Becoming an Oral Hygienist: Job Description & Salary Info

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What are the pros and cons of a career as an oral hygienist? Get real job descriptions, career prospects and salary info to see if becoming an oral hygienist is right for you.
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Pros and Cons of an Oral Hygienist Career

Oral hygienists, who are also called dental hygienists, assist dentists by providing dental care and oral hygiene education to patients. This is a field with fairly high salaries and excellent job prospects. However, you'll want to weigh factors, such as licensing requirements and your ability to spend time working in tight quarters, when considering this career.

Pros of a Career as an Oral Hygienist
Above-average salaries (about $71,500 as of 2014)*
Very high job-growth field (33% between 2012-2022)*
Low education requirements (2-year degree)*
Pleasant working environment*
Flexible work schedules*

Cons of a Career as an Oral Hygienist
Licensing exam is required*
Continuing education and additional licensing requirements**
Exposure to diseases and other workplace hazards*
Weekend and evening hours may be required***

Sources: * U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, **American Dental Hygienists Association, ***Job postings from November, 2012

Essential Career Information

Job Description and Duties

As an oral hygienist, you would typically be responsible for performing initial patient assessments, looking for signs of oral disease and then working to clear tartar, plaque and stains from patients' teeth. You might also apply sealing treatments, take x-rays and develop them, teach oral hygiene and keep dental records up-to-date. While some states restrict what oral hygienists can do, others allow hygienists to prepare periodontal dressings and filling materials. In some dental offices, hygienists are also responsible for maintaining and cleaning dental instruments, setting up rooms and making appointments for patients.

Salary and Career Prospects

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported that there were over 196,000 dental or oral hygienists employed in the U.S., and that they earned a median salary of around $71,500 per year, as of May 2014. The BLS projected much-faster-than-average job growth for the field, due in part to an aging population who are keeping their teeth longer, reporting an expected increase of 33% in job opportunities between 2012 and 2022. The BLS also reported that most dental hygienists worked part time.

Education and Career Requirements

Education and Licensing

The first step in becoming an oral hygienist is to earn an associate's degree or certificate in dental hygiene through an accredited program. Dental hygienist programs are generally available through community colleges, and will include coursework in anatomy and physiology, microbiology, oral pathology, clinical dental hygiene and periodontics. You'll also do lab work and get hands-on experience in clinical settings.

After graduating, you'll need to pass the National Board Dental Hygiene Examination, administered by the Joint Commission on National Dental Examinations, and then apply to your state's licensing board to become licensed. Licensing requirements vary by state, but most states will require you to supply proof of CPR certification and may require letters of recommendation, transcripts, a criminal background check and fees. Continuing education is typically required to renew your license.

Skills

To do this type of work you'll need to be sensitive to patients' emotions, detail-oriented and able to work well with your hands. You'll be using various tools, so you will need to keep up-to-date with technology as it advances in the field of dental care. You'll also need to be able to work in tight quarters and spend a fair amount of time bending over patients while working.

What Do Employers Look For?

A survey of ads for hygienists showed employers looking for candidates who had proof of certification, ability to work as part of a team, willingness to continue education and the ability to listen and treat patients well. The following are examples of real job postings from November 2012:

  • A dental office in Maine posted an ad for a dental hygienist to fill in on a per diem basis for an employee on maternity leave for three months. Reliability was requested and the job hours were listed as being 8-20 hours per week with the possibility of an increase.
  • A Montana dental office advertised full-time openings for highly motivated hygienists to work using the latest technology. Applicants needed to have a certificate and 1-2 years of experience. Benefits, including retirement, vacation and insurance, were mentioned.
  • A Wisconsin dentist sought a part time dental hygienist with 4+ years of experience to work approximately 28 hours, including some evening hours, per month. Current license and CPR certification were required.
  • A New York community health care services center looked for a part-time hygienist with 2-5 years of experience. Candidate would prepare rooms, greet, assess and educate patients, maintain inventory and complete preventative maintenance of dental equipment and machines.

How to Stand Out in the Field

Most job postings requested a resume, and there are several things you might look into to make yours stand out. Joining a professional organization such as the American Dental Hygienists' Association may demonstrate commitment to professionalism in the field, and may also provide you with job leads. Pursuing continuing education opportunities, beyond what is required for licensing renewal, will demonstrate a commitment to upgrading your skills, another thing employers mention in job postings. Finally, the ability to speak another language is frequently helpful, and may give you an edge over other candidates.

Alternative Careers

Dental Assistant

Dental assistants tend to do more of the peripheral work, such as setting up rooms, processing x-rays and scheduling appointments. This generally doesn't require a degree, and you may be able to receive on-the-job training and enter directly into the workforce. The BLS projected a 31% job growth for the field between 2010 and 2020, and reported a median salary for dental assistants of just over $34,000, as of May 2011.

Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN)

If you are interested in caring for patients, but don't want to earn an associate's degree, becoming an LPN may be a good option. Requiring roughly a year of school and passage of a licensing exam, LPNs provide basic nursing care, such as checking blood pressure and educating patients, and can work in a wide variety of settings. The BLS projected that job opportunities for LPNs would increase by 22% between 2010 and 2020, and reported that the median salary for LPNs was around $41,000, as of May 2011.

Dentist

If you'd prefer to direct patient care, rather than assist in it, becoming a dentist may be of interest. You'd need to earn a doctoral degree, complete a residency and pass written and practical exams to become licensed. This would require a huge investment of time and money, but according to the BLS, dentists earned a median salary of almost $143,000 per year, as of May 2011. The BLS projected a 21% increase in job opportunities for dentists between 2010 and 2020.

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