Becoming a Dental Hygienist: Careers, Salary Info & Job Description

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

Dental hygienists help keep patients' teeth clean and educate individuals about the importance of oral health. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), most dental hygienists learn their trade via one of the roughly 300 dental hygiene programs accredited by the Commission on Dental Accreditation. This career has schedule flexibility and great career prospects; however, finding full-time employment may be difficult. Check out the pros and cons below to determine if the career is what you are looking for.

Pros of Dental Hygienist Careers
Faster-than-average job outlook (33% growth from 2012-2022)*
Very good earning potential (nearly $72,000 average wage in May 2014)*
Only requires 2 years of postsecondary education*
Flexible scheduling options *

Cons of Dental Hygienist Careers
Full-time options rare (less than half work full-time)*
Position requires working inside of potentially unclean mouths**
May require bending over patients for long periods of time*
Licensure is required*

Sources: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics **American Dental Hygienists' Association

Essential Career Information

Job Description and Duties

Dental hygienists assist dentists by performing routine procedures, such as removing plaque, taking x-rays and identifying oral abnormalities or diseases in their patients. Their duties generally fall into the categories of practical hygiene and patient education. Not only do dental hygienists administer periodontal dressings and some temporary fillings, but they also educate patients on proper brushing and flossing methods, dietary risks and practices to improve the patient's oral health.

Dental hygienists work in clean, well-lit offices, typically in a dental office, stated the BLS. However, the American Dental Hygienists' Association (ADHA) says they can also work in such settings as hospitals or public health clinics, as well as in schools. They use a variety of tools in performing their jobs, including hand tools during oral inspections and x-ray equipment when taking pictures of patients' teeth. Each state has its own regulations; for example, the BLS reports that some states permit hygienists to perform complex tasks, like placing or carving fillings.

Salary Information and Career Prospects

As of May 2014, the BLS reported that most dental hygienists earned between approximately $50,000 and $97,000. This is a high figure for the more than 196,000 dental hygienists employed at this time, considering that more than half of all hygienists work part-time. The BLS also noted that dental hygienists can be paid in a variety of ways, including daily, on commission, hourly or by salary.

The career field was projected to grow much faster than average, with a 33% growth from 2012-2022. This growth was expected due to a variety of factors, including an increase in preventative care for patients, an aging population and dentists hiring more hygienists to perform routine care so they can see more patients.

Education Requirements and Skills

The American Dental Hygienists' Association (ADHA) notes that all 50 states require hygienists to be licensed or registered, and the education requirements vary by state. You typically need to earn at least an associate degree from a CODA-accredited program. Several different educational options are available, according to the BLS, depending on your career interests. The CODA accredits certificate, associate, bachelor's and master's degree programs. However, the certificate and associate degree programs are designed for private practice, whereas bachelor's and master's programs are for teaching or school health positions. Accredited programs allow graduates to take required licensing examinations and enter the career field.

Depending on the education program, students must complete anywhere from 2-6 years of education, which combine classroom learning with hands-on clinical experiences in dental hygiene. Technical and interpersonal skills are important, so practical training will help develop familiarity with the machinery and instruments you'll be operating, as well as develop compassion for your patients. It can also help your dexterity, which is another useful trait to have as dental hygienist. Programs typically examine anatomy, nutrition, dental pharmacology and dental ethics.

Licensing Information

In every state - with the exception of Alabama, which has their own exam - you must pass the American Dental Association's National Board Dental Hygiene Examination. It consists of written and clinical examinations, which test your knowledge and skills in dental hygiene. Upon passing the exams, you receive the designation of Registered Dental Hygienist (RDH). Some states also have additional licensing requirements, which vary. Continuing education is required in order to maintain licensure over time. Licensing may not be transferable amongst states.

What Employers are Looking For?

Employers are looking for hygienists who have completed accredited programs and hold an RDH. Additional requirements may include work and computer experience. Though the job listings below only provide a glimpse into the career expectations, it will give you an idea of what employers were seeking in March 2012:

  • A general dentistry practice in Wisconsin is seeking a part-time RDH for 3 days of work per week. Requirements include familiarity with both paperless and digital work environments, as well as organizational and communication skills.
  • A Boston, MA health services company seeks a dental hygienist to travel to different locations. The preferred candidate must be a Registered Dental Hygienist with experience. The job listing notes there is the potential to provide emergency dental care.
  • A temporary dental hygienist is needed by a family dental practice in Florida. To qualify for this position, you must be licensed in the state of Florida and have experience working with digital radiography equipment. Professional appearance and the ability to work nights and weekends is also required.

How to Stand out in the Field

While it's been noted that this is a competitive career, joining a professional dental hygienist or dentistry association can be helpful. They can provide insight into job opportunities, as well as networking, education and conference opportunities. Many states offer professional associations, such as the Arizona State Dental Hygienists' Association.

Alternative Career Paths

Dental Assistant

Would you like to work in the dental field, but don't think a career in dental hygiene is for you? Dental assistants work in the same field as hygienists, but they have easier entry requirements. Most education programs can be completed in a year or less. Dental assistants have less complicated tasks, and they work under the direct supervision of dentists. Unfortunately, their salaries suffer by comparison as a result, with assistants earning mean annual salaries of just under $35,000 as of May 2011. Still, excellent job growth was expected, at 31% between 2010 and 2020, so the overall career outlook was projected to be strong.

Registered Nurse

If you like the idea of helping others but don't want to be restricted to oral hygiene, you may want to consider registered nursing. Registered nurses (RNs) have similar educational levels to dental hygienists. They may complete an Associate of Science in Nursing program to qualify for the required licensing exam. They also have a similarly in-demand career, with a projected 26% job growth for RNs from 2010-2020, according to the BLS. They earn amazingly similar wages, averaging roughly $69,000 as of May 2011. RN careers can be more hectic and stressful, with them needing to be on call more often. However, they do have more career advancement opportunities, with a plethora of possibilities in advanced practice nursing to choose from

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