What do you want to become?
Alternate Career Titles: Oral Hygienist, Registered Dental Hygienist (RDH)
Dental Hygienist Job Description: Dental Hygienists clean teeth, examines patients for signs of oral diseases, provides other preventive dental care and educates patients on good practices
Dental Hygienist Salary (Annual): $72,910
Dental Hygienist Salary Range: $57,790 to $100,170
How Long to Become a Dental Hygienist: 2
Dental Hygienist Requirements: Associate’s Degree and State Licensure
Become a Dental Hygienist
A Dental Hygienist is a healthcare professional who primarily works to clean a patient’s teeth, removing tartar, stains and plaque as needed, while also brushing, flossing and scraping their teeth for preventionary purposes. In addition to their services, Dental Hygienists also work to education patients on best practices for maintaining good oral hygiene, aiming to avoid problems later on, such as gingivitis.
“I have been practicing Dental Hygiene for almost 7 years,” Jenna Alburger, RDH, a Dental Hygienist practicing in Pennsylvania, said. “It is a truly rewarding career which I enjoy everyday.”
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Education & Training
Typically, to become a Dental Hygienist, professionals will pursue their Associate’s Degree at a dental hygiene programs* offered throughout the United States (ADHA).
“In most cases, students are required to complete prerequisite courses before gaining entry into the program. These include basic courses such as English composition, psychology, speech, and more science based courses such as anatomy and physiology, and microbiology,” Alburger said. “Once your prerequisite courses are completed, you apply to the dental hygiene program.”
She added that dental hygiene is a very competitive program to be accepted into, and that the program is a full-time two year program (including clinical and dental-related courses.) In total, the program took her four years to complete the prerequisite courses and the two-year dental hygiene program. Additionally, she found her studies to be a part of a very challenging program with one of the most difficult aspects being time management with coursework and studying.
While after completion of the program, some then choose to further pursue a Bachelor’s or Master’s Degree in the field, ultimately a state-specific license is required to practice. To obtain this licensure, requirements vary from state to state, however, most require the completion of an accredited program and a written and practical exam.
“To obtain accreditation, I was required to take two written state board exams, and one clinical state board exam,” Alburger said.
After a license is obtained, Oral Hygienist are considered registered, and the acronym “R.D.H.” can be added after their name to signify their ability to readily practice.
To advance in the field of dental hygiene, many Hygienists will pursue additional schooling to earn advanced degrees (such as Bachelor’s, Master’s or a baccalaureate degree). After obtaining such a degree, a Dental Hygienist may become eligible for further opportunities in education, research, clinical practice or in public health programs.
“Having your Bachelor’s Degree allows you to go into dental sales, research or even teaching in a clinical setting,” Alburger said. “But to teach courses in a dental hygiene school, you are required to have a Master’s Degree.”
Experience & Skills
It is important that RDHs have solid hand-eye coordination skills, due to the nature of the job and the services being performed. Also, being able to assess a client’s oral health is imperative, as these professionals often oversee a patient before the dentist.
“There is no experience needed as a Dental Hygienist outside of having your degree and proper accreditations, although some offices looking to hire a Dental Hygienist will require a certain amount of years experience working as a Hygienist,” Alburger said. “Helpful skills would include being a team player, a self-starter and having critical thinking skills.”
Dental Hygienists interact with patients on a daily basis. Therefore, these professionals must be excellent communicators with strong interpersonal skills. They must also be able to work with child patients, as well as adult patients.
“A Dental Hygienist should be a people person who has good communication skills and is able to explain treatment performed and needed to patients,” added Alburger.
Furthermore, being able to relate in some way to each patient can help form important patient-professional relationships, and to establish trust in the services being performed.
The ability to maintain a flexible lifestyle is often one of the most attracting elements of a career as a RDH. As this career’s benefits normally include vacation, sick leave and retirement, the scope of work promotes a healthy work-life balance.
“The lifestyle of a Dental Hygienist depends on the person and what they choose to do. There are opportunities to work both part-time or full-time,” Alburger said. “There are also opportunities to work full days, half days, mornings and afternoons.”
