When you think of the dentist’s office, you probably picture the guy or gal who sticks needles in your gums and yanks out your teeth. But behind every good (and sometimes scary) dentist, there is a friendly but highly trained dental hygienist.
Demand for dental hygienists in the US is on the rise. In fact, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) expects career opportunities to grow by 20% between 2016 and 2026, though Tammy Filipiak, president of the American Dental Hygienists’ Association, told me she predicts even faster growth — closer to 30% in the next 10 years. Either way, it is faster than the average growth rate across all industries (7%).
Opportunity, good pay and a wide array of other benefits make now the perfect time to pursue a career in dental hygiene.
What Is the Day-to-Day Like for a Dental Hygienist?
Filipiak outlined the typical duties of a dental hygienist in a clinical setting. “Working in a dental office continues to be the primary place of employment for dental hygienists. In the clinician role, dental hygienists assess, diagnose, plan, implement, evaluate and document treatment for prevention, intervention and control of oral diseases, in collaboration with other health professionals.”
During a typical day, a dental hygienist in a clinical setting — like a dental practice, hospital, university, nursing home or prison — might clean a patient’s teeth, take X-rays and even spot the signs of gingivitis.
But one of the big draws of the career, said Filipiak, is the variability in the path you can take. She pointed to options in corporate settings, like sales representatives or corporate administrators, and positions in public health providing dental care to those who can’t afford it, in roles such as state public health officer, community clinic administrator or a hygienist in a rural or inner-city community clinic.
Dental hygienists can also go into the research field in settings like government agencies and nonprofits. “Quantitative research involves conducting surveys and analyzing the results,” Filipiak explained, “while qualitative research may involve testing a new procedure, product or theory for accuracy or effectiveness.”
A career in dental hygiene also opens you up to a future as an educator. “Dental hygiene educators are in great demand,” Filipiak told me. “Colleges and universities throughout the US require dental hygiene instructors who use educational theory and methodology to educate competent oral health care professionals. Corporations also employ educators who provide continuing education to licensed dental hygienists.” Roles include clinical instructors, corporate educators and program directors.
Filipiak even detailed potential entrepreneurial career paths. Some dental hygienists go on to develop consulting businesses, found nonprofits and product development companies or even become professional speakers and writers on oral health.
Simply put, the day-to-day life of a dental hygienist can be varied — and ultimately, you will have the flexibility to shape it the way you want.
What Skills and Qualities Do Successful Dental Hygienists Need?
So what makes for a talented dental hygienist? Filipiak cited problem-solving skills as a top quality, but she also pointed to professionalism, compliance with protocol and an analytical mind. “They embrace lifelong learning,” she told me, “and understand the importance of collegial relationships to build a professional team.”
The American Dental Education Association points to traits like patience, passion and positivity, which highlights the fact that dental hygienists are in a customer service role, serving people who are often nervous and in need of comfort. Also important are attention to detail and physical stamina, as days are spent mostly on your feet.
The Challenges of Being a Dental Hygienist
Dental hygienists play an important role in patient health, which means high-pressure decisions and full attention day after day. They typically also balance a number of priorities at work each day, Filipiak said.
The physical nature of the job can lead to common injuries. Because of the routine motions and the frequent bending, dental hygienists can be prone to carpal tunnel syndrome and ruptured discs in the spine, according to “Modern Hygienist.”
Dental hygienists often have to placate very nervous patients and deal with a range of emotions. On top of it all, they sometimes interact with some very gross stuff. (Remember that the next time you consider skipping brushing before bed.)
The Rewards of Being a Dental Hygienist
It’s not all uphill battles with bad breath and carpal tunnel. Being a dental hygienist comes with a number of big perks. The largest that Filipiak pointed to was the flexibility within the field, which allows dental hygienists to shape the exact career they envision for themselves.
Not to mention, they make darn good money. According to the BLS, the median salary for a dental hygienist in 2016 was $74,070 a year, which is roughly $35.61 an hour. Benefits and convenient work schedules tend to be equally as rewarding.
But for Filipiak, the real reward of being a dental hygienist comes from the work they do. “Dental hygienists play an important role in promoting oral health and providing care to patients,” she told me. It’s that ability to make a difference in someone’s health that truly makes the career path one to follow.
How to Become a Dental Hygienist
To become a dental hygienist, you can seek a certificate or a degree. Beyond entry-level certificate programs, you can pursue an associate degree or a bachelor’s degree and, eventually, a Master of Science in dental hygiene. The level of education you seek could determine the ease with which you secure a job and the level of flexibility you have to expand your career.
You can browse for ADHA-accredited entry-level programs in your state here, for associate and bachelor’s degree programs here, and master’s programs here. The ADHA also offers student resources and scholarships through its Institute for Oral Health.
A certificate and/or a degree is not enough, however. Certificate holders and graduates of an associate or bachelor’s program will still need to take — and pass — the National Board Dental Hygiene Examination. The ADHA offers an exam guide and a National Board Review course to help you out.
Finally, you will be required to take continuing education courses throughout your career to remain certified.
If you are looking for a new career but dental hygiene isn’t right for you, Codetic has identified 12 other jobs that are in high demand — with no Bachelor’s degree necessary.
Timothy Moore is a writer, editor and regular tooth brusher living in Germantown, Ohio. In the early 2000s, he was the cool kid with glow-in-the-dark braces; now his mouth is just full of coffee breath.