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What is a Dental Hygienist?
Dental hygiene is the area of education and practice that deals with the proper care and maintenance of one's oral cavity, including the gums and teeth. Individuals in this field are referred to as dental hygienists, and responsible for cleaning the oral cavity as well as identifying any ailments or disease that may be present. Additionally, dental hygienists provide education in the proper care and treatment of one's mouth in order to continue cleanliness at home.
What Does a Dental Hygienist Do?
The dental hygiene profession is an integral part of any dental office or dentistry organization. Dental hygienists are customer-facing and engage directly with patients on a daily basis. They identify issues and remediate problems before they become larger issues. Common types of services a dental hygienist performs include the removal of tartar, plaque, and various stains from a patient’s teeth using a variety of tools and equipment as well as teeth cleanings. A teeth cleaning can range from a deep, intensive cleaning to more topical cleanings followed by a fluoride application. The intensity and frequency of cleanings depend on the regiment required to properly maintain a patient’s teeth & overall oral wellness.
Types of Dental Hygiene Schools
A dental hygienist must attend school as a prerequisite to pursue a dental career in any licensed practice. The majority of states require a dental hygiene graduate to successfully pass state mandated examinations prior to working in the field. Dental hygiene programs can be part of a community college, vocational school, dental hygiene specialty school, or 4-year colleges.
Community College – A community college is often associated with being a 2-year school geared towards providing students with an associate degree; however, many accredited community colleges in the United States have recently begun to add bachelor’s degree tracks for in-demand professions. In terms of dental hygiene programs, students enrolled in a community college will likely discover a broad-based curriculum to support the evolving needs of the dental field. With electives that may include creative writing, public speaking, or philosophy a dental hygiene student will be exposed to material in the classroom to help them think and engage.
Vocational School – As a rule of thumb, a vocational school is a school that targets skill development making work-readiness a top priority. Most vocational school programs result in dental hygiene students earning a certificate after completing the requisite coursework. Upon certificate completion, a dental hygiene student will often work in a dental clinic or a dental office.
Dental Hygiene School – Another option is for students to consider a degree track in dental hygiene found within a dental school. These programs tend to provide students with more science-heavy courses than a community college. Dental schools will often provide healthcare curriculum plus research and operations coursework to help prepare students for career mobility after graduation.
Four-Year College or University – A 4-Year college or university may offer dental hygiene bachelor degree programs which require students to successfully completed lower level courses prior to matriculation. A four-year college or university offering dental hygienist degree programs offer hands-on learning opportunities and in-depth curriculum to help students prepare for a long-term career in the dental field. While most 4-year programs require exposure to a variety of general education courses, the research and case studies in dental hygiene provide for a well-rounded graduate.
Individuals interested in studying dental hygiene will typically earn a certificate or associates degree through a program that takes between one and two years to complete. This is the minimum requirement for most dental offices. Bachelor and master degrees are less common, though available, and are typically required for research positions, teaching positions, or for employment in certain programs or public schools.
A curriculum may include:
- Oral Communication
- Tooth Morphology
- Head and Neck Anatomy
Which Dental Hygiene School is Right for Me?
While determining which dental hygiene school is right for you is a very personal choice, there are a few essential keys to getting matched to the right school for you. The critical factors for any student looking to enroll in a college program for dental hygiene include: program quality, accreditation, curriculum, program breadth, and timing.
Accreditation – If your goal is to find a long-term career in dental hygiene, it is highly recommended to align yourself with an accredited higher education institution. Accredited schools are best equipped to prepare students for state licensure examinations and work in the field. Look for schools to have CODA (The Commission on Dental Accreditation) affiliation to help ensure the best possible schooling experience for your investment with the highest probability of finding work in the dental field upon program completion.
Curriculum – The curricular design will vary from school to school with CODA accredited schools adhering to a base set of courses. In addition to the accreditation, seek out programs that have a rich clinical experience for students. Schools that have on-site dental offices or community partnerships with private dental practices are a positive sign you will have solid clinical exposure during your time in school.
Program Emphasis – As you may expect, not all dental hygiene programs are created equal. Aside from the school type, you should apply to programs that offer the career path you are most interested in pursuing. More specifically, if you intend to perform research in the dental field after graduation make sure to align yourself with an accredited program that emphasizes dental research.
Timing – If your ultimate goal is to move from school directly into the workforce on an abbreviated schedule, you may wish to seek out colleges that offer accelerated dental hygiene programs. An accelerated program will provide students with a short, intense program which is contrasted with a longer, broad-based curriculum found in a four-year college or university.
Typical Dental Hygiene Program Requirements
Program requirements for CODA accredited higher education institutions will generally have similar requirements for incoming students. The program requirements you should be prepared for regardless of the institution type or geographic location will include:
- Experience – From academic experience to work experience, colleges will likely require more experience with higher-level degree paths. More specifically, the work experience and classroom requirements for a bachelor’s degree program will be greater than the criteria for a certificate program in dental hygiene.