Additionally, dentists often hire these professionals to work only a few days of the week, and about half of all Dental Hygienists worked part-time in 2016 (BLS), allowing them to focus a good amount of their time on other responsibilities, including alternative work or raising children.
“I have always had an interest in dental hygiene since I was young. My mother has been a Dental Hygienist for over 35 years and is still practicing,” Alburger said. “Growing up I saw that she always enjoyed her job and had a lot of flexibility in her schedule while raising a family.”
For those Oral Hygienist wishing to take on more hours, many simply choose to work for more than one dentists. Thus, how much or little a Hygienist works can likely be up to them.
What better time to start this career than now? Of the approximately 207,900 Dental Hygienists currently employed within the U.S., roughly 183,000 are working in dental offices alongside dentists, and this career is seen to be growing at a rate of 20 percent from 2016 to 2016–much faster than the average career (BLS). This growth stems from an increased demand for their services as the “baby boomer” population ages, and as links are continuously found between oral care and overall well-being.
“Initially, temping is a great way to gain experience because you can work in many different offices to see how different offices operate,” Alburger said. “You can also discover what you want and don’t want in a permanent position. Temping in offices can also lead to landing a permanent job.”
As of May 2016, the median annual wage for Dental Hygienists was $72,910. While the lowest 10 percent earned less than $50,870, the highest 10 percent earned more than $100,170. Ultimately, earnings are depending upon education, hours worked and location of practice. Hygienists positions in Alaska and California tend to be the most lucrative, followed by New Mexico, Washington and Nevada (BLS).
“There is a very wide range in potential earnings. It depends on your location you live, how many hours you work, and the specific office you’re working in,” Alburger said. “Most Dental Hygienists are paid hourly, but some are paid on commission based on the revenue that they bring into the office per patient.”
Unions, Groups, Social Media, and Associations
The American Dental Association is the nation’s largest dental association and represents more than 161,000 dental professionals. This organization is committed to assisting its members through resources and information, and to improving oral healthcare administered to the public.
“These types of groups and associations help to bring Hygienists together to continue making advances in the career, and to lobby for what will help our profession to continue to grow and be protected,” Alburger said. “There are also many groups on Facebook where Hygienists can come together to discuss problems, patient cases, recommendations, techniques and more.”
- Discuss the possibilities of a career in dental hygiene with a school’s dental hygiene advisor and/or a RDH
- If still interested, begin to take the required prerequisite courses to see if the interested in dentistry and science-based courses remains
- Take all necessary prerequisites/ dental hygiene program classes
- After graduating, there are a few ways to gain employment. You can search job listings online, go in-person to offices to hand deliver your resume or join a temp agency.
All statistics are provided by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Meet the professional: Jenna Alburger
Practice(s): Dr. Paul Leventhal, DDS, and Cosmetic and Family Dentistry
Location(s): Buckingham, PA, and Perkasie, PA
What is the single biggest suggestion you would give to someone wanting to get into this career?
“The single biggest suggestion I would make to someone wanting to get into this career would be to do their research on the job requirements and responsibilities, and to discuss the job with a RDH if possible.”
What’s the number one mistake people make when trying to get into this career?
“I think that one mistake that people make when trying to get into this career is underestimating how much work the program entails and how difficult is is. You need to put in the time and effort to succeed in the program.”
What is the question people should ask about this career but rarely do?
“I think more people should ask what the ease of landing a job after graduation is. It is not always difficult to get a part-time job, but depending on your location it can be hard to get a full-time job. Some people need a full-time job to receive benefits and to support their families, and it may not be as easy as some people believe.”
If you could describe in one word what makes you successful, what would it be?
“If I had to describe what makes me successful in one word, it would be ‘caring.’ To be a successful Dental Hygienist, you have to care about the wellbeing of your patients and their overall health. By showing that you care, you are able to form relationships with your patients and are able to gain their trust so that they really understand why you are doing certain treatments or making specific recommendations.”
- The Commission on Dental Accreditation: This is the only agency approved by the Department of Education to accredit dental hygiene education programs.