Dental Assistant Externships

dental assistant externships

Completing a dental assistant externship is one of the smartest things you can do early in your career. Students who make an externship a priority have more confidence in their skills, a better understanding or real-life techniques and a greater appeal for potential employers. This quick overview introduces everything you need to know about a dental assistant externship.

What is a Dental Assistant Externship?

Essentially, it is the same thing as an internship—an opportunity for a student or recent graduate to work in a functioning dental office alongside active dental assistants and other staff.

The extern is not an employee, and they are not paid. But they do perform real-world responsibilities that have an actual impact on the health of the patients and the practice. Think of it as a test run for your first dental assisting job.

Is a Dental Assistant Externship Required?

Whether an externship is required depends upon the training program you’re enrolled in and the state you live in. Many degree and certificate programs do not require an externship and do not offer students help in finding one. Many associate’s degree programs are just the opposite. It is possible in most places to start working as a dental assistant without completing an externship. However, there are compelling reasons to make completing one a personal priority.

Here are six great reasons:

  • You’ll get training and guidance from working professionals
  • Gain comfort working in real-world dental settings
  • Learn how to interact with patients and higher-level staff
  • Supplement your classroom training and curriculum
  • Begin to develop a professional network
  • Determine if this is the right long-term career path for you

Can You Earn Certification Without a Dental Assistant Externship?

Professionals who intend to move into more prestigious roles at higher rates of pay almost all have the Certified Dental Assistant (CDA) credential. It is possible to earn this credential with enough on-the-job training, but it’s much faster to earn it right after graduation. In order to be eligible for the CDA exam you must complete a program accredited by the Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA). And in order to be accredited, a program must require an externship. In short, programs that require and facilitate externship opportunities open up a lot of career opportunities in a lot less time.

How Long Does a Dental Assistant Externship Last?

externship length: 4-6 weeks
In general, externship programs last four to six weeks. Some take longer, though very few take shorter. If the externship is a requirement for your training program you will be required to complete a certain number of clock hours—often around 300 hours—to successfully complete your clinical duties. In most cases a student is not asked to complete an externship and attend to classes and coursework at the same time.

What Do You Do in a Dental Assistant Externship?

It is a common misconception that you will start working with patients on day one. In fact, you will spend most of your externship simply observing what other more experienced dental assistants are doing.

Your responsibility is to watch and listen closely so that you can learn the kinds of things a textbook could never teach you.

After you have built trust with staff, you will be given more important responsibilities and opportunities to work with less direct supervision. Some example may be as follows:

  • Provide patients with information before they see a dentist
  • Sterilize instruments and properly organize and assemble instruments
  • Prepare materials like fillings and other compounds
  • Assist the dentist by handing off instruments or suctioning out fluids
  • Help patients stay calm and comfortable during procedures
  • Work the front desk and assist with office administration

How Do You Find a Dental Assistant Externship?

If you are in a program that does not facilitate externship opportunities, you can still complete one and gain a lot in the process. Externship opportunities can be found on many job boards or though professional networking sites like LinkedIn. You may also find opportunities by reaching out to local dental offices with a resume and letter of recommendation. Even though you are learning and probably making mistakes along the way, you are offering free labor in return. The dental office gains as much as you do. If you find an opportunity on your own, be sure to make a connection between your dental assisting program and your externship location. That way you’ll be sure you’re getting the training and experiences you need, as well as any course credit you may be entitled to.


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