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Dental assistants have crucial roles in the success of dental practices.

Careers in dentistry: What do dental assistants do?

April 18, 2024
Dental assistants play crucial roles in the success of the dental practice. It's also an opportunity to help give patients the smiles they always wanted.

A dental assistant’s job is to assist the dentist while they work chairside with the patient. DAs set up procedure trays and restock rooms. They play a huge part in infection control when they process instruments to be sterilized and clean the operatories. DAs help educate patients and serve as the go-between between the clinical area and the front office staff. 

Educational and licensing requirements for dental assistants 

Educational requirements for DAs vary from state to state. While some states have no educational requirements and allow training on the job, other states are much stricter and require dental assistants to achieve certain educational milestones, such as becoming a certified dental assistant (CDA) through the Dental Assistant National Board (DANB). Some states offer expanded functions or extended duties, which allow DAs to be more involved in patient treatment. The expanded duties require DAs to take classes and pass competency exams.  

What dental assistants are typically paid

How much a dental assistant is paid depends on many factors. Typically, states that require dental assistants to achieve certain educational milestones or expanded functions pay assistants more. States that allow DAs to be trained on the job usually pay less. Either way, as businesses, dental practices offer a variety of benefit packages to team members. It’s a good idea to consider all the benefits, hours of operation, and travel time to and from work when considering working for any employer.

A typical workday for a dental assistant

There are daily and weekly tasks that dental assistants must carry out. I find it very helpful to get organized the first thing each morning. I believe key components for a smooth day are making sure I have everything I need for the day, and looking over my schedule before patients arrive. The morning huddle brings the team together first thing to discuss any issues that might arise, determine where to schedule emergencies, and troubleshoot for the day.

Another huge part of a DA’s day is cleaning, processing instruments, and sharing instructions and education with patients. Other important jobs are equipment maintenance, inventory control, and communication with other team members. There are monthly, quarterly, and annual tasks that must be completed when they’re due. Keeping organized and creating systems and a logbook can help keep everyone on track.

Pros and cons of being a dental assistant


  • Helping patients achieve the smile they always wanted.
  • Being part of a team that works well together.
  • Having a meaningful career with lots of satisfaction.
  • Educating yourself and gaining confidence.


  • Busy days that can lead to a stressful environment.
  • Not always getting a break when you need it.
  • Working shorthanded with fewer team members.
  • All of these play a part in stressful days and early burnout.

Tija Hunter, CDA, CDIA, CDIPC, CDSH, CDSO, EFDA, MADAA, is a member and former vice president of the American Dental Assistants Association (ADAA), where she holds the honor of Master. She is the director of the Dental Careers Institute, a dental assisting and dental continuing education program, and the author of seven continuing education study courses. She is an international speaker and a certified trainer in nitrous oxide in several states. She can be reached at [email protected].