How to Be a Dental Hygienist
Have you ever considered a career as a dental hygienist? If so, you’d be joining a growing field. The U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that employment opportunities for dental hygienists will grow about 10% through 2031. That’s more than 16,000 job openings each year for the next 8 years.
Furthermore, dental hygienists earn a good salary—about $77,000 per year.
If you’re thinking that becoming a dental hygienist might be a good career move, then keep reading to learn what it takes to be a dental hygienist.
What is a Dental Hygienist?
Dental hygienists are licensed professionals who work alongside dentists and other oral healthcare providers. The main goal of a hygienist is to help patients maintain good oral health and detect signs of oral disease and dental problems.
What are the Duties of a Dental Hygienist?
The duties of a dental hygienist may vary depending on which dentist you’re working for and what state you’re in.
However, most dental hygienists can expect to:
- Perform routine teeth cleanings using the appropriate dental instruments.
- Sterilize dental instruments.
- Remove plaque and tartar from a patient’s teeth.
- Screen patients for signs of oral cancer and/or gum disease.
- Assist the dentist with more complex oral procedures.
- Take x-rays of each patient’s jaw.
- Talk to the doctor about potential issues they’ve found.
- Demonstrate proper brushing and flossing technique to patients.
Where do Dental Hygienists Work?
About 99% of dental hygienists work in private dental offices. However, some dental hygienists are employed by public health clinics, hospitals, nursing homes, or schools.
Most dental hygienists have a good work/life balance. As a hygienist, your days may start about 8:00 a.m. or 9:00 a.m., depending upon the dentist’s office hours. But your day will typically end between 3:00 p.m. and 5:00 p.m.
Some dentists may require you to work on a Saturday. However, many dentists typically close their office one day during the week, so that’s a bonus day off. Or you may work for another dentist on your day off and make some extra money.
How to Be a Dental Hygienist
Each state has its own requirements for obtaining a dental hygienist’s license. However, these are the basic steps you should take in order to become a dental hygienist.
1. Get your associate degree
One good thing about becoming a dental hygienist is that you only need an associate degree, which should only take two years at a community college, technical college, or vocational school.
You can expect to take courses on human anatomy, chemistry, radiology, periodontics, statistics, public health, patient care, and dental instruments.
When searching for a program, make sure it’s accredited by The Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA). There are approximately 300 CODA-approved programs within the United States. Find a program near you.
Some people wonder if getting a bachelor’s degree will help them in their career as a dental hygienist. For the most part, getting a bachelor’s degree isn’t necessary. Most employers will expect dental hygienists to have an associate degree and nothing beyond that.
2. Take the National Board Dental Hygiene Exam
After you’ve received your degree from a CODA-approved program, you’ll have to sit for the National Board Dental Hygiene Examination (NBDHE), which contains 350 multiple-choice questions covering anatomy, pathology, patient care, community health and more topics.
The highest score you can earn on the exam is 99, but you must get a score of at least 75 to pass. If you take the exam and fail, you may take it again after 90 days.
3. Go through state licensing
Once you pass the NBDHE, you’ll need to investigate what else may be required by your state’s Dental Board for you to obtain a dental hygienist license. Many states will require you to pass a state-level exam in addition to the NBDHE.
4. Complete an internship
An internship will help you gain real-world experience as a dental hygienist. You’ll get to observe how other hygienists and the dentists interact with each other and their patients. You’ll see what a typical day for a dental hygienist looks like.
You will also have the opportunity to do some hands-on work under supervision.
Internships are not required to become licensed. However, you may be a more attractive candidate to employers if you list an internship on your resume—especially if you’re just starting out. Your school should be able to assist you with finding an internship opportunity.
5. Apply for jobs
Once you’ve gotten your state license, you’re ready to start applying for jobs at dental offices.
Make sure you first have a strong resume and cover letter. Then, practice your interview skills and have answers to some common questions prepared. For example, you can expect a potential employer to ask questions such as:
- What was your dental hygienist training like?
- Why did you choose a career as a dental hygienist?
- How would you help calm a patient who is fearful of dental work?
- Can you perform well under pressure?
- How well do you communicate with others?
- How would you stress the importance of flossing to a patient?
- Are you comfortable around children, adults, and seniors?
One good way to prepare for an interview is to set up a mock interview with an advisor or a teacher. This will help you practice answering common interview questions, and you’ll get immediate feedback on your answers from a trusted source.
6. Go for more training
Once you’re a dental hygienist with an established career, you may want to consider additional training.
Some continuing education training courses may be required every year or every two years for you to maintain your dental hygienist license. Even if these courses are optional, you should take them to make sure you stay up to date on the latest advancements in dental care.
If you want to move your career away from private practice and into public health, education, research, and/or clinical care, then you’ll most likely have to get your bachelor’s degree in dental hygiene.
Consider a Career as a Dental Hygienist
Dental hygienists earn good salaries, enjoy satisfying work/life balance, and are highly employable. Those are some of the reasons why dental hygienist is #35 on U.S. News and World Report’s list of 100 Best Jobs.
If you like helping people, have in interest in dental care, and don’t want to endure many years of schooling before you start to work, then becoming a dental hygienist may be right for you.
Maria Gold is a Content Manager/Writer for Empire Resume. She is dedicated to helping educate and motivate people with the latest career articles and job search advice. Her interests range from writing to programming and design. She is also passionate about innovation, entrepreneurship, and technology.