While the path to becoming a dentist is relatively uniform, there are more than a few ways to become a dental assistant. Educational requirements vary greatly by state; some states rely on on-the-job training and do not require the completion of any formal training program. Regardless of state requirements, high school students who want to become dental assistants can prepare by taking science classes such as anatomy and biology. Dental assistants may find employment in group, solo or specialty dental practices, as well as in hospitals, public health clinics and dental school clinics. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, dental assistants took in an average of more than $35,000 per year as of May 2012, making the most when working at insurance companies or specialty hospitals.

Dental Assistant Duties

As with their required education and training, dental assistant duties vary by state. Generally, dental assistants process X-rays, help dentists during procedures, sterilize equipment and arrange scheduling and billing with patients. Some states may also allow dental assistants to perform polishings and apply sealants, fluorides and topical anesthetics. Dental assistants need to be detail-oriented and have both technical abilities and interpersonal skills in order to provide a high level of patient care. States that require dental assistant education provide training in these areas.

Training and Degree Programs

Some states require dental assistants to complete an accredited training program, which typically leads to a certificate or a diploma. They are offered at community colleges, vocational schools, technical schools and some colleges and dental universities, and usually take between nine months and one year to finish. However, some institutions have part-time programs or accelerated classes, and it may also be possible to complete coursework through distance education. Less common than training programs are associate degree programs, which take around two years to complete and result in a degree. As of July 2013, the American Dental Association lists around 300 accredited dental assisting programs in the United States.

Typical Dental Assistant Coursework

Both types of programs involve a mix of classroom study, laboratory experience, and clinical work. Students learn about teeth, jaws and other areas relevant to dental practice, as well as instruments and procedures. Topics include dental materials, infection control, radiology, oral examinations, medical terminology, and maintaining and interpreting charts. Students take further courses in office administration, including bookkeeping and dental insurance, as well as classes in human behavior and interpersonal skills.

Dental Assisting Clinical Work

Additionally, students receive practical dental assisting experience under supervision. To graduate, students may need to complete a certain number of hours of clinical experience through rotations at local health care centers, such as clinics, dental offices or military health care centers. Clinical work lets students work directly with patients and gives them training in topics covered during class sessions, such as office procedures, new dental technology and anesthesiology. Students may also receive training in specific dental specialties.

Certification and Licensure

Some states require dental assistants to be certified by the Dental Assisting National Board. Certification involves passing the Certified Dental Assistant exam, which dental assistants are eligible to take after either completing an approved program or two years of work experience, if their state does not require a specific educational background. To take the CDA, dental assistants also need to be certified in CPR. They may need to be licensed or registered to complete polishings and other specialized, regulated tasks, depending on state rules.