Starting salary and beyond: what to expect as an entry-level dental assistant

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Securing your first job offer in a new profession is definite cause for celebration. After all, you did it! You stood out during your dental assisting interview and impressed those at the helm of the hiring process, and the dental assisting role is now yours!

Whether this is your first professional job ever — or you’ve worked in other roles and professions before transitioning to the dental field — those just starting out likely face some unique and possibly unexpected challenges. Read on to learn more about what to expect as an entry-level dental assistant.

It may take time and effort to grow your starting salary.

If you’re new to the dental assisting profession, with two years of experience or less, chances are you’re earning entry-level pay. DANB’s Dental Assistants Salary and Satisfaction Survey shows that Certified Dental Assistants with less than a year of experience earn a median wage of $19.00 per hour, while uncertified dental assistants receive about $18.00 per hour. However, starting salaries will vary depending on your location and the practice type.

As you may expect, the more experience you have, the higher your salary is likely to be. The survey shows that those dental assistants with 15-plus years of experience tend to earn the most money.

This number may seem daunting to those just at the starting line. But the good news is that dental assistants have a unique opportunity to position themselves for upward career mobility, and possibly more pay.

“Your employer may not pay you as much if you are not as experienced,” says Ruth R., an expanded functions dental assistant with more than 20 years of experience. Ruth offers this advice to entry-level dental assistants who are just beginning the career-ladder climb: “You can’t expect to make a lot at first as a beginner. But in my experience, it has paid off to learn and stick with it.”

One way that dental assistants can grow their salaries is to earn DANB Certified Dental Assistant (CDA) certification. Those who hold CDA certification make $4 more per hour than those who are not certified, according to the salary survey results.

Dental assisting is a growing profession and a rewarding career.

As an entry-level dental assistant, you are part of a growing and dynamic profession. According to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics, dental assisting is one of the fastest-growing careers. The latest BLS data projects an 8% increase in dental assisting jobs between by 2031.

Additionally, many states offer career paths for dental assistants and provide opportunities to perform additional functions and duties, and thus make greater contributions to the dental office. “With expanded functions, dental assistants can perform more chairside duties,” says Mary H., CDA, EFDA, EFODA. “We can expedite procedures and make the dental practice more efficient.”

With performing expanded functions can come increased salary and job satisfaction, as well as more opportunities to help patients — a top reward in dental assisting.

When it comes to building a satisfying career as a dental assistant, Amanda D. believes self-motivation is important. “It’s all about how hard you work as an individual,” she tells those starting out in the profession. “The opportunities are endless in dental careers. Confidence is key. Believe in yourself!”

It’s not always easy to find the right dental office for you.

When you’re working as an entry-level dental assistant, it can be easy to imagine that maybe you’ll stay with your very first employer forever. This does happen for some dental assistants, but not for everyone. After a few months on the job, you may realize it’s not quite the right fit.

Early in her dental assisting career, Christina B., CDA, recalls coming to the sinking realization that she didn’t want to be working with her then-employer long-term. Simply, that office didn’t feel like it could be her “forever” dental home.

“It was hard. It was really hard for me,” Christina admits. “I questioned my career. But I learned that just because I hadn’t found the right fit at that time didn’t mean I had to give up on my career. I just kept pushing forward and taking personal pride in what I do, knowing that the right fit for me was out there. I’m glad that I didn’t give up.”

Gaining experience and credentials can help build your confidence.

Even if you’ve graduated from a dental assisting program or completed an externship, starting your first dental assisting job can present new challenges. Entry-level dental assistants are likely to experience a learning curve during those first few months on the job. This typically comes with the territory when you’re embracing a new professional experience and skill set.

While trying something new can be exciting and empowering, feeling like you don’t yet know all there is to know can test your confidence and patience. After all, catching up to your co-workers who may be more knowledgeable and experienced than you can take time and practice. It may be helpful to avoid comparing your experience to someone else’s, as they may be further along in their career (and likely have experienced some of the same growing pains you have, too).

If you’re feeling like you’re at square one and are eager to start advancing your career, you might consider pursuing continuing education. For example, DANB’s affiliate, the DALE Foundation, offers online learning opportunities and resources to help you prepare for DANB exams and certifications. Earning DANB certification can be a source of pride, increased knowledge and greater confidence.

For Lisa S., CDA, holding DANB certification is among the factors that have elevated her career. “I wanted to be a more knowledgeable dental assistant — so I went to a CODA-accredited dental assisting program, earned state RDA licensure and also earned DANB CDA certification,” Lisa explains. “I am very happy with the path I chose, which has given me more confidence in the dental office.”

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