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Dental Assistant Salaries and Career Options

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Name: Melissa McKaig
Job Title: Dental Assistant
Where: Glendale, AZ
Employer: Westside Endodontic Professionals
Years of Experience: 4
Education: Associate Degree, The Bryman School in Phoenix
Salary: See the PayScale Research Center for median dental assistant salaries.

Dental Assistant Salaries and Career Options

For those interested in dental assistant salaries and career options, this Salary Story provides a perfect introduction. In this interview, Melissa McKaig explains the difference between dental assistant and dental hygienist positions, and gives helpful info on the outlook for dental assistant jobs.

Melissa also discusses dental assistant salaries, certifications for dental assistants, requirements for dental assistant jobs, and how to become a dental assistant. If you're wondering how to earn the best dental assistant salaries and develop a successful career, open wide and keep reading!

Dental Assistant Job Description:

I assist the dentist in all aspects of patient care. I handle everything from helping patients with medical history/paperwork, taking x-rays, dental charting, dictation for the dentist, talking the patient through the procedures, and, of course, assisting chair-side during the procedures. 

Some offices practice something called "four-handed dentistry." In this situation, the dentist is focused completely on the tooth and does not look up to reach for necessary instruments. My job is to take what he does not need, and pass directly into his hand what he needs next, thus, four-handed dentistry.

After each patient, I send the used tray to the sterilization lab and prep my room for the next patient.  This involves wiping anything that was used or touched with a disinfectant, placing the appropriate barriers, and setting up a new tray for a new patient and procedure.

Any down time I have, which is typically between patients, is spent in the sterilization lab. I rinse and sterilize all instruments, and assemble new tray set-ups. 

How do dental assistant jobs differ from dental hygienist positions?

A dental assistant and a dental hygienist are very different, as far as daily routine goes. A dental assistant assists the dentist through various office procedures and rarely works alone on a patient.
A dental assistant can take the necessary x-rays, but other than that they are mainly there to pass instruments to the dentist, help with patient charting, clean up/tear down, and room set-up.

A dental hygienist completes more schooling (most have a B.S.) and absolutely must be state certified.  A dental hygienist is typically the person in the office who cleans teeth and performs deep root "planing" (cleaning under the gums on the root surface) when necessary. They have certification to anesthetize locally as well. 

A dental hygienist will work independently. On a typical hygiene appointment, patients have their teeth cleaned by the dental hygienist and then see the doctor/dentist for a general exam. Bottom line: a dental assistant helps the doctor with procedures, and a dental hygienist cleans the teeth.

What steps did you take to become a dental assistant?

I graduated high school in 2002, but did not go immediately to college. After I was married, I decided it was time to go back to school. I knew I wanted to go into the dental field, but was unsure how to get my foot in the door. I had heard that many offices offered on-the-job training, but I had no luck in finding such an office.

Most required prior experience, or at least graduation from a dental assisting training program. I enrolled at a private college in the dental assistant program. From there, I earned an Associate's Degree and gained hands-on experience in the general aspects of dental assisting.

While in school, I worked part-time at a dental office. I did a LOT of grunt work, whatever needed to be done, as I was the low man on the totem pole. Although this was not the most fun job I had ever had, I gained valuable experience and a knowledge of dentistry that would prepare me to work full time in the field.

Upon graduation, I found a full time job at an endodontic specialty office. The first few months at this office were hard work. I was still unfamiliar with dentistry; I lacked the experience the other assistants had and keeping up was tough!

Taking x-rays was a challenge, as was keeping up with the speedy dentist I was assisting. After about a year, I began the process of completing requirements for my x-ray certification for Arizona. This involves a written exam and a clinical, where the assistant takes a full mouth series of x-rays and is evaluated on accuracy and proper mounting skills.

Most states now require dental assistants to be x-ray certified, whereas in the past, this was totally optional.   

Do you recall any humorous moments from your dental assistant duties?

Ha! A day doesn't go by without a humorous moment! Seeing so many patients a day provides many opportunities for hilarious situations. It never fails that as soon as a patient sits in the chair, they lose all ability to listen, follow directions, and cooperate.

If you ask someone to open their mouth, they immediately close on your finger a lot of the time. And if asked to close, they stare at you with an open mouth as if you are speaking a foreign language!

Any advice for those seeking dental assistant jobs?

My advice would be to definitely shadow a dental assistant first. Many people aren't prepared for what we see in the dental field (and smell for that matter!) and it's best to know what you're getting into ahead of time. Dental assisting can be a rewarding career, but it's not for the faint of heart! If bad breath, saliva, or blood bothers you, I advise you to look elsewhere!

Are there requirements for dental assistant applicants?

The next step would be to complete a dental assistant training program. Many offer an Associate's Degree, but this is not required to work in the dental field. Other programs only offer a diploma saying that you completed the training. Having a degree is, in most cases, of no advantage. I have never seen an office that requires job applicants to have a degree, and most won't pay you more for having one.

Completing a dental assistant training program won't prepare you 100% for your first job in the field, but most people would be lost without it. Getting your foot in the door is much easier when you have an education to back you up. In most cases, an education makes up for a lack of experience and an employer would be more than willing to offer additional training on the job. 

To find out if certification is required in your state, you can check out the Dental Assisting National Board. They have a website at www.danb.org

What is the outlook for dental assistant jobs?

The employment outlook for dental assistants is very good. The advantage to being in any healthcare-related field is that there will always be a need. People will not stop having toothaches because the market is down. Also, with so many people concerned more and more with looks, many are turning to cosmetic dentistry to improve their smiles. 

Most dental assistants complete an externship as part of their dental assisting education. This is done as the last phase of schooling and is unpaid; however, in many instances, the office you extern at will offer you a job if they have availability and were pleased with your work.

If this is not the case, there are plenty of dental staffing agencies one could check with. An alternative would also be to check any local job posting websites, or the local want ads.

What factors can affect dental assistant salaries?

Many factors affect a dental assistant salary. Specializing in a field such as endodontics, oral surgery, or periodontics increases the potential for dental assistant salaries. Having x-ray certification, although required by most states now, still increases a dental assistant salary. Also, many offices are going paperless - all patient information is computerized and digital-even the x-rays.

Dental assistants with experience in digital software have an advantage over the others. Many offices look for assistants who are already familiar with the major brands of software and don't require intense training on the programs.

Dental assistants who are bilingual also tend to make signifigantly more. There is a great need for bilingual assistants, especially in Arizona and employers are willing to pay these assistants more as they are so valuable.

And lastly, nothing speaks more than on-the-job experience. Experienced dental assistants, across the board, have more salary negotiating power than anyone else.   

How does your salary compare to a dental assistant salary? The PayScale Salary Calculator is a quick and easy way to compare positions. But when you want powerful salary data and comparisons customized for your exact position, be sure to build a complete profile by taking PayScale's full salary survey.

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