Dental Hygienist Careers and Education Tracks

Read about dental hygienist education and careers, including job description, required education and salary.

The Basics: Dental Hygienist

What you'll do:
Working side-by-side with a dentist, your main concern will be preventative oral health care, cleaning patients' teeth and educating them about caring for their teeth and gums between dental appointments.

Where you'll work: Private dental offices, hospitals, public health clinics, dental schools, research facilities

Degree you'll need: At least an associate's degree

Median annual salary: $70,210*

How to Become a Dental Hygienist

Thinking about becoming a dental hygienist? You're about to embark on a growing career that was also ranked No. 5 in U.S. News & World Report's 2015 "100 Best Jobs" list. But how do you get from here to there? To become a dental hygienist, you'll need to complete two steps.

  1. Dental hygienist school: Most dental hygienists earn an associate's degree, which takes about two years to complete. Your schooling will include time in the classroom and lab as well as a period of clinical experience. The latter is necessary to give you real-world experience before you embark on your career.

  2. Licensing: All 50 states require dental hygienists to be licensed. In order to start the licensing process, you'll need to graduate from an accredited dental hygiene school.

When you're ready to become licensed, contact your state boards to find out what requirements need to be fulfilled. Typically, you'll need to pass a national board exam and a state or regional clinical exam. In addition, you'll need to be CPR-certified and undergo a background check.

Dental Hygienist Education and Qualifications

To become a dental hygienist, you'll need either a 2- or 4-year degree in dental hygiene. Most programs are two years long and lead to an associate's degree. They are offered through community colleges and technical colleges.

Your coursework will include classes such as the following:

  • Anatomy and Physiology
  • Microbiology and Immunology
  • Introduction to dental hygiene
  • Dental anatomy
  • Radiology
  • Periodontics
  • Pharmacology for dental hygiene
  • Patient/Pain management

Your studies will encompass laboratory, clinical, and classroom instruction.

Dental Hygienist Degrees

From associate's degrees to master's degrees, you'll have plenty of dental hygienist schooling options to choose from. Weigh the differences between the programs to decide which one will bring you closer to your career goals.

Associate's Degree

While you'll learn dental hygiene techniques and procedures, a dental hygiene associate's degree will help you better understand basic and dental sciences. During the course of your studies, you'll learn how to make decisions about patient care, hone your critical thinking skills and improve your problem-solving abilities.

Earning a dental hygienist associate's degree will prepare you to work with patients from various backgrounds and teach you how to interact with different healthcare professionals.

In addition to dental and science courses, you'll also earn a liberal arts education. Classes such as English composition and public speaking will give you a well-rounded experience and prepare you for the working world.

Dental Hygienist Education Requirements

One of the best ways to learn about a dental hygienist program's requirements is to attend an information session. During one of these meetings, you'll get a synopsis of the program and you'll be given an opportunity to ask questions.

In order to begin a dental hygiene associate's degree program, students are usually required to complete a certain number of prerequisite courses with a GPA of 2.5 or higher. The topics can range from science to communications:

  • Sociology
  • Human anatomy
  • Chemistry
  • Sociology

Degree-completion Programs

Designed specifically for dental hygienists with an associate's or certificate, a degree-completion program results in a baccalaureate degree. You must have a license to practice in order to enroll. Since the program is designed for dental hygienists who are already working, you'll find that some schools offer their curriculum completely online or in a hybrid format. In many cases, you won't be required to fulfill clinical requirements.

While these programs generally take between 15 and 18 months, students are often allowed to take courses at their own pace. This flexibility will come in handy if you're juggling a full-time workload and other obligations. 

Since your entry-level associate's degree program gives you the practical skills to work as a hygienist, a bachelor's completion program will focus primarily on teaching you leadership skills and familiarize you with evidence-based practice and public health dentistry.

In order to enroll, you'll typically need a 2.5 GPA or higher and a current dental hygienist license.

Bachelor's Degree

Pursuing a 4-year degree in dental hygiene studies is particularly useful if you plan to teach, participate in research or work in clinical practice in public or school health programs. Some dentists also prefer to hire hygienists with a bachelor's degree.

Like an associate's degree, you'll have to complete prerequisite coursework for a bachelor's program. While many of your classes—dental anatomy, radiology, dental materials—will be the same whether you earn an associate's or bachelor's, the latter will allow you to dig deeper into the profession.

Here's a look at the more complex topics you may address in a 4-year program:

  • Teaching strategies for dental professions
  • Dental public health and research
  • Business management
  • Introduction to independent practice

Master's Degree

Although it's not necessary to work as a dental hygienist, a graduate degree in the field can propel you into careers in education, leadership, advocacy and administration. Dental hygienists with advanced dental hygienist schooling often go on to work as:

  • Oral disease prevention specialists
  • Program directors
  • Researchers

The program can take between one and two years to complete, depending on if you attend part-time or full-time. After completing the appropriate coursework, students are usually required to submit a capstone project. You'll typically have to conduct research in a particular area of dental hygiene.

In order to apply to a master's-level dental hygiene program, you'll need the following:

  • BS in dental hygiene or related field
  • 0 or higher GPA
  • Current dental hygiene license
  • College transcripts
  • Letters of recommendation

Accredited Dental Hygiene Schools

Determining which dental hygiene school to enroll in is often an exercise in comparing program criteria. You'll consider which ones offer flexible schedules, affordable tuition and respected professors. Be sure to add accreditation to your checklist.

Attending an accredited dental hygiene school is necessary to become licensed in your state. The Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA) reviews a school's course descriptions, objectives, learning experiences and curriculum content, among other things. This process ensures a school meets high standards and students can rest assured they're receiving a valuable education.

If you're like most students and plan to apply for federal financial aid, be aware that schools lacking accreditation are not eligible for government funding.

Licensing and Certification

Each state requires dental hygienists to be licensed, and requirements vary by state. For most, licensure requires a degree from an accredited dental hygiene program and passing written and clinical exams administered by the American Dental Association's (ADA) Joint Commission on National Dental Examinations.

After earning licensure, dental hygienists may use "RDH" after their names to signify that they are a Registered Dental Hygienist.

Check with the medical or health board in the state you choose to work in.

As you begin your journey toward a dental hygiene education, it can be beneficial to shadow a dental hygienist in your area. Not only will the experience give you a chance to see the ins-and-outs of the profession, but some schools will value (and sometimes require) this additional step.

Sources: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics 2014-15 Occupational Outlook Handbook; Dental Hygienists.

*The salary information listed is based on a national average, unless noted. Actual salaries may vary greatly based on specialization within the field, location, years of experience and a variety of other factors. National long-term projections of employment growth may not reflect local and/or short-term economic or job conditions, and do not guarantee actual job growth.