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What is a Dental Assistant?

Brief Overview Job Description Educational Overview

Brief Overview

Dental assistant sitting in a chair A dental assistant is many things and it might just be the career for you.  The Department of Labor predicts dental assisting to be amongst the fastest growing careers this decade.  That growth is expected to be about 36% by the year 2018!  They are also expecting to see a continuing trend where trained and experienced dental assistants are being hired over those without formal training and/or experience.  Take a look at our Career Outlook page for further career projections and employment data.

Dental assisting can be a great profession whether you plan to make a career out of it or use it as a stepping stone.  You do not need any experience to begin your career as a dental assistant.  If you are brand new to the field and just trying to get started, we can help you. 

While many people are very happy being dental assistants throughout their careers, there are plenty of others who will begin their careers as dental assistants and later pursue other dental career options such as becoming a hygienist or even a dentist.  Other dental careers include being a dental laboratory technician, an oral surgeon, a periodontist, or an orthodontist, just to name a few.  Wherever your career takes you (and you don't need to know exactly where you want to go right now), you'll find that the field of dentistry is a diverse one that can offer you a wide variety of options and career paths.

Job Description

Dental assistants work in dental offices directly with patients and often alongside a dentist.  While the specific functions legally permitted for a dental assistant to perform will vary by state and will depend upon credentialing, the tasks are still fairly consistent. 

Dental assistants work with patients obtaining and updating their files and paperwork, filling in information on a patient's chart as part of a diagnosis or procedure, providing general dental healthcare and post-operative instructions, and Dental assistant holding a trayas well as making patients feel comfortable and preparing them for dental procedures.   

Additionally, they take dental x-rays that are then read and interpreted by another member of the staff.  Dental assistants can also prepare the materials necessary for impressions, restorations, and temporary fillings.  They remove sutures and the excess cement used in placing crowns, place dental dams to isolate a tooth that a dentist may need to work on, and apply topical anesthesia and/or fluoride.

Dental assistants also disinfect and sterilize instruments and equipment.  They set up and prepare the materials, instruments, equipment, and medication that the dentist will use to perform various procedures.  Dental assistants also work alongside dentists during procedures passing the instruments and materials, retracting (or pulling back a patient's cheek), and suctioning saliva.

In some locations, dental assistants may also have clerical responsibilities such as scheduling appointments, sending out bills, processing patient payments, maintaining inventory, and ordering needed dental supplies.  Still other dental assistants may have laboratory duties such as pouring casts, cleaning and polishing appliances (such as retainers), and making temporary crowns.

To be a good dental assistant you should be able to work well with others.  You'll interact with a variety of patients each day as well as different staff members.  The ability to multitask is also useful.  A typical day may include answering phone calls and making appointments, emotionally preparing a patient for an extraction at the same time that you apply topical anesthesia, then assisting the dentist with the actual procedure and charting what was performed, ordering supplies and mailing out bills for a few minutes between patients, and then escorting the next patient down the hall where they'll find the instruments and materials you laid out and sterilized earlier.  A dental assistant should also be comfortable working in a healthcare setting where the potential for exposure to infection exists, where washing your hands and maintaining a clean workplace is expected, where gloves and masks are frequently worn, and where people can be expected to ask you questions about their health and safety.

Being a dental assistant should not be confused with being a dental hygienist.  A hygienist is the position you would likely be most familiar with when you personally visit the dentist to have your teeth cleaned.  A career as a dental hygienist carries its own set of requirements and regulations, including an education of at least two years and as much as six years.  Many people interested in dental Dental assistant finishing a stone model hygiene will use dental assisting as a way to get their careers started and earn some money and experience while furthering their education.

If you are unsure about whether or not dental assisting is the career for you, we would encourage you to speak with people who are already in the field.  A great place to start is at your own dentist's office.  Explain that you're interested in a dental career and ask if you could sit down and talk with some of the staff regarding their thoughts about the field.  Be sure to come prepared in advance with specific questions if you set up this type of informational interview.  They are generously offering their time for you.  It's also a good idea to thank them and express your appreciation afterwards.

You may also want to look at our page on the different types of dental assistants in New Jersey.  This page includes a section that reviews the different NJ dental assisting credentials available and what tasks and procedures you may find yourself performing with each level of credentialing.

Educational Overview

While it is still possible in a limited number of offices to begin your dental assisting career without any experience or education and to be trained on the job, the majority of doctors and dental offices prefer to hire someone with training.  At the same time, becoming a dental assistant does not require an advanced degree. 

A high school diploma however is required to obtain a dental certification or license in NJ.  Beyond high school, some vocational schools, community colleges, and private training programs such as Dental Assistant Services can provide you with the necessary and relevant education.  While a community college may be able to offer an associate's degree, this is not a requirement to become a dental assistant.  Dental assistant educating a patient

 What sets Dental Assistant Services apart is that we are dedicated exclusively to the field of dental assisting.  We don't simply offer a dental assisting program along with several other programs... we specialize in dental assisting.  We know dental assisting, are established in the field, and are well respected by local dental offices and governing agencies alike.  Our training program does not teach you extra and unnecessary information simply for the sake of filling up class hours.  We focus on teaching you the information you need to pass your exams, obtain your certification and licenses, and to become more employable.   We teach you what you need to know in order to be successful and respected as a dental assistant without confusing you with unnecessary details.

The specific educational requirements (and time commitment) will correspond to the certification/licenses you want to obtain and the job responsibilities that you would like to be able to perform.  In dental assisting it is not difficult to obtain an entry level position with a limited amount of training.  As you progress in the field and wish to take on more responsibility however, you'll likely want to further your education.  Click here for a brief overview on the education we offer to help you obtain various levels of credentialing.  Also on this page you can learn more about the different types of dental assistants (i.e., the different credentials and job titles available) in the state of New Jersey.  You can also view our Program Course Descriptions page for more information about the specific courses we offer.

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