Staying Sure-Footed on the Path to Success
Strategies for career development
The traditional employment setting for dental hygienists is within a private dental office. There are, however, a plethora of other career paths that a dental hygienist can choose to pursue, varying in style, location, and focus. Today, dental hygienists have more opportunities than ever before, including but not limited to settings in the corporate, public health, or education worlds, or career paths in administration, research, and traveling or temping.
The flexibility and options available make a career as a dental hygienist quite appealing. "I became a hygienist because I really liked my hygienist," explains Tricia Osuna, RDH. "I've stayed with it for more than 40 years because of the variety of opportunities this career has provided." It is up to each individual to decide which career path they want to pursue and how and where they want to put their education and experience to good use.
Factors for Consideration
When it comes to charting your own path as a dental hygienist, it is important to first understand the legal requirements of licensure. In addition to graduating from an accredited dental hygiene program and successfully completing the written National Board Dental Hygiene Examination, most states require the successful completion of a regional or state clinical board exam. As requirements vary from state to state, it is necessary to contact the licensing authority in your state to find out its specific application requirements and procedures.1
When it comes to compensation, hygienists must know their value and be able to articulate that both numerically and anecdotally. "I think most people go into hygiene because they like healthcare, the financial opportunities, and the potential flexibility," says Osuna. "However, it takes a lot of commitment to get where you want to be financially." Negotiating with your employer is key.
There are many online resources that aggregate salary information by employer, location, and other factors. These can be useful to get a ballpark idea of a reasonable salary. It is also important to know if there is a scarcity or a plethora of dental hygiene professionals in your area. In addition, consider the overall economy; coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic some dental practices are still struggling. If an employer isn't in a place to offer your desired salary, there may be other aspects of the job that can be negotiated. A job package includes a variety of negotiable components including not just salary, but bonuses, health and retirement benefits, vacation and sick leave, continuing education, and even an allowance for tools and instruments. "I was in a situation once where because I was moving to a state where salaries were lower I was going to take a cut in my hourly wage," explains Ashley Leavitt, RDH. "So, OK, how do I make this work for me? Well, I found an office that had state-of-the-art technology to work with, and I negotiated a monthly bonus."
Being able to convey your personal value by sharing real-life examples of your contributions is also a useful negotiating skill. "It's critical to learn the art of negotiation and to know your strengths," explains Osuna. "For example, I brought patients with me when I started at a new practice. That's a negotiation tactic." A negotiation isn't about creating a winner and a loser; the most successful negotiations between a hygienist and a new employer are win-win.
When considering a job, consider the whole picture. Are finances the only factor or are there other priorities competing with salary? "For me, a certain work-life balance is key," explains Leavitt. "I work hard to play hard. At times, the flexibility to travel and participate in small missions to Haiti has been a real priority for me." The best work-life balance is unique to everyone. Similarly, what you prioritize at work may differ from what another hygienist values.
"When you're considering working in an office, go into the room and look around. What equipment do they have? Does that equipment work? Sit in the chair; does it go up and down? How does the office flow?" says Osuna. "Ask questions and pay attention."
Leavitt agrees. "It's not just about who pays best," she says. "I need to work with a doctor who I'd trust to do work on me. The doctor's integrity is crucial because as the hygienist I'm going to sell the patient on a product or treatment, and I need to believe it's the right option for them." Coworkers, technology and equipment, and office organization are all critical components to a successful career experience.
New career opportunities can sprout from a variety of circumstances. For Osuna, many of her advancements sprang from her involvement with the local, and then state, dental hygienist associations. "There are more and more opportunities the more involved in the community you get," explains Osuna. "I remember once I gave a speech and was so nervous, but it turns out someone there said I had a knack for it. I wrote a course, had slides made, and went to a relatively remote area to give the course. A company representative was there. I asked him for critical feedback, he gave it to me, and that's how my lecturing career started." Many career opportunities will only open with time, commitment, and experience. "I get this question about career paths all the time, and I tell everyone, ‘You must work clinically for at least two years before you can go into sales or a corporate job.' Because if you don't, you won't understand dental hygienists in clinical practice and what our day is like," explains Osuna.
If and when hygienists decide to diversify their careers, experience and education will open doors. Dental hygiene experience can lead to employment in many nontraditional settings, such as government education, research, sales and marketing, or public health.
Both Osuna and Leavitt agree that networking is key. "When it comes to finding a new job, there's no better referral than one that comes from another dental hygienist," says Osuna. Traditionally, job boards like DentalPost can be quite useful, too. It's important to join the community, whether virtually or though in-person networking, and ask around. Leavitt has moved around a lot, practicing in several different states. "When I get to a new location, I join the local Facebook group for people in the dentistry field," she explains. "If I want to temp next week, I'd post there and then network with the people who respond."
The American Dental Hygienists' Association (ADHA), as well as state and local dental hygienist associations, are great places to meet and learn from experienced individuals in the field. "I joined the association right away as a volunteer," explains Osuna. "I soon became a legislative chairperson and worked my way up leadership to state office in southern California. When we merged with northern California, I became an officer in the new association, the California Dental Hygienists' Association. The people I've met through the CDHA have opened countless doors throughout my career."
Working in a private dental office continues to be the primary place of employment for dental hygienists.2 At the same time, there have never been more opportunities for professional growth and career diversification for today's dental hygiene professionals. Through networking, on-the-job experience, and continuing education, dental hygienists can excel in the fields of education, research, administration, public health, and advanced practice
In addition to clinical practice, diversifying your education, building additional business skills, increasing your knowledge of state practice acts and rules, and learning more about healthcare administration and technology may prove crucial in finding and negotiating your next career move.
1. Dental licensure and CE requirements maps. ADA website. https://www.ada.org/resources/licensure/dental-licensure-by-state-map. Updated May 27, 2022. Accessed June 20, 2022.
2. Dental hygine career paths. Georgia Dental Hygienists' Association website. https://www.gdha.org/dental-hygiene-career-paths. Accessed June 20, 2022.