You could work in the dental clinical sciences as a dental assistant, dental hygienist or general dentist. Though these medical professionals have very different levels of training, all are devoted to the health of patients' teeth and mouths. Read more to decide if a career as a clinical worker in a dental office is right for you.
Whenever you go to the dentist's office, you're likely to encounter three types of dental clinical science workers: dental assistants, dental hygienists and dentists. The dental assistant may work in both the front and back of the dental office, with duties ranging from administrative tasks like scheduling appointments to chairside tasks like handing the dentist tools. If you're there for a teeth cleaning, the dental hygienist is the person who cleans and polishes your teeth, gives you a fluoride treatment (as needed) and teaches you proper flossing technique. When you need a procedure done, like getting a cavity filled, the dentist performs it; the dentist is responsible for diagnosis and treatment of issues with your teeth and gums.
The outlook for careers in the dental clinical sciences is positive for all three types of workers. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) predicted that job openings for dental assistants would increase by 31% between 2010 and 2020; since this position only requires 1-2 years of training, your prospects for finding a job after completing training are very promising. The outlook for dental hygienists is even better, with an anticipated 38% increase in job openings in the same time period, according to the BLS. For dentists, the BLS expected a 21% growth - though slower than the projections for assistants and hygienists, this figure is still faster than the average growth projected for all types of jobs in the nation during the 2010-2020 decade (www.bls.gov).
The BLS also provides salary information for those working in the dental clinical sciences. As of May 2011, dental assistants made $34,740 on average, and dental hygienists made an average of $69,760. At the same time, dentists earned an annual salary of $161,750 on average.
To pursue any kind of training in dental clinical sciences, you can give yourself a head start in high school by taking science courses like chemistry, biology and anatomy. After that, you'll most likely need to go to postsecondary school; depending on the position you want, your studies may take you anywhere from one year to ten years or more. All levels of dental programs (and dental schools) are accredited by the American Dental Association's (ADA) Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA), so it's important that you double-check that the program you're interested in has CODA accreditation.
Dental assistants require the shortest training: programs in dental assisting typically take one year to complete. These programs are offered at community colleges at the certificate or diploma level. You also might find an associate's degree program in dental assisting, which would require two years of study. While in school, you'll study topics like the anatomy of the mouth and dental office management; in the clinical portion, you'll practice sterilizing instruments and using a suction hose. It's important to note that certain states don't require dental assistants to have any kind of formal education - in those states, new assistants would train on-the-job. You'll want to check on the requirements in your state before you decide to enroll in a dental assisting program. At the end of your education and/or training, you may need to attain the Certified Dental Assistant (CDA) credential by passing the Dental Assisting National Board exam; again, certification is state-regulated and varies according to where you live.
Dental hygienists usually earn a 2-year associate's degree in dental hygiene, though other degree types - everything from certificates to master's degrees - are also available in the field. Bachelor's degrees and higher are usually for dental hygienists who want to do research or teach rather than perform clinical work in a dental office. Topics studied in a dental hygiene program include gum disease, radiography (for taking X-rays), nutrition and oral hygiene; in the practical part of the program, aspiring hygienists learn how to conduct a teeth cleaning. In every state, dental hygienists need a license for employment, and the requirements for licensure usually include graduating from a CODA-accredited program and passing both a written exam and a practical exam.
Dentists have the most extensive education and training requirements. First, they'll need to earn a 4-year bachelor's degree, usually in one of the sciences or in a pre-dentistry curriculum. Next, they'll need to score well on the Dental Acceptance Test in order to get into dental school, which then lasts four additional years. Graduates of dental school earn a Doctor of Dental Surgery (DDS) or Doctor of Dental Medicine (DMD) degree. After graduation, candidates must pass the National Board Dental Examinations, which include both written and practical portions, in order to become licensed dentists. After licensure, dentists may go on to pursue a residency in a specialty area (like orthodontics or pediatric dentistry) or in general dentistry. Residencies usually last 1-2 years.