What Is the Best Degree Path for Becoming a Dental Hygienist?

Dental HygienistA college degree is one of the only things standing between you and a rewarding career in dental health, and the educational preparation could take a lot less time than you think. As a dental hygienist, you will work directly with patients and in conjunction with dentists. You will check and clean patients’ teeth and provide preventive care. You can also enjoy benefits like a good salary, rapid job growth and a lot of flexibility. The first step to the career is earning an associate’s degree.

An Associate’s Degree in Dental Hygiene

Unlike dentists, aspiring dental hygienists don’t have to spend years and years in dental school. A two-year degree from a program accredited by the Commission on Dental Accreditation is sufficient for most entry-level dental hygiene positions. There are currently more than 330 dental hygiene programs for training entry-level candidates, according to the American Dental Hygienists’ Association.

As a dental hygiene student, your education won’t be limited to the classroom. You will also complete laboratory and clinical work to fully develop your knowledge and hands-on skills. Coursework will include nutrition, anatomy and physiology, radiology and gum disease, also called periodontology.

Beyond the Associate’s Degree

Earning an associate’s degree in dental hygiene is the first, and perhaps most important, step to this career. Even after getting your degree, though, you will need to obtain a license to practice in your state. In most states, this means earning a passing score on an examination as well as holding a degree from an accredited program. Some dental hygienists choose to further their career through additional studies. They can earn a bachelor’s or even a master’s degree in dental hygiene. The associate’s degree in dental hygiene can even prepare students to ultimately earn their Doctor of Dental Surgery degree and become dentists.

Is a Career in Dental Hygiene Right for You?

The ideal candidate for a dental hygienist career has the dexterity to learn the technical skills required to clean teeth, but must also communicate well with others. The best dental hygienists have the compassion and interpersonal skills to relate well to patients and put nervous patients at ease. They must also pay close attention to details, like office procedures and potential symptoms of diseases.

There are many advantages to a career in dental hygiene. Despite only needing an associate’s degree, dental hygienists earn a median salary of $70,210 per year, according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). That’s more than twice the median annual wage for all occupations. The job outlook is highly positive, with the BLS predicting a 33 percent increase in opportunities over a decade compared to just 11 percent growth expected across all occupations. Given the high salary, excellent job prospects and other benefits, U.S. News & World Report recently ranked dental hygienist fifth on its list of the 100 Best Jobs. The work of a dental hygienist is rewarding in more ways than one.

Brenda Rufener

Julie McCaulley

Carrie Sealey-Morris