Guide to Dental Careers

Dental hygiene and health is an important part of a person’s overall health. That means that dentists as well as dental assistants, hygienists, laboratory technicians and others involved in dental care are quite important to the healthcare system. There are many opportunities available for those who are interested in dental careers. No matter how much time or money you have to invest in education, there is likely a job that you can become qualified for in the dental field. This guide may help you choose which dental career is right for you as you determine your own career path.

Find an overview of the certified dental assistant, dental hygienist, dental lab assistant, and dentist careers, including job descriptions, salary ranges, and outlook data, as well as a list of resources on career preparation and certification, and “day in the life” interviews and videos.

Certified Dental Assistant™ (CDA®)

The Dental Assisting National Board, Inc. (DANB) offers the national Certified Dental Assistant (CDA) certification. A dental assistant who holds CDA certification works closely with dentists and other dental professionals as they complete different patient procedures. For instance, a CDA certificant might be one who prepares and provides sterilized instruments for dental procedures, takes dental impressions of a patient’s teeth, or assists in the placement of crowns for damaged teeth.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the demand for dental assistants in the U.S. is growing, with a 25% growth rate projected through 2022 (BLS, 2012). The median salary for a dental assistant is $34,500 per year. It is important to note that BLS statistics refer to all dental assistants, and do not distinguish between those are DANB CDA certificants and those who are not. Because a CDA certificant has proven his or her experience and knowledge, in many cases, they can expect to earn higher salaries than their uncertified counterparts. In fact, DANB’s latest salary survey information shows that dental assistants who hold CDA certification earn nearly $2 more per hour than non-certified dental assistants.

In order to become DANB certified, dental assistants must pass examinations in the following three topics: General Chairside Assisting (GC), Radiation Health and Safety (RHS®), and Infection Control (ICE®). In order to qualify for the GC examination, applicants must either have graduated from a dental assisting program accredited by the Commission on Dental Accreditation, or have accumulated at least 3500 hours of approved work experience in dental assisting. All applicants must also be CPR certified prior to sitting for the examinations. You do not have to hold CDA certification in order to be a dental assistant in every state, but some states do require certification and/or state registration.

Learn more about becoming a CDA by visiting the following informative links:

  • Dental Assisting National Board: The Dental Assisting National Board is the certification board for dental assistants, providing the examinations necessary to hold CDA certification. On their site you will find all the necessary resources to prepare and register for national certification exams.
  • Dental Assistant Instructional Videos: The University of Florida School of Dentistry has made a number of instructional videos available for free on their website. These videos cover such basic assisting information as a review a basic dental instruments and how to assist during a basic dental surgery.
  • Dental Assistant: The American Dental Association offers a range of facts about how dental assistants help dentists and the ways in which the career can be a rewarding experience. The ADA fact sheet and brochure can help explain the different educational pathways and career opportunities.
  • American Dental Assistants Association: The American Dental Assistants Association is a professional organization for all dental assistants. Membership can provide insurance opportunities, professional services discounts, and educational and networking opportunities.
  • Dental Assistant Requirements by State: The DALE Foundation compiled an interactive map that outlines the requirements for becoming a dental assistant in all of the 50 states.
  • DentalAssistant.net Links to Resources: For even more resources on dental assisting, check out this list of links. It includes easy access to dental assistant education, career opportunities, and many state dental assistant associations.
  • The DALE Foundation: The DALE Foundation, the official DANB affiliate, offers online review courses and practice tests to help dental assistants prepare for DANB exams and earn continuing education. There is also a free informational video about “Your Career as a Dental Assistant.”

* Dental Assisting National Board®, DANB®, CDA®, RHS®, and ICE® are registered marks of DANB. Certified Dental Assistant™ is a certification mark of DANB. This site is not sponsored by, affiliated with, or endorsed by DANB.

Dental Hygienist

The dental hygienist career is one that involves a high degree of patient interaction. Dental hygienists provide dental cleanings by removing plaque and tartar from teeth, take dental x-rays, compile and track patient care plans, and educate patients on proper dental health care routines such as brushing and flossing. In many dental offices, hygienists spend much more time with patients than the dentist, meaning this job requires not only a great deal of dental education, but also patience and people skills.

Becoming a dental hygienist generally requires at minimum a two-year associate’s degree in dental hygiene. While some colleges and universities do offer bachelor’s degrees in dental hygiene, these programs are not very common and the additional time and expense are generally unnecessary. As with many health professions, licensure for dental hygienists is dictated by the state where the hygienist chooses to practice. Most states have a basic education prerequisite and require hygienists to take the National Board Dental Hygiene Examination. Many states also have their own certification exam, so all prospective hygienists should be sure to check with their local state agencies to determine the specific requirements.

Because dental hygienists require more education, they can demand higher salaries than dental assistants. BLS statistics have the median salary for dental hygienists at $70,210 per year, which is nearly double the median salary for dental assistants (BLS, 2012). Further, the demand for hygienists is growing quite quickly, at a rate of 33% through 2022. This is much faster than the average for all jobs, which currently stands at just 11%. Clearly there are and will continue to be many opportunities for dental hygienists in the coming years.

