Can You Make a Living As a Dental Assistant?

The primary function of a dental assistant is to support the dentist.
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The primary function of a dental assistant is to support the dentist.

You want to work in dentistry but don’t want to be a dentist; you like people and enjoy variety in your daily work. A career as a dental assistant might be just the thing for you. Dental assistants provide both clerical and clinical services in dental offices and support the dentist in her daily work. Each state regulates the practice of dentistry and dental assistants, so duties may vary.

Training and Tasks

You could get your training on the job or complete a formal dental assisting program, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Since each state is different, contact your state board of dentistry for specific information. Routine dental assistant duties in most states include clerical tasks, such as answering the phone, billing insurance companies and making appointments. Clinical tasks include sterilizing instruments, preparing dental procedure trays and assisting the dentist during procedures. Depending on the state, you might also take x-rays, remove sutures, apply anesthetics or process x-ray films. Most dental assistants work 35 to 40 hours a week.

Workplace and Salary

The BLS reports that almost 33 percent of dental assistants -- not surprisingly -- worked for dentists. Others worked in doctor’s offices, colleges, universities and for the federal government. Although the average annual salary for dental assistants was $35,080 in 2012, salaries varied by industry. Physician’s offices paid the least, at $33,210, followed by colleges, universities and schools, at $33,840. Outpatient care centers paid $34,880 and dentist’s offices paid $35,070. Working for the federal government topped the list, with an average annual salary of $38,480.

Location and Salary

In dental assisting, as in many other occupations, location matters. Dental assistants earned higher wages in the Northeast and Pacific Northwest. New Hampshire beat out all other states, according to the BLS, offering an annual average wage of $43,480 in 2012. Of the remaining top-paying states, Massachusetts paid $41,290, the District of Colombia paid $41,730, Alaska paid $41,970 and Minnesota paid $42,420. In the lowest-paying states, however, you could earn $20,000 less per year. West Virginia had the lowest wages in 2012 at $21,170, followed by Utah at $27,460.

Urban or Rural

In addition to location, the choice of an urban or rural area could affect your salary as a dental assistant. The best metropolitan area in the U.S. in 2012 was the San-Francisco-San Mateo-Redwood City area of California, with an average annual salary of $47,280. In the Northeast, Nashua, New Hampshire dental assistants earned $46,750 and Haverhill-North Andover-Amesbury, Massachusetts dental assistants earned $45,700. Although the non-metropolitan area of southwestern New Hampshire offered dental assistants an average annual salary of $46,420, New Hampshire is also the top-paying state. Southeast Alaska, another high-paying state, offered $42,990. In California, however, salaries dropped to $41,750. In the rural area of eastern Utah, the average annual salary was $24,860.

Job Outlook

Job outlook for dental assistants is expected to be excellent, according to The BLS states that employment of dental assistants is expected to grow by 31 percent between 2010 and 2020, more than twice as fast as the national average for all occupations. Demand is being driven by an increased need for preventive dental services, as dentists can see more patients if they have dental assistants to help perform routine tasks. The large baby boomer population is more likely to keep their original teeth than previous generations, according to the BLS, which will also increase the need for dental services.

2016 Salary Information for Dental Assistants

Dental assistants earned a median annual salary of $36,940 in 2016, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. On the low end, dental assistants earned a 25th percentile salary of $30,410, meaning 75 percent earned more than this amount. The 75th percentile salary is $45,170, meaning 25 percent earn more. In 2016, 332,000 people were employed in the U.S. as dental assistants.

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