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How Long Does a Dental Hygienist Have to Go School?

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In the medical field, doctors top the list of high-earning professionals, but not everybody is ready to invest all those years in expensive schooling. If you want a medical career that requires less college but still pays well, a job as a dental hygienist might be your ticket. An associate’s degree in dental hygiene opens the door to an impressive salary and great employment prospects. Here’s more information to help you decide.

What Do Dental Hygienists Do?

A dental hygienist’s job is to assist a dentist in caring for their patients’ teeth. A dental hygienist’s primary responsibility is to clean and treat teeth, removing tartar, stains and plaque, and applying products like protective fluorides. In addition to performing teeth cleaning, dental hygienists inspect patient’ gums for gingivitis and other oral health issues.

Think of the last time you went to the dentist. Did someone take dental X-rays? That person was very likely a dental hygienist. They also are the ones who talk with you about your oral habits and instruct you in brushing and flossing correctly. They record all the information they gather in a patient’s chart and report it back to the dentist.

State laws often regulate the types of tasks that dental hygienists are permitted to perform. Almost all hygienists work in dental offices, and the supervising dentist also may set limits on their range of responsibilities.

What Skills Do You Need to Become a Dental Hygienist?

If you’re considering training as a dental hygienist, it’s important to think through the kinds of skills you would bring to the job. Even after you obtain the appropriate training, you can be happy and successful in this career only if your personal skills line up with the job requirements.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics lists these traits as important qualities for dental hygienists. You’ll need to already have these skills or develop them to be good at the job:

  • Critical thinking. This means that you have to review a patient’s teeth, gums and oral health objectively and put the pieces together to perform a factual evaluation the dentist can rely on to develop a treatment plan.
  • Communication skills. Dental hygienists serve as the link between patients and the dentist. As a dental hygienist, you’ll have to communicate effectively, with the ability to pass on information to the dentist about the condition of a patient’s teeth and gums. Additionally, you should be able to inform the patient about the steps they need to take to improve their oral hygiene.
  • Detail oriented. There’s no room for sloppiness in a dental hygienist’s work. If you aspire to this career, you should know how to follow given protocols as you gather information for the dentist. Sometimes, you’ll be in charge of setting up a treatment plan. In some states, dental hygienists can work independently, while in others they work under a dentist’s direct supervision.
  • Dexterity. Working as a dental hygienist is definitely a hands-on job. Dental offices aren’t usually roomy, and it takes precision and dexterity to get work done in the small space available. If you become a dental hygienist, you will need to use a variety of tools on the job, including hand tools, power tools, ultrasonic tools and, sometimes, even lasers. Anyone who is clumsy will have a hard time doing a good job.
  • Interpersonal skills. Many people are afraid of dentists and dental work. Very few people like pain or shots to the gums. A hygienist must be supportive and sensitive to their fears while also coordinating with the dentist to accomplish the work required.

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How Long Does a Dental Hygienist Go to School?

One of the best parts about selecting a career as a dental hygienist is the limited schooling you’ll need to get your foot in the door. In most jobs that command good salaries, a bachelor’s degree from a four-year college is the minimum requirement. And to be an attorney, accountant, dentist or doctor, you’ll have many years of graduate school.

What kind of schooling is required to be a dental hygienist? You can enter this career straight from community college. A typical dental hygienist associate’s degree will be in dental hygiene. These classes can take as little as two years, but they often extend over three years. Dental hygienist classes include courses in anatomy, gum disease and medical ethics, and they usually include laboratory, clinical and classroom instruction. If you’ve taken biology, math and chemistry in high school, it will help you do well in a dental hygienist program.

That’s not the only option, however. If you prefer, you can get a bachelor’s degree in dental hygiene or even a master’s degree. The higher degree is necessary if you plan to go into research or teaching. You’ll need a four-year or a graduate degree to work in a public or school health program.

Do Dental Hygienists Need to Get a License?

Getting that dental hygienist associate degree is not the end of your preparation process. You’ll also need to get licensed by the state you want to work in. While the requirements for getting licensed vary from state to state, all states require dental hygienists to be licensed.

How do you obtain a dental hygienist license? You’ll need to earn that degree in dental hygiene from a college or a technical school that’s accredited by the state. After that, you have to sit for and pass different written and practical tests. Your state’s Board of Dental Examiners will have complete information about testing and other requirements.

Even after you get a license, you’ll have to continue to study. To keep your dental hygienist license current, you must take classes and fulfill continuing education requirements. Doing so ensures that dental hygienists stay up to date on the latest procedures and research.

Do Dental Hygienists Make Good Money?

A dental hygienist salary is one of the factors that attract people to this career. It’s hard to think of another career in which you can earn an excellent salary with only two to three years of education in the field.

The Occupational Employment Statistics, released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics each year, lists the median annual wage for different careers. For dental hygienists in 2018, the mean annual wage was $74,820.

Remember that “mean” is slightly different from “average.” A mean annual wage means that half of the polled hygienists earned less, and half earned more. The lowest-earning 10 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, earned dental hygienist annual pay of less than $51,930. The top 10 percent of dental hygienists took home more than $101,820.

Do Dental Hygienists Have to Work Full-Time?

Another draw to this career is the possibility of working less than full-time hours. It’s quite common for dental hygienists to work part-time. Sometimes, a hygienist may work a few days a week for one dentist and a few days a week for another, working the number of hours that add up to a full time position. But, it’s also possible to only put in 20 hours a week if that works out better with your other life pursuits.

If you aren’t employed full-time as a dental hygienist, you may work by the hour. Dental hygienists working by the hour command more than $35 an hour.

Are Dental Hygienists in High Demand?

Some careers that look good today may look worse tomorrow, while others, like dental hygiene, have improving job prospects. That’s another big plus for those considering a career in dental hygiene. This lucrative career is booming, and the future should be even brighter. The government projects that jobs in this field will increase by 20 percent from 2016 to 2026.

About the Author

Teo Spengler has worked as a trial lawyer, a teacher and a writer at various times in her life, which is one of the reasons she likes to write about career paths. Spengler has published thousands of articles in the past decade including articles providing tips for starting a job or changing careers. Her work has appeared in numerous online publications including Legal Zoom, eHow Business, Livestrong, SF Gate, Arizona Central, Houston Chronicle, Navy Federal Credit Union, Pearson, Quicken.com, and Working Mother websites. She holds a J.D. from U.C. Berkeley, an M.A. in English and an M.F.A. in fiction.

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