Dental technicians provide back-office support to dentists. After the dentist has taken a mold of the patient’s teeth, the dental technician uses the mold to produce a wax replica of the teeth, from which he constructs any needed crowns, bridges, or false teeth, and later makes any adjustments to these appliances as directed by the dentist. Dental technicians work closely with dentists and orthodontists.
Our survey respondents pointed out that DTs are often confused with dental hygienists, who work with the dentist and mostly “clean” teeth and treat periodontal (gum) disease. Dental lab technicians insist that they “don’t scrape plaque or put our fingers in anybody’s mouth!” In fact they have patient contact only in unusual situations that require a visual inspection of the patient’s teeth. Though many labs are large, some technicians are sole practitioners in their studios and can work under contract with a dentist. The painstaking detail work is largely solitary. “If you’re afraid of being alone, don’t sign up,” said one DT.
Successful DTs say it’s important to be able to make adjustments on the fly. They create facsimiles of people’s teeth, and, while impressions can be perfect, they often need minor adjustments, and the DT must work from information provided by the dentist to adjust molds to imitate the patient’s mouth. “You can get through grinding and shaping three or four times and the dentist still isn’t satisfied,” wrote one. Another added that “it’s not personal, but it can be very frustrating.” They share certain skills with sculptors and don’t mind working hard on making their molds accurate and useful; after all, without a precise fit, these casts are useless. A good eye and a good ear serve candidates well in this exacting profession.
No formal college major is required to become a dental technician. Most candidates learn, on the job, how to shape, mold, and grind their materials. Many train on the job for two to three years before becoming sole practitioners. About forty-five dental colleges in the country offer dental technician programs accredited by the American Dental Association. In their final years at those colleges, students choose one area of specialization, such as orthodontics or crowns and bridges, then take licensing exams (such as the one offered by the National Board of Certification), although these licensing exams are not always required.
Construction of medical devices requires attention to detail and knowledge of anatomy; people with these skills become prosthetics manufacturers, lens grinders for optometrists, and oral hygienists.