Becoming a dental hygienist is a great career path if you’re interested in the dental sciences, want to help others and have a solid career future. While you don’t have to pursue a four-year degree to enter the field, dental hygienists work reliable hours and make a comfortable living, with an average national income of $77,000 a year.
For those who don’t know, hygienists are assistants to dentists, who provide support for dental health. The most important tasks they perform include:
- Using tools to remove tartar, plaque, and stains from a patient’s teeth;
- Applying preventative treatments like fluoride and sealants;
- Taking and developing X-rays;
- Keeping records during cleanings and communicating concerns with the dentist;
- Assisting the dentist in critical procedures, like anesthesia administration and the removal of sutures.
So how exactly does one become a dental hygienist?
Course of Study
Most states require you to attain an Associate’s Degree before you can seek licensure. You can earn an Associate’s through a two-year course of study at a technical school, a community college, or a university. Wherever you choose to study, the program must be sanctioned by the Commission on Dental Accreditation.
There are four major fields of study that you’ll explore: general education, biomedical sciences, dental sciences, and dental hygiene science. While the majority of these topics focus on dental health, general education might include courses in psychology, communication, or business—all of which may prove helpful in your long-term career path.
But your course of study won’t be confined to the classroom. During the first year, you’ll have between 8 and 12 hours of hands-on clinical practice each week. And in your second year, that will increase to 12-16 hours. All of this means that by the time you land a job, you will already have loads of experience behind you.
Get your License
After you finish the courses and receive your Associate’s Degree, you’ll be on track toward a state-level Dental Hygienist License. To qualify for the license, you’ll first have to pass the National Board Dental Hygiene Examination. All-Allied Health Schools, an online career resource for the healthcare industry, describes the exam this way:
“The test consists of 350 multiple-choice questions broken into 2 parts: discipline-based and case-based components. The test is scored on a scale of 49–99, with 75 being the minimum score for passing.”
Still, each state has it’s own criteria for licensure. That means you may have to take an additional state-specific exam, to prove your knowledge of local regulations and general technique. Once you pass all requisite exams, you’ll finally be licensed.
Renewing your License
The dental field is always changing, with new scientific developments and systems emerging each year. As a result, dental hygienists are expected to seek ongoing education and to renew their license every 1-3 years.
“The American Dental Association (ADA) offers countless ways for you to earn your continuing education,” explains All-Allied Health. “You can search through a database of both live and online courses that cover a variety of topics.”
Additionally, the ADA provides online resources for finding dental hygienist jobs in your area. Most such jobs will be in a private dentist’s office, though dental hygienists are also needed in nursing homes, clinics, dental schools and research institutes.
Ready to cut your teeth in a dental hygiene career? Head to the Commission on Dental Accreditation search engine to find the right program for you.