7 Steps to a Rewarding Career as a Dental Hygienist (RDH) [Including Salary Info.]

Published: August 3, 2018

According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, expects the need for registered dental hygienists (RDH) to grow by as much as 19% between 2014 and 2025.

And the world of work is changing, as the “gig economy” takes hold. Workers are opting for a more flexible career in which they can control their time and choose employers that offer them the freedom and flexibility to design their own lives around their own unique talents, skills, and values.  

Healthcare workers – particularly those in the dental health industry, are no exception.

If you’re currently working as a dental hygienist and want to re-evaluate your current position, or if you’re just starting to research career and educational opportunities, the following seven steps will outline how you can pursue a successful, rewarding career as a dental hygienist.

1. Take inventory of your own talents, skills, and personal qualities

Make sure you know what it takes to succeed as a Dental Hygienist, and determine whether you possess the necessary skills, talents, and values to choose such a career.

An honest, personal inventory is a great place to start. Here are some questions to prompt your thinking:

  • What are your requirements for work-life balance?
  • What kind of salary and benefits are most appealing to you?
  • Do you love working with people? Or are you more comfortable working alone?
  • Do you prefer working in a large company or a small business?
  • Are you comfortable dealing with people for hours on end who might be difficult, anxious, or in pain?
  • Can you work with your hands using delicate tools in close spaces?
  • Are you able to be empathetic yet clinical and detached while helping people who are injured, in pain, or neglectful of their own oral hygiene?
  • Are you good at teaching, training, or educating people about processes?

Before you invest the time and money in pursuing an education, find and interview dental hygienists who love their work, and ask for their honest opinions about the career. Compare their answers to your personal skills and personality inventory to see if a career in dental hygiene would be a good fit for you.

2. Understand the Dental Hygienist’s daily responsibilities and basic duties

The Dental Hygienist is usually the first person a patient sees for treatment at the dentist’s office. Typically, the hygienist…

  • Conducts the initial examination of the patient’s teeth and gums
  • Reports their findings about the patient’s oral health to the dentist
  • Provides a thorough cleaning to remove tartar, plaque, and stains from the patient’s teeth
  • Uses precision tools including air-polishers, ultrasonic devices, lasers, and x-ray equipment
  • Treats the patient’s teeth with fluoride or sealants
  • Provides thorough flossing and cleaning
  • Often takes x-rays or impressions to help the dentist determine a treatment plan that might include orthodontics, prostheses, and endodontics.
  • Educates and counsels the patient about effective flossing and brushing techniques, and flossing
  • May counsel the patient about how proper oral care affects overall health

3. Understand the skills and personality traits necessary to succeed

Successful dental hygienists who are happiest in their career possess a blend of skills and character traits that include…

  • Effective interpersonal and communication skills allow the Dental Hygienist to explain the procedures they are performing to the patient, as well as conduct a thorough medical history to relay the patient’s state of oral health to the dentist.
  • Teaching skills help the Dental Hygienist communicate best oral care practices to patients and educate them about their to overall health. The hygienist not only instructs patients about proper brushing and flossing techniques, he or she also demonstrates how to clean braces, bridges, or prosthetics.
  • Time management skills are necessary to treat patients efficiently, courteously, and respectfully while guiding them and handing them off through the appointment process.
  • Empathy and compassion are necessary personality traits to enable the hygienist to deal with patients who might feel nervous, anxious, or even frightened in the treatment chair – especially young children or those patients who may have neglected their oral care.
  • Technical skills, including manual dexterity and the ability to work in tight spaces with small precision instruments, are an absolute requirement for success.

4. Choose the appropriate educational path for your goals

Associate’s Degree

The basic educational requirement for becoming a Dental Hygienist is an associate’s degree in dental hygiene from an accredited program. The Commission on Dental Accreditation (CDA), operated under the American Dental Association (ADA) provides such accreditation to over 300 such programs. A typical program takes three years to complete. Community colleges, technical institutions, universities, and dental schools offer such programs, as do online universities.

To apply for an associate degree program, you must complete prerequisite classes in human anatomy and physiology, microbiology, and organic chemistry, and then pass an ACCUPLACER Dental Hygiene examination. When you are accepted into the program, you will complete a sequence of classes to gain theoretical knowledge and clinical experience that can include dental anatomy, dental radiography, oral pathology, and prevention of oral disease.

Once you have completed your coursework, you can take the clinical and written examinations that enable you to become a registered dental hygienist (RDH), and then move toward a career in a public or private dental practice.

Bachelor’s Degree

While most hygienists opt for an associate’s degree to begin their careers, bachelor’s degrees in dental hygiene are increasingly available on campuses and online. If you are interested in pursuing research or clinical practice opportunities, a bachelor’s degree might be a more appropriate choice.

