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Dental Assisting: Job Outlook, Salary & More

Submitted by Meditec on Thu, 12/17/2020 - 20:16
Dental Assisting

If you have a knack for putting people at ease, attention to detail, and solid organizational skills, becoming a dental assistant might be your perfect career path. The good news? Dental assisting is an in-demand job and it's easy to get started. Training programs can be finished in just a few months. And if you're a military spouse, you'll be glad to know that the DOD considers this a "portable" career – meaning you're likely to find job openings when you relocate to a new base.

What Is A Dental Assistant?

Dental assistants are typically the first person you interact with at a dentist's office. They put patients at ease, sanitize tools and equipment, and more.

Is a Dental Assistant the Same as a Dental Hygienist?

Dental assisting duties sometimes overlap with those of dental hygienists, so the two are often confused. However, they're different positions with different requirements. Dental assistants usually have a mix of administrative and patient care responsibilities. In some states, they can perform limited dental procedures like polishing. Any hands-on dental work is performed under close supervision. More often, they assist a dentist by holding equipment and handing them instruments. Dental hygienists, by contrast, perform more extensive dental procedures and make oral health assessments. They operate more independently. As a result, the licensing and education requirements are stricter for hygienists than dental assistants. In most cases, hygienists need a 2-year associate degree, including laboratory and clinical hours. Working as a dental assistant can be a good first step if you're thinking about dental hygiene as a career. You'll get a sense for the work and gain industry experience so you can decide if you want to invest in more school.

What is the Job Outlook for Dental Assistants?

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) says that the demand for dental assistants will grow quickly in the coming decade – faster than average. That means new job opportunities are expected to open up regularly through 2029.

How Much Do Dental Assistants Make?

The national median dental assistant salary in 2019 was $40,080 per year ($19.27 an hour). The pay you might expect varies based on where you practice. Minnesota, Alaska, and New Hampshire have the highest mean wage for dental assistants, over $49k. The lowest mean wages – under $33,000 – are found in West Virginia, Mississippi, and Utah.

How Much Do Entry-Level Dental Assistants Make?

According to, the national average pay for a new dental assistant (ie, less than a year of experience) is $31,070 per year or $14.93 per hour.

How To Become A Dental Assistant

Since many states have no training or credentialing requirements for the position, entry-level qualifications are set by potential employers. Some dental clinics are willing to provide on-the-job training if you have no experience. Naturally, they prefer candidates who already know what they're doing. If you're trying to break into dental assisting, a completed course of study from a dental assisting program can make your job hunt easier. So can professional certification through the Dental Assisting National Board (DANB). DANB credentials are widely accepted, given hiring preference, and make state licensing and/or registration easier in many jurisdictions.

Our Dental Assistant Program

Our dental assistant training program prepares you for an entry-level job. It also prepares you to take several DANB certification exams.

Dental Assistant Training

Through online self-paced coursework, you'll learn about the equipment and materials you'll use as a dental assistant and the best practices for every part of your job. Lessons include:

  • Room and Patient Preparation
  • Equipment Preparation and Maintenance
  • Materials Preparation and Maintenance
  • Four-Handed Dentistry
  • Assistance During Procedures
  • Data Collecting and Recording
  • Emergency Prevention and Management
  • Patient Education
  • Office Operations
  • Legal Issues
  • Introduction to Infectious Diseases
  • Infectious Disease Control
  • Occupational Safety
  • Radiographic Techniques and Equipment
  • Radiographic Imagining
  • Radiographic Precautions
  • Patient Management During Radiography
  • Radiographic Film Processing
  • Radiographic Image Mounting and Labeling
  • Radiation Safety for the Patient
  • Radiation Safety for the Operator and Other Staff

Dental Assisting Externship with a Local Provider

Once you've finished at least 50 course hours with test scores of 85% or better, you'll be eligible for an optional clinical externship. An externship is essentially a shorter internship in which you can shadow a professional and gain hands-on experience. Our 40-hour externship is optional, but it's a great opportunity to build your resume and impress a potential employer.

Pass the Radiation Health and Safety (RHS) Exam

We provide one free voucher for DANB's Radiation Health and Safety (RHS) exam as part of your program. That's $270 that stays in your pocket, for what is arguably the most important DANB component exam. By itself, passing the RHS exam can help you earn advanced dental assisting functions (and therefore more money) in several states. RHS is also a component exam for two different professional certifications: Certified Dental Assistant (CDA) and National Entry Level Dental Assistant (NELDA). Passing the RHS exam can be the first step toward either.

Dental Assisting Certifications: CDA vs NELDA

DANB offers several levels of professional certification. The two most important to an entry-level dental assistant are those mentioned above: CDA and NELDA.

What is the CDA Designation?

The CDA designation has been around longer. It's highly regarded across the country, and as we discussed in our review of national healthcare certifications, it can ease the licensing process for military spouses and other professionals who move frequently. To earn a CDA, you need to:

  • Qualify for ONE of these pathways:
    • Pathway I: Graduate from a CODA-accredited dental assisting or hygiene program
    • Pathway II: Be a high school graduate with at least 3500 hours of approved work experience
    • Pathway III: Be a former DANB CDA, or graduate from one of several other alternate educational programs
  • AND have current hands-on CPR, BLS, or ACLS training from a DANB-accepted provider
  • AND pass all three component exams:
    • General Chairside Assistance (GC)
    • Radiation Health and Safety (RHS)
    • Infection Control (ICE)

The RHS and ICE exams have no eligibility requirements, so dental assistants can prove their knowledge in those areas regardless of their education or experience. But you need to meet the first two bullets before you can take the GC exam. That means you can't earn a CDA unless you have roughly a year and a half's worth of approved full-time work experience OR graduated from the right program.

What is NELDA?

DANB created the NELDA certification as a solution for dental assistants with less experience. If you don't qualify for the CDA yet, you can prove your qualifications with NELDA certification. Instead of the GC exam, you take a different exam without eligibility requirements. There are still a few education and experience requirements for NELDA, but they aren't nearly as restrictive. To earn NELDA certification, you need to:

  • Qualify for ONE of these pathways:
    • Pathway I: Graduate from a dental assisting program that is NOT CODA-approved, but is located within a post-secondary institution accredited by the U.S. Department of Education (and have a high school diploma or equivalent)
    • Pathway II: Graduate from a U.S. Department of Labor Job Corps dental assisting program
    • Pathway III: Complete a DANB-accepted dental assisting program within a high school recognized by a state or federal agency in the U.S. education system
    • Pathway IV: Be a high school graduate AND have at least 300 hours of verified work experience accrued between two months and three years.
  • AND have current hands-on CPR, BLS, or ACLS training from a DANB-accepted provider
  • AND pass all three component exams:
    • Anatomy, Morphology, and Physiology (AMP)
    • Radiation Health and Safety (RHS)
    • Infection Control (ICE)

NELDA certification can only be renewed for 4 years. The idea is that you'll be able to earn a CDA before that time is up.

Bottom Line

Meditec's Dental Assisting program offers quick entry into a growing and rewarding career field. All coursework is online, so you can study for your future even if you have competing responsibilities. If you're a military spouse, the program is eligible for MyCAA funding. That means your course of study will be completely covered by the DOD. Find out if you're eligible today!