Career as a Dental Assistant

The Ladder

How to Advance as a Dental Assistant

One of the benefits of the being a dental assistant is the wide availability for advancement.

In the beginning, you’ll be embarking on a career that has great growth as demand increases. If you choose you can expand the specialization of your expertise. This will allow you to offer your services to increasingly sophisticated fields including restorative functions, orthodontics and radiation.

When it comes to "related," all is relative. In fact, the careers most connected to that of dental assistant can be wildly different in terms of the education required, salary earned and common work activities. Per the Bureau of Labor Statistics, here are four somewhat similar jobs to keep in mind.


DegreeMedian Salary (2014)Job Growth (2014-2024)
Dental HygienistsAssociate's degree$72,33019%
Medical assistantsPostsecondary nondegree award$30,59023%
Nursing aides, orderlies, and attendantsVarious requirements$25,71017%
Occupational therapy assistants and aidesVarious requirements$54,52040%
Pharmacy techniciansHigh school diploma or equivalent$30,4109%
Physical therapist assistants and aidesVarious requirements$42,98040%
Surgical technologistsPostsecondary nondegree award$44,33015%

Career Comparison: Dental Assistant versus Dental Hygienist

These two careers are frequently confused. While the titles pose similarities, the pre-requisites and responsibilities are significantly different. Consider these differences carefully; the skill sets are suited for different personalities. The primary difference is that the hygienist interacts more with the patients and is under less direct supervision. The skill set expected from a hygienist is more advanced and more specialized. The median annual earning of a hygienist is approximately $71,000. The required course and program work to start a career in this field is approximately three years. The projected growth rate is similar to that of dental assistants. On the responsibilities of a dental assistant, Belfast-based dental assistant Max Robinson says, “The biggest misconception is that they don't do anything and they're simply there to observe. Most of the patients that we work with appreciate the work that I do and often thank me personally, so obviously they can recognize it.”

A couple more specifics: In many cases a dental hygienist must require at least an associate's degree in this field, which requires a minimum of three years. Additional accredited training and written examinations are also required. The hygienist will often have more physical contact with the patient by removing plaque and polishing teeth.


A dentist in New Orleans employs the first female dental assistant, thereby setting the responsibilities of the profession.

Three Steps to Advance

  • 1. Get a mentor.

    Mentor with a dentist to get a closer experience with more invasive techniques that reach beyond cleaning. While the demand for dental assistants is high, the demand for those with a deeper skill set is even more robust and likely to grow just as you do in your career path.

  • 2. Specialize.

    With a greater degree of specialization comes more upward mobility and greater earning potential. Consider obtaining more intensive certifications as you gain the appropriate ground-level experience.

  • 3. Continue your education.

    Stay abreast of the emerging literature and diagnostic tools of the trade. The profession is driven, to an extent, by technological innovation. The more you can reduce the knowledge gap between yourself and the dentist, the more indispensable you’ll become to the practice.

Poll: What Separates a Great Dental Assistant from an Average One?

Just as no two patients are identical, no two dental assistants are of the same caliber. What, then, is the difference between a great assistant and a so-so peer?

Max Robinson, Belfast-based dental assistant: "Someone who is willing to learn and isn't stubborn. You often go into this role having studied dentistry for years and thinking that you know everything, but this attitude will get you nowhere and really your learning only really begins when you become a dental assistant."

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