How to Become a Dental Hygienist: Careers and Education Tracks
Dental hygienists have more school and career options than ever. Learn about the different job and degree programs.
The Basics: Dental Hygienist
Never before have dental hygienists had such a wealth of opportunities for their schooling and careers. Gone are the old stereotypes of a hygienist confined solely to a traditional clinical practice. Today’s dental hygienist is found everywhere from the classroom to the corporate office. Here’s how to become a 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. You’ll provide advice for the use of the best oral care equipment, and you’ll use a variety of tools to clean and polish teeth, including scrapers, ultrasonic, power and laser devices. You’ll also take and develop X-rays and document your patient’s treatment and new and ongoing issues.
Where you’ll work:
Private dental offices, hospitals, public health clinics, dental schools, research facilities, administration and advanced practices.
Degree you’ll need:
At least an associate’s degree. Most programs take approximately two years and all states require dental hygienists to be licensed, though exact requirements may vary by state.
Median annual salary:
Some hygienists receive benefits such as health insurance and vacation, and you may receive free dental checkups as part of your benefits package.
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 and #32 on their 2016 survey. But how do you get from here to there? To become a dental hygienist, you’ll need to complete two steps.
- 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.
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 as well as completing continuing education courses on an ongoing basis throughout your career.
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
- Pharmacology for dental hygiene
- Patient/pain management
- Medical ethics
- Head and neck anatomy
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.
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:
- Human anatomy
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.
If you’ve left the field for a time because of family or other work commitments but are interested in returning to dental hygiene as your career, you’ll find re-entry education courses to help you get there. The good thing about re-entry programs is that schools will often tailor them to your needs, though most require a pre-screening or phone interview to determine whether or not you are eligible. You also must have graduated previously from an accredited dental hygienist program. Most re-entry programs require more than one participant, and may also require you to do your clinical work on weekends.
Although bachelor’s degree programs for dental hygienists are less common than an associate’s degree program, you can find some that will prepare you for a career outside—as well as inside—the dental office. 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
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
- Leaders in alternative dental hygiene career paths in the fields of education, healthcare, research and public health
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
- 3.0 or higher GPA
- Current dental hygiene license
- College transcripts
- Letters of recommendation
- Scores from the GRE
- Some schools may require you to compose a career statement or ask you to submit your resume
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Accredited Dental Hygiene Schools
Determining which dental hygiene school to enroll in is often an exercise in comparing program criteria. In order to fully learn how to become a dental hygienist, you’ll need to 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.
Common state requirements may include the following:
- You must be of good moral character
- Pass the written and clinical American Dental Hygiene Licensing Exam with a score of 75 or better on each section
- Pass the national board exam administered by the Council of National Boards of the American Dental Association
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.
Choosing a Career with a Great Future
Outlook for Dental Hygienists through 2026
If you’re committed to the idea of attending dental hygienist school and then becoming a dental hygienist, you can take satisfaction in knowing you’ve made a great choice. Not only are salaries better than average and working conditions often flexible, you’re choosing a career that promises a healthy job growth over at least the next decade. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics says the job growth for dental hygienists will be 20 percent through at least the next decade, which is much faster than average for all other occupations.
With such a bright outlook, it’s the right time to start researching education programs that can help you become a vital part of this in-demand profession.
Sources: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics 2018-19 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.
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