dental impressions
- X-ray processing
- Coronal polishing
- Sealant, fluoride and topical anesthetic application
- Infection control procedures
Important qualities of dental assistants, as noted by the BLS, include7:
- Attention to detail
- Interpersonal skills
- Listening skills
- Organizational skills
How to Become a Dental Assistant in California
Becoming a dental assistant in California requires formal education and/or training and licensure. To become a registered dental assistant (RDA) licensed by the Dental Board of California, the following steps must be taken8:
- Obtain formal education or training through one of the following:
- Graduate from a Board-approved RDA program.
- Complete a minimum of 15 months of dental assistant work experience under a licensed dentist in the U.S.
- Complete a 4-month program approved by the California Department of Education and 11 months of work experience under a licensed dentist in the U.S.
- Complete Board-approved courses in coronal polishing and radiation safety.
- Within five years of application, complete a Board-approved course in the Dental Practice Act.
- Within five years of application, complete a Board-approved, eight-hour course in infection control.
- Complete a basic life support course from an instructor approved by the American Red Cross or American Heart Association.
- Provide fingerprint clearance from the Department of Justice (DOJ) and Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI)
- Take and pass the RDA General and Law and Ethics Written exam.
While aspiring dental assistants can learn on-the-job, a certificate program is an advantageous path for those who want to become a licensed dental assistant. A distinct advantage of certificate programs is that they typically incorporate the Board-required courses related to coronal polishing, radiation safety, infection control and basic life support.
If you choose to become an unlicensed dental assistant, you still must complete the following:
- Board-approved course in the California Dental Practice Act
- Board-approved course in infection control
- Basic life support course from an instructor approved by the American Red Cross or American Heart Association.
Do You Need to be Certified to be a Dental Assistant?
You don’t need to be certified to be a dental assistant. However, dental assistant certification can help you gain additional technical skills and advance your career. Most dental assistants who want to gain certification take the Certified Dental Assistant (CDA) examination from the nationally-recognized Dental Assisting National Board (DANB). According to DANB’s 2018-2019 Dental Assistants Salary and Satisfaction Survey, those with a CDA certification earned $2 more per hour than dental assistants without certification9.
According to the DANB, the CDA exam consists of three components: General Chairside Assisting (GC), Radiation Health and Safety (RHS) and Infection Control (ICE)9. DANB also offers advanced certifications, such as the Certified Preventive Functions Dental Assistant (CPFDA) and Certified Restorative Functions Dental Assistant (CRFDA) certifications.
Kickstart Your Career as a Dental Assistant
Small class sizes, individual attention, and hands-on training in the skills you need. Learn more about how to become a dental assistant with SJVC.
What to Look for in a Dental Assisting Program
Choosing a dental assisting program is a big decision. The best dental assistant programs provide a combination of classroom knowledge and hands-on training to prepare you for a dental assistant career. Consider the following when choosing the best dental assisting program for you:
- Hands-on training: Does the program offer clinical observation and hands-on experience? Gaining practical experience at a dental assistant school will prepare you for your future career.
- Location: If you want to pursue an on-campus dental assisting program, location is a critical factor to consider. Think about how far you’re willing to commute and explore programs in your area.
- Duration: Program duration depends on whether you’re pursuing an associate degree or certificate. Generally, completing an associate degree takes longer than a dental assisting certificate.
- Cost: Studying dental assisting is an investment. How much are you able to spend on a program? Check for available financial aid, scholarships and payment plans.
Should I Get a Dental Assisting Associate’s Degree or Certificate?
Choosing whether to pursue a dental assisting associate degree or certificate depends on your short and long-term career goals. An associate degree in dental assisting potentially offers higher earning potential and career advancement opportunities, as you can more easily transfer credits from an associate to bachelor program. However, a dental assisting certificate program is more cost and time-effective.
If you want to start working as a dental assistant sooner rather than later, pursuing a certificate is a great way to do so while setting yourself apart from other entry-level applicants. If you plan on using your dental assistant education as a stepping stone toward a long-term goal of becoming a dental hygienist or dentist, associate degree programs may be worth researching.
How Long Does it Take to Become a Dental Assistant?
Becoming a dental assistant can take anywhere from nine months to two years, depending on the dental assisting career path you pursue. Certificate programs generally last nine to eleven months, while associate degree programs take about two years to complete.
Dental Assistant Classes
Dental Assisting program classes are generally tailored to meet national certification and state-specific licensure requirements. You can expect your dental assist courses to cover topics such as:
- Oral anatomy
- Dental equipment
- Radiation safety
- Infection control
- CPR and/or basic life support training
- Dental law and ethics
- Coronal polishing
- Dental software programs
- Patient management
- Dental office management
Dental Assisting Jobs in California
Many dentists hire two or more dental assistants for their practices, according to the ADA(10). The ADA also notes that dental assistants can look for job opportunities in various settings, such as: solo and group practices, speciality practices (such as orthodontics or periodontics), public health dentistry, hospital dental clinics, dental school clinics, insurance companies, technical schools, and dental sales.
There are many dental assisting jobs in California. According to the BLS, California has the highest employment level of dental assistants(10). Additionally, per the BLS, it has the third “highest concentration of jobs and location quotients” of all states.
Some major dental companies in California, according to IBISWorld’s 2018 market report, include11:
- California Dental Group
- Hospitality Dental & Orthodontics
- Western Dental & Orthodontics
- West Coast Dental and Orthodontics
Launch a Career in Dental Assisting With SJVC
Are you interested in dental assistant careers? SJVC’s Dental Assisting program offers training in patient care, office and laboratory duties. Through our program, you’ll earn certifications in Dental Radiation Safety, CPR, Infection Control and Dental Law and Ethics. With the completion of coronal polish and pit and fissure sealants, students are eligible to take the Dental Board of California Examination for state licensure. SJVC prepares students to take appropriate certification and licensure exams related to their individual majors. The College does not guarantee students will successfully pass these exams or be certified or licensed as a result of completing the program. You can complete SJVC’s Dental Assisting program in as few as 11 months.
SJVC’s Dental Assisting Students and Faculty
SJVC is committed to the personal, academic and professional success of its students. Our faculty bring years of knowledge and experience to the classroom. They’re passionate about helping you succeed. Whether you’re preparing for your first job out of college or a career switch, there’s a place for you here.
SJVC’s students range from those just out of high school to people looking to change careers later in life. We take pride in making sure staff knows your story so you can get the individual help and attention you need to succeed.
Dental Assistant FAQ
How long is dental assistant school?
You can earn dental assistant certification in as little as 11 months.
How much do dental assistants make a year?
The average dental assistant salary was $40,080 per year, based on the most recent federal data.
How much do dental assistants make an hour?
The average dental assistant pay was $19.27 per hour, according to the most recent federal data.
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