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How Hard Is It to Be a Dental Assistant?

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There are no formal education requirements for becoming a dental assistant in the majority of states, according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics. The majority of dental assistants are trained on the job, but an increasing number of candidates are receiving their training at dental assistant programs offered at community colleges, junior colleges, vocational schools, trade schools and technical institutions.

Work Environment

Over 50 percent of dental assistants work between 35 and 40 hours a week and others only work part-time. Some dental assistants work evenings, depending on what the hours of the dental office are that they work in. It’s not uncommon for dental assistants to hold multiple jobs at multiple dental offices on different days of the week. Dental assistants work next to dental chairs in dental offices and organize instruments and medication for dentists. In addition, dental assistants hand instruments to dentists when needed. Dental assistants wear gloves while they work, along with a sterile mask.


Dental assistant programs offered at these institutions usually last one year, but some last two. Two-year dental assistant training programs award students an associate degree and one-year training programs award students a dental assistant certificate or diploma. Aspiring dental assistants should attend a dental assistant training program that’s accredited by the Commission on Dental Accreditation. In 2009, there were 281 accredited dental assistant training programs in the United States. Alternatively, individuals can attend a four- to six-month training program at a vocational school. However, this is not recommended, because these dental assistant training programs are not accredited by the Commission on Dental Accreditation. One- and two-year dental assistant training programs require candidates to hold at least a high school diploma, according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics.

On-the-Job Training

Dental assistants who pursue on-the-job training instead of a degree receive their training from a dentist or more experienced dental assistant. The more experienced dental assistant will teach the trainee the names of different instruments and how to work with patients in the office. It can take trainees several months to become experienced enough to work on their own without supervision. Until then, trainees usually work under supervision. Even dental assistants who complete a traditional dental assistant education program often have to go through a period of supervised on-the-job training.

Licensure & Certification

The majority of states only require licensure for dental assistants who plan to perform radiologic procedures such as taking X-rays. Licensing requirements often include completing an accredited training program and passing a written examination administered by a state’s dental board. Some states require dental assistants to take continuing education credits to maintain their license. As of 2008, 37 states either recognized or required the Certified Dental Assistant credential. Individuals can qualify for the CDA examination by completing an accredited training program, completing two years of full time experience or completing four years of part-time experience. To qualify for this credential, dental assistants must also hold certification in CPR.


The median salary for dental assistants in the United States in 2008 was $32,380, according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics. The top 10th percentile of dental assistants were paid more than $46,150.


Carolyn Gray started writing in 2009. Her work history includes line and staff management in the Finance and Controller's Department of New York Telephone and NYNEX. Gray has a Bachelor of Arts in government from Clark University and a Master of Business Administration from New York University's Stern School of Business in Management and Organization Behavior.

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