A bachelor’s degree will also help you stand out in an increasingly competitive job market. A Bachelor of Science (BS) degree in Dental Hygiene is a four-year degree program that combines a general education curriculum with basic science courses and dental hygiene classes. The difference between a four-year Bachelor’s Degree and a three-year Associate’s Degree program is the depth to which dental hygiene subjects are covered and emphasized. For example, in a Bachelor’s program, you will learn more than just the basics of how to educate patients on good oral health. You will learn how to provide care plans specific to a variety of populations and ages, including school children, the elderly, and socially disadvantaged.

If you already hold an associate degree, you might elect to use your credits toward earning a bachelor’s degree. Required courses and lab work include anatomy, physiology, biology, microbiology, chemistry, and nutrition, as well as English, speech, sociology, and psychology.

Dental hygiene-specific coursework to earn a Bachelor’s degree include oral biochemistry, preventative dental care, periodontal disease, and principles of pharmacology.

As with the associate’s degree, once you graduate you can sit for examinations and work in a variety of settings from private dental practices to school health programs.

Master’s Degree

Some hygienists, especially those who want to pursue advanced research or careers in public or educational health, choose to earn a master’s degree in dental hygiene. Such programs are available, but not common. According to the American Dental Hygienists’ Association, in 2015 there were 21 master’s degree programs in dental hygiene in 15 states.

To apply, you must have completed a basic dental hygiene preparation program and earned a bachelor’s degree (not necessarily in dental hygiene). If you pursue your master’s degree full-time, it can take a year to complete. If you attend school part-time, it can take two to three years to complete.

Common courses at this level include systematic research writing, systemic dental conditions, dental hygiene theory and science, and geriatric and pediatric oral health and dental issues. In addition, you’ll need to pass a comprehensive examination, and in some cases, complete a capstone project and field work.

At this level, a world of possibilities opens up to you. You can serve as a researcher, as academic faculty, and as a leader in dental health and education programs at a local, regional, even national level.

Education and Career Options

While an associate’s degree enables you to work as a generalist in a private or public dental practice, a bachelor’s or master’s degree in dental hygiene will allow you to focus your career in any of a number of specialties and earn progressively more salary.

Some of the most common specialties or concentrations and their average salaries (as reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics) include:

  • Dental Hygiene Educator – $49,931

Dental Hygiene Educators specialize in studies emphasizing not only oral health, but also adult education theory. Coursework includes curriculum design and student assessment, and dental hygiene educators often teach at community colleges, vocational schools, universities, or dental schools.

  • Public Health Administrator – $62,246

For this position, you would include coursework in community dental health, public policy development, and human resource management.

  • Pediatric Dental Hygienist – $72,330

Some dental hygienists concentrate on the care of young children, taking classes that focus on the growth and development of baby and permanent teeth, issues surrounding thumb sucking, creating a safe environment for children, and topics affecting pediatric dentistry.

  • Periodontal Dental Hygienist – $72,330

Periodontal dental hygienists focus on diseases that affect the health of teeth and gums, and practice in both private dental offices and public health agencies. Their education focuses on oral cancer screenings, tongue hygiene, denture care, nutrition, and holistic oral care and treatment.

5. Obtain the appropriate license for your state

Regardless of the educational path you choose, you must be licensed by the state in which you intend to practice. While state requirements for licensing vary, the basic components include:

  • A diploma from a CDA-accredited program
  • Successful passage of the National Board Dental Hygiene Examination a comprehensive written test
  • Successful passage of a state or regional clinical board examination

Once you complete these three steps, you are fully licensed as an “RDH” or Registered Dental Hygienist, and can add that credential to your name.  

6. Pursue continuing education requirements

Continuing education keeps dental hygienists updated on current procedures and technology throughout their careers. State and Regional chapters of the American Dental Hygienists’ Association offer continuing education courses, as do local dental hygiene programs offered by colleges and universities. For those hygienists wishing to learn online, Colgate’s Oral Health Network offers free live webinars on a variety of subjects.

7. Use the best available resources to find the perfect dental hygiene job and achieve your personal and professional goals

For career resources and more information about Dental Hygienist Degree programs, contact the American Dental Education Association.

The American Dental Hygienists’ Association operates as the “voice” of dental education nationwide, acting as a special interest group for the clinical coordinators of dental hygiene programs.

The membership-based American Dental Hygienists’ Association provides assistance with continuing education courses and advocates for dental hygiene professionals, sponsoring annual events, and publishing materials of benefit to dental hygienists.

The International Federation of Dental Hygienists promotes the work of dental hygienists worldwide, and offers research grants

For more than five decades, the National Dental Hygienists’ Association has supported its members by providing scholarship programs, continuing education, and annual events.

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Regardless of your experience – whether you’re a newly licensed RDH or a seasoned dental professional, we’d be delighted to help you find the perfect practice, clinic, or organization to put your professional skills to the best possible use.