- School – Most students will have already completed a set of general education courses prior to applying to a dental hygiene program at an accredited institution. For example, a student applying to a master’s degree program in dental hygiene will have already completed the requisite coursework for a bachelor’s degree program.
- DAT – The DAT, Dental Admissions Test, is required by most high-level dental programs across the country. The Dental Admissions Test is administered by CODA as is constructed to provide higher education providers with an applicant’s potential for success. For further information, the DAT program guide can be found here.
- Letters of Recommendation – Receiving letters of recommendation from current and previous teachers and managers is a must for most admissions officers. A letter of recommendation speaks to your character, work ethic, and competencies. These letters of recommendation are taken into consideration along with your application and interview to create a holistic profile of you.
- Application – The details provided on your dental hygiene college application will include personal information, socioeconomic information, and a personal statement. Be prepared to invest time to create a quality application along with a financial investment to send your application to the school’s admissions office.
- Transcripts – Your transcripts are the final piece of the puzzle in this guide. Transcripts are the non-opinionated, data-driven piece of the overall application. How you performed in previous classes may be an indication of your future success so establish good work habits early to maximize your options later in life.
What Dental Hygiene Degree Options Exist?
The three primary buckets of dental hygiene degree programs include an associate degree, bachelor’s degree, and master’s degree. Students may elect to jump on the fast track and complete an accelerated dental hygiene certificate program instead of the degrees listed below. Remember, the timing, cost, program breadth, focus, and curriculum will vary from program to program so perform your research early. If you are looking to advance your career in the dental field, the degree programs below may be worth further consideration.
Associate Degree in Dental Hygiene – An associate degree program for dental hygiene students is a two-year program geared to provide the essentials. The associated degree program is often designed to be a focused program with few general education courses. A cross-section of classes may include: dental materials, dental anatomy, dental radiology, chair-side assisting, and human anatomy & physiology. For CODA accredited schools, students should expect to apply to entry-level dental hygiene jobs upon graduation.
Bachelor’s Degree in Dental Hygiene – The bachelor’s degree track is an advanced degree program lasting 4 years. A bachelor’s degree in dental hygiene will include an array of general education courses along with core dental classes. The core classes are career-focused and geared towards specific areas within the dental field which may include: dental practice management, dental hygiene research, dental law & business ethics, periodontics, pharmacology, and advanced clinical research. Bachelor’s degrees are often a requirement for students looking to work in a managerial or supervisory capacity after graduation.
Master’s Degree in Dental Hygiene (MSDH) – While not a mainstream degree track, a master’s degree in dental hygiene is a two-year program after successful completion of a bachelor’s degree. These high-level courses in healthcare and dentistry are often couched in deep research, industry best practices, public health-based for dental practitioners and future teachers. Courses you may see in the MSDH program are: leadership, teaching dental hygiene, grant writing, community health advocacy, epidemiology, and health research topics.
Online Dental Hygiene Programs – The online dental hygiene programs have been growing in popularity in the recent past. From certificate programs through higher-level degree programs, an online delivery method continues to gain popularity from students and academics. An accredited online program may be right for you if your schedule, learning style, and work ethic support the distance learning model.
Dental hygienists are typically employed in dental offices and work alongside dentists and dental assistants. They provide care and treatment for patients during routine cleanings. Hygienists must wear protective gear when working on patients or clients, and when working may have to spend extensive amounts of time on their feet. Many dental hygienists work part time, coming in for specific appointments. Some hygienists may work at multiple dental offices in order to maximize earnings. Employment for specialized programs or for research will be more competitive and difficult than those typically available at a dental office.
Job Growth, Salary and Related Fields
Job growth is expected to increase rapidly over the next decade as healthcare becomes more widely available and the need to maintain healthy teeth becomes more widespread. This combined with the growing amount of information that connects oral health to overall health means that hygienists will be in high demand. The average salary for dental hygienists is $68,000 annually, and is increased based on experience, education, location and hours worked. Individuals interested in dental hygiene may also consider careers in dental assisting or dental laboratory technology.
For further research, consider visiting the following resource articles to learn more about the dental hygiene career path and associated college programs. From the latest employment statistics to career FAQ’s to career options, we have the resources to help you make the most of your career.
- Dental Hygiene Career Pathways
- Dental Hygiene FAQ’s
- Dental Hygienist College Programs by Degree Level and Award Type
- Latest Employment Statistics for Dental Hygienists
If you are looking for additional information on a future in the dentistry field, read our comprehensive career guide on our blog which includes job duties, common treatments, educational requirements, dental specialties, and job outlook information for dentists, dental hygienists, dental assistants, and dental lab technicians.