An Expert’s Guide for students considering pursuing a degree in dental hygiene, by Danielle Turner

What is a Dental Hygienist?

A dental hygiene specialist makes the initial assessment of a patient’s teeth and gums, takes their dental history and performs routine teeth cleanings in dental clinics. The specific duties of a dental hygienist vary depending on where they work, but some of their most common responsibilities include assisting with emergency procedures, educating patients about oral health and conducting exams for oral cancer and other diseases. Although an associates degree in dental hygiene is the most common educational path in this profession, you can also earn a certificate as well as a bachelors or masters degree in dental hygiene.

What to Look for in Dental Hygienist Programs

The best programs at the associates level will have small classes that cover subjects like general anatomy, nutrition and public health. If you enroll in a program at the bachelors or masters level, your curriculum will place more emphasis on academic skills like research and writing. Additionally, even online accredited programs require you to complete a certain number of on-site clinical practice hours where you will have the chance to put your knowledge and skills to work.

What to Expect in Dental Hygienist School

Even the most basic programs at the best schools require students to complete hundreds of hours of classroom and clinical practice time. Some of the most common courses include oral anatomy, radiology, preclinical dental hygiene and periodontology. You will also have to complete clinical practice hours that allow you to apply this knowledge in a real medical setting. Other top accredited classes train you to use standard dental materials and keep your office or clinic safe from biological or radiological waste.

The Best Dental Hygienist Courses for Students

Oral anatomy, radiology, pharmacology and nutrition are just a few of the top courses that you will take during your training. Students often find that the best classes are the ones that require hands-on training in the lab or in the clinic. Most programs also require you to take general education courses in subjects like psychology, speech and sociology. Although these classes are not directly related to your specialty, they can still teach you valuable skills that will help you become a better dental hygienist.

Dental Hygienist Certificate Programs

A dental hygienist certificate is the lowest qualification that you can earn to enter the field, but in a tight job market it makes you less competitive and thus more likely to work as a dental assistant than a hygienist in most offices. A certificate program is quicker and less expensive than the more common associates degree and it will still prepare you to earn your certification, so it is an option for those who want to enter the field quickly with the idea of entering a degree completion program at a later date. However, there are only 8 accredited certificates programs in the U.S., which demonstrates the unpopularity of the program.

Dental Hygienist Associates Degree

An associates degree is the most common entry-level degree obtained by those wishing to enter the profession and can usually be earned in 2 years, not counting prerequisites. Most private and public dental clinics will expect a job candidate to have at least a dental hygienist AS if they are to be considered as a serious candidate for a position, and you can later do a degree-completion course to gain a higher degree if you like. There are 290 accredited colleges in the U.S. from which to choose, but you should be prepared for the possibility of a waiting list.

Dental Hygienist Bachelors Degree

A bachelors degree is becoming a more common educational qualification to enter the profession, especially as the market becomes more competitive. Many programs will enable you to earn a dental hygienist BS in less than the standard 4 years, although you must prepare for a rigorous, year-round program if you choose this option. There are 54 accredited colleges in the U.S. and some of these will offer a distance-learning component for students who need that flexibility, although you will need to arrange your own clinical coursework.

Dental Hygienist Masters Degree

Ambitious, talented professionals who want to work at the top of the field pursue a masters degree so that they might go into research, teaching and administration. It can take as little as 1 year to earn a dental hygienist MS, but this will be a rigorous year of study and field work, and may not include the time required to research and write your masters thesis. There are only 20 accredited colleges that confer masters degrees, but you should still be able to find the 1 that is ideal for you.

The Pros and Cons of Attending Dental Hygienist School Online

The American Dental Hygienists Association approves a number of online schools, but it is important to be aware that these will only provide your coursework and you will be responsible for arranging your own clinical component. For undergraduate degrees, you can only do distance learning in a degree completion program, but you can earn an online masters degree. The best option for those hoping to take online courses is to use distance learning to complete prerequisites and thus be prepared to begin your degree work on a traditional campus.

How Employers View an Online Dental Hygienist Degree

The current market for hygienists is very competitive, so if you have an online BS or MS, you may be at a disadvantage with employers who can choose among top candidates. Since distance learning is still new and there are not many programs, employers might be wary of anyone with online training, since they may be perceived as not having the rigorous education expected in a traditional program. You can do better as an online dental hygienist major if you are earning a masters degree, but you will still need to prove that you are a top candidate.

Advice for Students Studying in Online Dental Hygienist Programs

Traditional programs might offer some online courses, but if you choose to do the all of your training online, you must take extra steps to guarantee a good educational experience and create a strong resume. You should choose from online universities that have been approved by the American Dental Hygienists Association if you want to be taken seriously in the profession. Distance learning can be less expensive, but many times the costs are nearly the same and there is less online financial aid available, so cost should not be a reason to opt for online education.

The Paths for Becoming a Dental Hygienist

To position yourself for a dental hygienist career, you must attend an accredited program and earn either a certificate, associates degree or bachelors degree, at which point you must pass national and state exams and then apply for a license. The best jobs will not hire anyone without an associates degree, and it will also help to have some additional volunteer experience in this competitive market. With a bachelors degree, you might command a higher starting salary, but you should still be prepared to work part time or freelance until you are established.

Dental Hygienist Certification

You cannot work in the profession without proper certification and a license, which requires that you take national and state examinations and fulfill several other requirements. As a new graduate, you must research the board in your state to determine the procedure for exam application and arrange scheduling, as well as pay all applicable fees and prepare your proof of competency in CPR and knowledge of professional ethics. You should be prepared to start at the lowest end of the salary, but if you are proactive in continuing education and gaining experience, you will excel quickly.

Dental Hygienist Job Options

Most students who pursue a degree in dental hygiene go on to enjoy a dental hygienist career, although some opt to use their skills as a stepping stone toward becoming a dentist, or teaching. In recent years, there has been a decline in the overall number of jobs available, especially full time, so you will have to develop excellent skills and make yourself invaluable to employers. The average salary remains at about $68,000, but you should be aware that the difficult market means you may need to take several part time jobs in order to make that wage.

Dental Hygienist Salary

Starting a dental hygienist career is not as easy as it has been in previous decades, and the job outlook is mixed. You should be prepared to have to work freelance or take a few part-time jobs while you search for full-time employment. The bulk of jobs have traditionally been in private clinics, but there are fewer dentists and many have had to cut staff, as have public health clinics. The median salary is $68,000, but in order to be competitive for that wage, you will have to gain a lot of experience and stand out from the crowd.

Advice for Dental Hygienist Professionals

Getting started in your career is more difficult in a competitive market, so you will have to be aggressive in building up your resume and proactive in developing a network. You should be prepared to take short-term and part-time jobs at the outset, which will be useful in giving you valuable experience and widening your network, creating opportunities for potential full-time work in the future. Do not be discouraged by the slim employment opportunities, or think that you will never earn a top salary. Instead, stay focused, positive and busy.