If you want to explore the career further, be sure to check out the following links:

  • American Dental Hygienist Association: The ADHA is the largest professional association for dental hygienists in the U.S. The group provides its member with educational scholarships and grants, continuing education resources, networking opportunities, and information on emerging hygienist technologies.
  • RDHMag: This online magazine for registered dental hygienists contains articles and opinions from hygienists around the country, designed to educate and connect those who are pursuing this dental career.
  • Dental Hygiene: Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne is one of the few universities that does offer a bachelor’s degree in dental hygiene. Although unnecessary for many clinical jobs, those wishing to pursue research or education might find that a four-year degree is indeed the best option.
  • Resources for Dental Hygienists: This list of professional and educational resources is meant to be helpful for both practicing hygienists and those interested in pursuing the career. It includes schools, publications, and career opportunities.
  • 6 Tips on How to Be a Successful Dental Hygienist: DentistryIQ provides some helpful tips to aspiring dental hygienists in this article written by an experienced hygienist.

Dental Lab Technician

Those who want to work in the dental field but not necessarily in the mouths of patients may want to consider a career as a dental lab technician, sometimes referred to simply as a dental technician. These specialists work with dentists to create prosthetic and restorative devices for implantation in patients. This might include bridgework, dentures, and crowns. These types of creations cannot be mass produced because each one is unique, making this an important and highly detail oriented job, perfect for those with an eye for detail and an interest in dentistry.

While there are no formal educational or licensing requirements to become a dental lab technician, most incoming lab technicians do have at minimum a high school diploma. There are also certifications available from the National Board for Certification in Dental Laboratory Technology (NBC). Prerequisites for this certification are either a formal dental technician education or at least 5 years of work experience. Certification is available in:

  • orthodontic appliances
  • crowns and bridges
  • complete dentures
  • partial dentures
  • implants
  • ceramics

According to the BLS, the median salary for a dental laboratory technician is $36,830 per year (BLS, 2012). The demand projections tracked by the BLS includes dental lab technicians as well as ophthalmic lab technicians and medical appliance technicians, but overall is expected to grow at the rate of about 7% through 2022 (BLS, 2012).

The following resources may help you explore the career of dental laboratory technician:

  • National Association of Dental Laboratories:The NADL is “the unified voice of the dental laboratory industry supporting dentistry and serving the public interest by promoting high standards.” It offers networking opportunities as well as education and other resources for members and is affiliated with the NBC.
  • Dental Laboratory Technician Interview: What better way to learn what it is really like to be a dental lab technician than by reading an interview with someone who has worked in the career for years.
  • Summary Report for Dental Laboratory Technicians: O*NET offers a wide range of information about what it takes to be a successful dental lab technician, including personality traits, technology skills, and specialized knowledge.
  • The Foundation for Dental Laboratory Technology: The FDLT aims to advance the cause of dental lab technicians by working with educational institutions to create high-level curricula and useful standards for aspiring technicians.
  • A Day in the Life of a Dental Laboratory Technician: Check out this YouTube video for a first-hand account of what it is like to work as a dental lab technician on a daily basis.

Dentist

Certainly the best known dental career is that of a dentist. Along with their support staff, dentists work to ensure the overall oral health of their patients through regular cleanings, check-ups, cancer screenings, cavity fillings, and any necessary surgeries or implants. Dentists not only examine the teeth, but also the jaw, gums, and tongue to promote overall health. Many dentists work in private practice, either on their own or with partners and associates. It can be a rewarding and flexible career that also offers high rates of compensation for those who are willing to put in the work.

Becoming a dentist requires quite a bit of education. Most dentists start with a bachelor’s degree in a science such as biology or chemistry (although most dental schools do not require a specific major) and then proceed to dental schools where they can earn their Doctor of Dental Surgery (DDS). Most dental schools do require that incoming applicants take the Dental Acceptance Test (DAT) during the application process to ensure their their readiness. Dentists are compensated quite well across the country, with the median annual salary being $149,310 (BLS, 2012). Specialists such as oral surgeons and orthodontists can expect even higher salaries. The dental occupation is expected to grow by 16% through 2022, which is somewhat faster than the average for all occupations (BLS, 2012).

Dentists must be licensed in the state where they practice, but state requirements vary. Most states require some iteration of a written exam, practical exam, and accredited education.

Review the following links for more information on what it takes to become a dentist:

  • A Day in the Life of a Dental Student: This video from the toothcareers YouTube channel features an interview with a dental student and can therefore give some insight into what it is like to study to become a dentist.
  • American Dental Association: The ADA provides resources not only for dentists and prospective dentists, but also for dental patients and the whole range of dental professionals. There should be resources on their site that can help direct you towards any dental question you may have.
  • Why would anyone want to become a dentist?: This article from Dental Economics seeks to dispel the negative associations that many people have with dentists and dental careers and is certainly worth a look for anyone looking to pursue a career in the area.
  • Why become a dentist?: A personal perspective from the British Dental Journal gives some idea as to why people pursue dentistry and what they find most rewarding about the job.
  • Pre-Dent Resources: This list of resources for undergraduate students who want to pursue dental school may be a great help to those who are not quite sure where to turn for pre-dental support.
Barry Franklin
Barry Franklin Editor

Barry is the Editor-in-Chief of MedicalTechnologySchools.com, operated by educational web publisher Sechel Ventures Partners LLC, which he co-founded. Previously, Barry served as a VP at a Silicon Valley software company. In addition to running editorial operations at Sechel, Barry also serves on the Board of Trustees at a local K-8 school, and graduated from Carnegie Mellon University, where he also met his wife.