To begin, if you are in high school you should be taking biology, chemistry, and math classes and doing well in them. If there are higher level courses in science and math available to you, by all means, take them.
In a career as a Dental Assistant or Dental Hygienist, you will need great people skills, as you will work with all ages and levels of apprehension on the part of your patients, and will need to work well with the dentist you are assisting. You need excellent fine-motor skills and steady hands to manipulate small instruments while working in peoples' mouths; keep in mind you will also likely be working with children, who have even smaller mouths. Be aware that you may find your back is sore after a busy day of assisting, as you may be on your feet and bending over to work. Your vision must be excellent. You must be calm and even-tempered, and conduct yourself very professionally, while still being understanding of your patients' needs.
The first level of career in a dental office is a Dental Assistant. Dental assisting programs may be obtained from some technical colleges, involving six months of instruction plus three months of clinical experience, followed by a certification test. Other Dental Assistant programs are 2-year Associate of Science degrees.
This is the person who will:
Sterilize instruments and equipment
Arrange and anticipate which instruments the dentist will need
Work as a team with the dentist
Make patients comfortable for their dental work
Clean and dry the patients' mouths using suction
Keep records of patient visits
The dental assistant student will need to know:
Basic medical terminology
Anatomy and specialized oral anatomy
Names and uses of dental instruments
Sterilization of dental instruments
Administrative aspects of a dental office
To be certified, at the end of training at an accredited school, the dental assistant candidate must pass a four hour test which includes 320 questions on chairside procedures, infection control, and radiation and radiation safety.
What about a Dental Hygienist?
Those pursuing a Dental Hygienist career will take courses in chemistry, microbiology, pharmaceuticals, nutrition, periodontology, materials, and also social sciences. After coursework, they need to pass their state board exam, similar to a nursing program. If you obtain a BS in dental hygiene, you could be an educator, a clinician, do research to find better ways of treating dental conditions or doing repairs to teeth, or be a dental office manager.
These people take on more responsibilities than an assistant. They may have a 2 year degree, but it is becoming more common that they acquire a Bachelor of Science in Dental Hygiene. There are also masters programs in dental hygiene. A hygienist may:
Do patient screenings for cavities or dental-related diseases
Take X-rays or digital images of teeth
Perform scaling and cleaning of teeth to remove calculus
Apply sealants to preserve teeth, such as fluorides
Teach oral hygiene to patients or visit schools and teach to children how to take care of their teeth
Make impressions of teeth
(With further training) prepare temporary fillings or crowns
Document patient visits and results
You might also consider a career as a Dental Lab Technician. These are people who make dentures, individual replacement teeth, bridges, and crowns using impressions and images taken at a dental office.
Other types of dentistry include cosmetic, where the teeth can be repaired or changed in order to have the patient look better and make their teeth work better; orthodontics, which involves placing braces on the teeth to align them, and oral surgery. Each type of dentistry can call for specialized assistants and hygienists.
You can visit the American Dental Association website for more info: