Career Paths for Dental Assistants

It is well established that dental assistance is a career on the rise. Oral health is receiving world-wide recognition, making it more accessible to all and fueling the growth of the industry. More accessible insurance and dental healthcare will result in more patients for dentists, which is why dental assistant jobs will be in abundance. Dentists will need assistants to aide in a diverse assortment of tasks, making dental assistance the perfect entry-level job for individuals looking to benefit from the boom.

While a dental assistant’s main duty is to help the dentist prepare and perform treatment, this job is comprised of work in several interrelated areas of the office. This means dental assistants have a unique advantage in the office, being one of the more versatile roles. A dental assistant may work in the lab as an amateur lab technician, at the front desk as a receptionist, or with patients as an instructor in proper oral hygiene and personal care. This opens a wide range of areas for dental assistants to specialize in and promotions to advance towards.

Your career may take you anywhere you’d like to go in the dental industry, but depending on the path, advancement may require further education as well as on-the-job experience. Luckily, there are many roles to choose from to find one that best suits your ambitions.

Dental Hygienist

Dental hygienists focus on the cleanliness and health of a patient’s teeth, gums, and other parts of the mouth. While a dental assistant would help the dentist perform various tasks, a dental hygienist would work independently with patients to clean their teeth and report back to the dentist when they have finished. Removing plague, polishing and whitening teeth, taking dental x-rays to examine patient’s teeth and jaws, updating records, and instructing patients on proper oral care are all part of the job.

Many dental assistants become dental hygienists because they learn many of the necessary skills while working with the dentist. This is another role that will have you working closely with patients and the multitude of dental instruments for inspecting and cleaning teeth. The promotion comes with a generous pay raise, estimated at nearly double the wage of a dental assistant. However, a job as a dental hygienist will require you to receive an associate’s degree in dental hygiene and licensure through the state. Courses and subjects of study include physiology, anatomy, and nutrition.

Lab Technician

Dental lab technicians are responsible for the development of corrective dental devices and prosthetics for patients. You could say that they are the scientists, artists, and engineers of the dental office. Their work entails the creation of dentures, dental implants, or orthodontic devices such as retainers. The job is centered on the technology of the dental industry. Lab technicians utilize the latest techniques in the field to make physical applications to improve a patient’s oral health, appearance, and functionality.

Dental lab technicians work closely with the dentist, providing devices for them to install during their appointments with patients. Lab technicians do not work closely with patients, instead spending their time in the lab studying dental x-rays and using a range of materials such as plastic and ceramic to create the necessary appliances. Dental assistants will likely consult with the lab technicians to coordinate and communicate the dentist’s needs.

Though all that is required to become a dental lab technician is a high school diploma or equivalent degree, experienced candidates are always more likely to receive the job. Dental assistants can expect to earn about the same amount as a lab technician, but a role in the lab can lead to interesting work and further opportunities, such as the chance to specialize as a dental ceramist or orthodontic lab technician.

Treatment Planner/Coordinator

A dental treatment coordinator is someone who discusses treatment options with patients. Dentists are growing busier every year with more patients coming to the office. A designated treatment coordinator allows the dentist to focus on seeing patients and performing treatment without having to have long discussions about a patient’s options for further treatment. Patients can sit down with a dental treatment coordinator to plan their next few visits and the work that will be done.

Dental treatment coordinators, also called patient care coordinators, use their experience in the office to guide patients through their interactions with the dental office. They should be prepared to explain why patients should undergo treatment, what kind of treatment they can expect, and how billing and payment will occur. Treatment coordinators work closely with patients in person, through email, or over the phone to answer questions and help them better understand and prepare for future treatment.

Treatment coordinators make a similar wage to that of dental assistants and must undergo similar training, though the potential for higher pay is greater. Treatment coordinators should be well-versed in dental terminology and the various procedures so they can clearly explain a patient’s options. Knowledge of dental office software and billing methods is also important.

Dental Insurance Claims Processor

Dental insurance claims processors are individuals who acquire information on patients and their dental treatment, record the information and maintain an ongoing profile, and eventually decide how to handle the claim. If the patient’s dental insurance plan covers the treatment, the claim is approved and part of the bill is paid for by the insurance company. Processors for dental insurance claims will be in increasing demand as dental insurance becomes more accessible and begins to cover more treatment costs.

Dental assistants with a knack for office work will have the skills necessary to become an insurance claims processor after a few years of experience. An insurance claim processor will make a similar wage and requires a similar knowledge of the industry as does a dental assistant. The work is more clerical than dental, but knowing the processes involved in the dentist’s office and the types of treatment will give a dental insurance claims processor more insight into the claims they will be handling.

Office Manager

An office manager, or front desk manager, is responsible for the clerical work and customer relations within the dentist’s office. The front desk employees greet customers as they enter the door, check them into their appointments, handle their patient records, process billing and payment, and perform a host of other duties to keep the dental office running. Dental assistants often help at the front desk, which provides the opportunity to advance towards an office-related role.

While there are several important roles in the office, the office manager oversees them all. When supplies are low or new equipment is needed, the office manager ensures that they are ordered to arrive on time. They are also in charge of hiring and training new office employees. Their role as supervisor requires them to communicate with everyone in the dental office to ensure office activities are never hindered.

Dental assistants, being useful anywhere in the office, may naturally aspire to a role as office manager. Dental assistants can expect a pay raise, employee benefits, and potential for future advancement when they transition to a management role. Though a few years of on-the-job training is suitable, some offices may require an associate’s degree in business administration.


Many other career paths exist for dental assistants, including the choice to specialize as an assistant in one of the many branches of dentistry. Dental assistants can become orthodontic assistants and work with an orthodontist. They can work in a pediatric dental office, which provides dental care to children. Or, they can specialize in endodontics or periodontics. While these jobs may have similar pay, you may discover that one branch interests you more than another. Passion for your work is just as important as pay!

Down the line, dental assistants can even take on the role of dentist, orthodontist, or endodontist. High-level jobs such as those require many years of education, but the good news is you don’t have to do it all at once. One step at a time, you can follow your career path and enjoy a professional career in a role (or roles) of your choosing.

A few years of on-the-job training can qualify you for half a dozen jobs in the office. A few years of schooling can qualify you for another few. There are many opportunities for dental assistants to advance in their career. Technical training through the Academy for Dental Assistants will qualify you for a job as an extended functions dental assistant, and then it is up to you to decide how far and in which direction you would like to go.

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