Where Will a Dental Assistant Career Take You?

Learn where a dental assistant can work, including specialized areas.

careers in dental assisting

In a dental assisting role, you'll be responsible for things like maintaining patient records, educating patients on basic dental health and resources, and prepping patients for exams and procedures.

If you do pursue a career as a dental hygienist, your role will be expanded into duties like examining patient teeth and gums, making it a more hands-on position.

Dental assisting jobs allow dentists to focus more on patient health, while those in assisting positions take care of administrative and technical duties. Because of this, every successful dentist needs great assistants in order to thrive.

What does a dental assistant do?

If you're in a dental assisting role, whether as a hygienist, assistant, or technician, your duties might vary by practice, or even by state.  Generally speaking, you'll be tackling administrative duties and patient prep no matter where you're employed, but other responsibilities can vary. Typically, someone in a dental assisting role takes care of the following:

  • Maintaining patient records
  • Prepping patients for procedures
  • Assisting dentists during procedures by handing instruments
  • Sterilizing dental instruments
  • Scheduling patient appointments
  • Instructing patients on dental health and hygiene
  • Completing basic lab tasks
  • Ensuring patients feel comfortable in the dental chair

If you take on a dental hygienist role, you will also be examining patients' gums and teeth to check for diseases or abnormalities, as well as applying sealants, fluoride, remove stains and plaque from teeth, and take X-rays.

Should you choose a dental technician career, you will not have the same administrative duties as hygienists or assistants; instead, your duties will revolve around crafting dentures, crowns and other dental prosthetics for patients.

What certification will I need to become a dental assistant?

The certification needed to practice dental assisting varies by job title, and it sometimes varies by state, also.

  • Dental assistant certification: Most dental assistants who choose to become nationally certified take the Certified Dental Assistant (CDA) examination offered by the Dental Assisting National Board (DANB). Other certification requirements vary by state.
  • Dental technician certification: As a dental technician, you can be certified through the National Board for Certification in Dental Laboratory Technology (NBCCERT), which offers the opportunity for you to become a Certified Dental Technician (CDT). Certification is available in six specialty areas: orthodontic appliances, crowns and bridges, complete dentures, partial dentures, implants and ceramics.

To qualify for the title of CDT, technicians need to have at least five years of on-the-job training or experience in dental technology, or have graduated from an accredited dental laboratory technician program. On top of this, you must also pass three exams to become a CDT.

  • Dental hygienist certification: Each state requires that dental hygienists become licensed to practice, but these licensure requirements vary by state. In the majority of states, you'll need a diploma from an accredited dental hygiene program in order to qualify. The best way to be certain of specific requirements is to check with your state's dentistry, medical or health board.

Certified Dental Assistant Examination

The Certified Dental Assistant exam is approximately 4 hours long and consists of 320 test questions. On a scale of 100 to 900 available points, test-takers must pass with a score of 400 or better, which they earn by completing 3 test sections:

  • General chair-side test: 120 questions
  • Radiation health and safety: 100 questions
  • Infection control test: 100 questions

Where can I work as a dental assistant?

If you pursue a career in dental assisting, you can choose to focus on becoming an assistant, hygienist or technician. Whichever of these careers you choose to pursue will impact where you work, but generally speaking, dental assistants and hygienists almost always work in dentists' offices, and dental technicians tend to work in laboratories.

Specialties and Alternatives

In addition to traditional dental practices, dental assistants have the opportunity to work in specialty areas, such as:

  • Oral and maxillofacial surgery: Removal of teeth and correction of facial deformities
  • Orthodontics and dentofacial orthopedics: Straightening teeth with braces or other appliances
  • Endodontics: Root canal treatment
  • Periodontics: Treatment of gum problems
  • Prosthodontics: Replacement of lost teeth
  • Pediatric dentistry: Treatment of children

Dental Assistant Advancement

Experienced dental assistants may be promoted to an office manager or supervisor position. Other career paths for dental assistants include:

  • Insurance claims processing
  • Teaching
  • Dental product sales representative