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Completing a dental assisting program is the best way to gain the knowledge and skills you’ll need to succeed in this allied health field. You can choose from dental assisting programs that lead to a certificate/diploma or an associate degree. In choosing between these options, you’ll want to consider factors such as time, cost, and your long-term career goals.
Education Options for Dental Assistants
Whether you choose a certificate/diploma or an associate degree in dental assisting, both educational programs can prepare you to begin your career as a general dental assistant and qualify you for professional certification.
A certificate/diploma program concentrates on the basics of dental assisting. This allows you to save time and money by streamlining your education so you can begin working as quickly as possible, usually within a year. While an associate degree can take two years to complete, it combines basic dental assisting knowledge with core college courses for a well-rounded education that may be good for career growth.
Both a certificate/diploma program and an associate degree can serve as sound foundations for a career in dental hygiene, dental lab science, or another allied health role. College credits earned for an associate degree from an accredited institution can be transferred to other accredited institutions for further education. Training and education earned in a certificate/diploma program may be applied toward another program or an associate degree if the new program offers credit for prior learning and experience.
“With dental assisting, there is not necessarily a typical career progression, but there are many options for career development,” says Hanna Aronovich, chief marketing and communications officer with the Dental Assisting National Board (DANB) and the Dental Advancement through Learning and Education (DALE) Foundation. “Dental assistants who gain education, experience, and meet state requirements can become eligible to perform expanded functions or other additional duties depending on their state.”
Here’s a closer look at the two educational pathways to become a dental assistant.
A dental assisting certificate program is best for students who want to enter the job market as quickly as possible.
An associate degree is best for students who plan to use dental assisting as a stepping stone to other allied health roles.
Some programs also allow you to apply your professional experience toward another allied health program if they offer credit for prior learning and experience. This makes it possible to test out of introductory courses by earning credit by examination.
Online dental assisting programs typically allow you to complete non-clinical coursework online at your convenience, though you may have to attend some classes in person.
Since accredited dental programs include a minimum of 300 hands-on clinical hours, you’ll still have to complete part of your program outside of your home. No matter where they are based, most online dental assisting programs allow you to complete lab requirements in locations in your area.
The prerequisites and curriculum of an online program mirror onsite certificate and associate degree programs. Some online programs may permit you to progress at your own pace, giving you the option to move on as you achieve set competencies rather than working within traditional semesters. This can help you finish your program faster than the times required for an onsite certificate or associate degree.
Dental assisting students who must work or maintain family responsibilities while they study may benefit from the flexibility of online programs.
What to Look for in a School
Whether you opt for a certificate program or an associate degree, make sure you meet eligibility criteria for the certification you need to achieve your goals.
“A prospective dental assistant should verify that the program they are enrolling in is accredited by the state the dental assistant will be employed in and that it will meet the requirements to allow the student upon completion to perform the duties of a ‘recognized’ dental assistant in their state,” says Susan D. Bentley-Camizzi, CDA, BSDH, MSEd, president-elect of the American Dental Assistants Association (ADAA).
Whether you choose to pursue a diploma program or an associate degree, ensure that your education will qualify you to work as a dental assistant in your state.
States vary on the need for dental assistants to be certified and/or licensed. Certification is a professional credential that proves you’ve demonstrated mastery of the knowledge and skills necessary to work in a specific role. It’s awarded by a professional organization to candidates who meet the education, experience, and examination requirements for a specific certification.
The CDA credential is the national certification for general dental assisting. A certification differs from a license, which is a mandatory credential issued by a government agency that regulates a specific field.
Though most states don’t require certification to work as an entry-level dental assistant, many states have requirements, including certification, that dental assistants must meet to perform specialized tasks, such as taking X-rays. In addition, if your state requires a license, you may or may not need a certification.
The DANB is the nationally recognized certification organization for dental assistants. Here are four popular certifications for dental assistants.
|Certification||Who It’s For|
|Certified Dental Assistant (CDA)||Dental assistants who want to demonstrate competency in general dental assisting knowledge and skills|
|Certified Orthodontic Assistant (COA)||Dental assistants who want to assist in orthodontic care|
|Certified Preventive Functions Dental Assistant (CPFDA)||Dental assistants who want to assist in preventive care, including polishing, sealants, and topical fluoride|
|Certified Restorative Functions Dental Assistant (CRFDA)||Dental assistants who want to assist in restorative dentistry, including impressions and dental fillings|