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Frequently Asked Questions About Becoming a Dental Assistant

Posted Wednesday, Mar 17, 2021 by Altierus

Interested in our dental assistant diploma program? Read answers to some of the most common questions we get about training to become a dental assistant with Altierus—and about the dental assistant career path—here.

Duties of a Dental Assistant

What does a dental assistant do?

Dental assistants perform office support in dental practices and also assist with chairside procedures.

A dental assistant’s office duties may include:

  • Meeting and greeting patients
  • Maintaining patient records for the practice
  • Taking inventory and ordering supplies for the practice
  • Calling patients to schedule appointments or calling in referrals to specialists
  • Handling billing and payment questions

At chairside, dental assistants may help with:

  • Sterilizing instruments before and after procedures
  • Preparing instrument trays before procedures
  • Handing tools to the dentist or hygienist during procedures
  • Keeping patients’ mouths dry during procedures using suction
  • Taking x-rays of patients’ teeth and processing the images
  • Taking impressions and casts of patients’ teeth

Dental assistants can also offer patients advice on practicing good oral hygiene.

Learn more about what dental assistants do all day in our article, A Day in the Life of a Dental Assistant.

What’s the difference between a dental assistant and a dental hygienist?

Dental assistants and dental hygienists are similar. Both work directly with patients, and both work under the supervision of a dentist. Their duties and scope of practice (what patient care they can perform) are different, however.

Dental assistants:

  • Usually require a diploma to qualify for roles; some states require licensure or certification
  • Assist with cleanings and procedures
  • Sometimes perform x-rays
  • Perform office duties
  • Often work full-time for one practice

Dental hygienists:

  • Require a degree and licensure
  • Perform cleanings to remove stains, tartar, and plaque
  • Performs x-rays
  • Seldom perform office duties
  • Many hygienists work part-time, and some may work for more than one dentist[1]

How to Become a Dental Assistant

How long does it take to become a dental assistant?

At Altierus Career College, you can complete our dental assistant diploma program in as few as nine months. The program combines classroom instruction, hands-on training in labs, and an externship.

What do you need to know before becoming a dental assistant?

To apply to a dental assistant training program, you should have a high school diploma or an equivalent qualification (such as a GED). It helps if you took applied science and math electives, but it isn’t required.

What skills does a dental assistant need?

Dental assistants need a blend of office skills, clinical skills, and customer service skills.

Office skills a dental assistant needs may include:

  • Clear written and spoken communication skills
  • Organizational skills
  • Basic understanding of office software, such as word processing programs
  • Familiarity with dental charting software, such as Dentrix Ascend®
  • Understanding of dental billing and payment procedures

The clinical skills a dental assistant needs may include:

  • Understanding of dental anatomy and different dental diseases
  • Taking and processing x-rays
  • Understanding the types and uses of different dental instruments
  • Infection control skills (including sterilizing instruments)

Customer service skills dental assistants need may include:

  • Providing friendly greetings and good-byes
  • Helping with forms, referrals, and billing
  • Acting as a liaison between patients and the dentist
  • Helping nervous patients feel more comfortable about their appointments

You can read more about the skills and qualities a dental assistant needs in our article, Six Qualities a Dental Assistant Needs for Success.

Does a dental assistant need a degree?

You don’t need a degree to become a dental assistant, but you do need post-secondary training. Most states require dental assistants to have a diploma. Altierus Career College offers a nine-month dental assistant diploma program to our students in Florida, Texas, and Georgia.

Students in Texas also receive help meeting requirements for that state’s registration process.

Can you take online classes to become a dental assistant?

To become a dental assistant, you need in-person training in labs and externship settings—training you can’t get online.

At Altierus, we offer dental assistant students the flexibility to complete part of their coursework online. When they come to campus for hands-on labs, they’ll be able to spend more time practicing key concepts with guidance from experienced instructors.

Does a dental assistant need a license?

It depends. Regulations vary by state, and sometimes there are different types of rules depending on the duties you perform as a dental assistant. Dental assistants with x-ray training, known as “expanded-duty dental assistants”, may be required to obtain certification.

Altierus Career College teaches expanded duties in its dental assistant program. Of the three states where we train dental assistants (Florida, Georgia, and Texas), only Texas requires certification for dental assistants who take x-rays. All of our Texas students become Registered Dental Assistants (RDAs) by formally registering with the Texas State Board of Dental Examiners (TSBDE).

Benefits of a Dental Assistant Career

How much does a dental assistant make?

Nationwide, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the median annual salary for dental assistants was $40,080 in May 2019, the most recent year for which statistics are available. The bottom 10% of dental assistants earned less than $27,980, while the top 10% of earners made more than $56,930.[i]

It’s important to note that the salary a dental assistant makes varies depending on the employer and the local job market.

What a Dental Assistant Earns in Florida (May 2019)[ii]

  • Median: $38,810
  • Bottom 10%: $27,910 or less
  • Top 10%: $53,420 or more

What a Dental Assistant Earns in Georgia (May 2019)[iii]

  • Median: $39,110
  • Bottom 10%: $27,750 or less
  • Top 10%: $53,740 or more

What a Dental Assistant Earns in Texas (May 2019)[iv]

  • Median: $38,130
  • Bottom 10%: $26,710 or less
  • Top 10%: $51,280 or more

Is becoming a dental assistant worth it?

We think so. Being a dental assistant offers you the chance to make a difference and gets you into a growing career field.

Dental assistants are the first members of staff patients encounter at the practice, so they have opportunities to help patients feel comfortable and cared for. They also provide the support (and extra hands) dentists and hygienists need to keep their patients’ smiles healthy.

Dental assistant jobs are part of the healthcare sector, which is set to offer plenty of job opportunities over the next decade. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the healthcare sector will grow faster than any other industry over the 2019-2029 period. This is due to rising demand for healthcare, including dental care, as the population ages.[v]

The BLS projects that jobs across all industries will grow by 4% over the 2019-2029 period. Job opportunities for dental assistants are projected to grow by 7%—almost twice as fast.[vi] By training to become a dental assistant, you can set yourself up to get on a stable career path that offers plenty of opportunities to make others smile.

Find a Dental Assistant Program Near You

Learn how Altierus Career College’s dental assistant diploma program can help you prepare for new career opportunities—contact us today!


[1] https://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/dental-hygienists.htm#tab-3


[i] https://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/dental-assistants.htm#tab-5

[ii] https://www.onetonline.org/link/localwages/31-9091.00?st=FL&g=Go

[iii] https://www.onetonline.org/link/localwages/31-9091.00?st=GA&g=Go

[iv] https://www.onetonline.org/link/localwages/31-9091.00?st=TX&g=Go

[v] https://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/home.htm

[vi] https://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/dental-assistants.htm#tab-6

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