On-the-job training vs. dental assisting school

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Flexibility is one reason dental assisting is an appealing career choice. A prospective dental assistant can pave their way into the profession by either attending dental assisting school or being trained on the job. Both options allow dental assistants to enter the field quickly and start building careers for themselves. But one path may prove more suitable than the other depending on several factors.

Learning the fundamentals

Many dental assistants who attended formal dental assisting programs say they received a well-rounded, comprehensive education. Formal education provides assistants with knowledge of best practices. They learn standardized ways of performing techniques and procedures and the theories behind them. Some dentists may not cover those fundamental aspects of dental assisting when they train assistants on the job.

“School provided me with a good overall perspective of dental assisting,” says Susan M., CDA, who attended a dental assisting program accredited by the Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA). “Some on-the-job-trained assistants may learn the hows, but not the whys. The dentist may not explain to them why you do it this way or what happens if you don’t do it this way. It’s important to have knowledge of why you’re doing something, not just how.”

Finding the right dentist

Dental assistants who are trained on the job should work with dentists who are committed to both education and training.

“The key is to find a dentist who’s passionate about dentistry because they love to talk about it,” says Carlita R., CDA, who was trained on the job. “They love to explain it. They love to teach.”

“I worked for two really great dentists. They were so patient and would stop anything or make sure they followed up to answer any questions that I might have,” Carlita says. “But it’s also important that you are not afraid to ask questions and ask why.”

Motivation matters

The best on-the-job-trained assistants are self-motivated. They educate themselves inside and outside the dental office. For example, Carlita regularly reads dental assisting textbooks and pursues continuing education. She has also earned a state certificate in expanded functions.

In addition, Carlita says it's helpful if a dental assistant trained on the job is primarily a “hands-on learner.” A hands-on learning environment helps most individuals better understand and retain the information.

The opportunity to learn directly about professionalism, customer service, and how to interact with patients is an advantage of on-the-job training. That said, those who attend CODA-accredited dental assisting programs, or any formal education programs that incorporate clinical externships into the curriculum, receive direct experience with patients in a dental practice. That allows the assistants to hone their professionalism and patient skills.

“Technique was the last thing my doctors taught me because they said you can fix technique. You need to have the right attitude first,” says Laura R., CDA, CPFDA, CRFDA, who received her dental assisting training on the job. “They taught me how to be professional. They taught me how to be compassionate — to have empathy, to be respectful of the patients, your co-workers and yourself.”

Back to school

On-the-job training is not for everyone. The fast-paced, high-stress environment of a dental practice means assistants must learn fast and think on their feet. If prospective assistants want to learn in a controlled setting, with the ability to review concepts and practice procedures and techniques, school may be a better choice.

Formal dental assisting programs also expose students to various procedures and skills they may not learn about when training on the job. For example, schools teach techniques in general dentistry as well as specialties like endodontics.

“At school, you’re getting information from all different areas of the dental field. So I definitely got knowledge about a wide range of skills and perspectives,” says Amy N., CDA, who attended a CODA-accredited dental assisting program. “It’s made me a better dental assistant.”

Carlita, who works for a general practice, agrees that on-the-job-trained dental assistants risk limiting their knowledge when they only work for one dentist. That’s why she volunteers at a nonprofit that provides free dental care to low-income people. It allows her to learn from various dentists and dental auxiliaries. In addition, she works part-time as an assistant at an orthodontic office.

Keep learning

No matter what path prospective dental assistants take, they should supplement their education and training with lifelong learning. “Whether you went to school or were trained on the job, a dental assistant should have a desire to learn,” says LeeAnn R., CDA, a dental assisting instructor at a CODA-accredited program who was trained on the job when she began her career. “Continuing education and certifications help you perform and help move your career forward.”

Did you train on the job? Or did you attend dental assisting school? What did you like best about the approach you took? Let us know!