Career Advancement in Dental Hygiene

ASO Staff Writers
Updated July 26, 2023
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Becoming a licensed dental hygienist can take about three years. Career advancement takes more time, education, and focus. Most dental hygienists work with people to maintain or improve their oral health.

Individuals who continue education in dental hygiene may pursue public health, government, education, and administrative positions, depending on their interests. Learn more about career advancement possibilities for dental hygienists with the following guide.

Motivation Map for Dental Hygienists

Dental hygienists typically work in dental offices cleaning and examining patients’ teeth. They also keep an eye out for any potential oral health concerns. Individuals looking to advance their careers can pursue several opportunities in the field, including clinical practice, education, and research.

Take a look at the following career pathway example:

  • Associate Degree: Earn a two-year or three-year associate degree in dental hygiene through a certified program.
  • Licensure: Pass the National Board Dental Hygiene Examination and get a state license to practice dental hygiene.
  • First Job: Practice as an entry-level dental hygienist.
  • Bachelor’s Degree: Enroll in a degree completion program for a bachelor’s degree in dental hygiene.
  • Management Job: Land an advanced position in dental hygiene, moving away from direct patient care into managing a dental or public health office.
  • Further Education: Get a master’s degree in dental hygiene to learn more about dental hygiene education and research.
  • University Professor: Work in higher education, shaping the next generation of students as a dental hygiene professor and spearheading dental research studies on the side.

According to the American Dental Education Association, there are currently 327 accredited associate-level dental hygiene education programs, 51 bachelor’s programs, and 17 master’s degree programs in the U.S.

Degree Differences in Dental Hygiene Education

With many career advancement options for dental hygienists, determining the right degree to pursue can be tricky. Students should consider how much time, energy, and interest they can invest in their program before enrolling.

The following information details how specific degree programs can lead to distinct career pathways.

  • Certificate, associate degree, bachelor’s degree, and entry-level post-baccalaureate degree programs prepare students to work as clinical dental hygienists.
  • Bachelor’s, post baccalaureate, degree completion, and master’s programs can prepare students to become educators, researchers, and administrators.
  • Degree completion programs suit practicing dental hygienists who have certificates or associate degrees and would like to finish their bachelor’s degrees.
  • Most undergraduate degrees in dental hygiene require students to attend classes on-campus full time, while degree completion programs and master’s programs commonly offer online options.
  • Most higher-level dental hygiene degree programs require students to complete prerequisite courses in math, English, and the sciences before applying.

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Guide to Career Advancement: Nontraditional Students

Dental hygienists practice across the globe. Whether students come from outside of the United States or have spent years working in other professions, dental hygiene offers an attractive field with high starting salaries. Here are some profiles and tips for learners looking to join the oral healthcare community.

Foreign-Educated Students

Students educated in other countries through programs not accredited by the American Dental Association’s (ADA) Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA) can join dental hygiene programs with advanced standing, depending on their previous credits, experience, and the specific U.S. program. Enrollees can usually complete these degrees in less than three years.

International Students

International students who speak English as a second language will have to take the Test of English as a Foreign Language.

International students may have trouble finding financial aid, but they may qualify for institutional aid. Resources specifically for international learners help identify scholarships and loans for attending dental hygiene programs in the U.S.

Career-Changing Students

Individuals considering the dental hygiene field after earning degrees or working in other areas can enter certificate, associate degree, or bachelor’s degree dental hygiene programs.

Schools may require students to complete prerequisite general education classes, depending on the amount of time that has passed since graduating college.

Gap Year Students

Students who choose to take a year off — for financial reasons, mental or physical well-being, or some other reason — can spend that year researching dental hygiene programs. School advisors can help gap year students explore their options and plan their application process.

These learners should keep in touch with mentors and teachers to request recommendation letters as necessary.

Salary Information: Advanced Dental Careers

Dental hygiene is a unique field that often pays well above other dental or health-related professions for entry-level positions.

The following information details advanced career pathways for dental hygienists. Individuals should also assess their passion, the potential for rapid advancement, and the long-term value of pursuing higher credentials.

Advanced CareerMedian Annual Salary (2020)Minimum Education Requirements
Dental Hygienist$77,090Associate degree
Public or Community Health Specialist$48,140Bachelor’s degree
Dental Assistant$41,180Dental assistant non-degree program
Dental Surgeon$208,000Doctoral degree
Dental Practice Office Administrator$104,280Bachelor’s degree
Certified Dental Laboratory Technician$39,620High school diploma plus certification through National Board for Certification in Dental Laboratory Technology
Registered Nurse$75,330Bachelor’s degree
Dentist$164,010Doctoral degree
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS)

Job Market: Advanced Dental Careers

Dental hygienists remain in high demand. Though job growth projections in advanced dental positions vary widely, careers that require further education may offer stronger outlooks. Check out the potential dental advancement opportunities below.

Advanced CareerGrowth Projection (2020-2030)Minimum Education Requirements
Dental Hygienist11%Associate degree
Dental Practice Office Administrator32%Bachelor’s degree
Dental Assistant11%Dental assistant nondegree program
Dentists8%Doctoral degree
Dental Surgeon3%Doctoral degree
Postsecondary Instructor12%Master’s degree
Certified Dental Laboratory Technician12%High school diploma plus certification through National Board for Certification in Dental Laboratory Technology
Source: BLS

Career Advancement: Is It the Right Time?

It can seem difficult to know when to pursue career advancement. Dental hygienists looking to move into more advanced roles should consider their finances, passion for their work, and job security.

Questions to Ask Yourself

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    What is my passion?

    Dental hygienists should assess their passions when considering career advancement plans. Individuals with a passion for helping underserved patients could consider new careers in public health, while professionals interested in dental technology can pursue dental research roles.
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    Can I handle the time commitment to continue education?

    Making a career change affects other aspects of life. Consider the time commitment it will take to pursue an advanced career. Do you have other obligations like a family to support? Decide whether you can pursue part- or full-time enrollment and how this impacts the degree timeline.
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    What are the financial implications?

    Assess the costs of going back to school. Compare the upfront costs of earning a higher degree compared to your long-term earning potential after graduation. Determine what financial support avenues to pursue, including submitting a FAFSA form for federal student aid and applying for scholarships and grants.

The State of the Dental Hygiene Field

Growing Employment

The BLS projects dental hygiene employment to grow at a faster rate than the national average for all jobs. With strong entry-level wages and consistent work, these professionals can also work part time, if necessary.

The BLS projects dental hygiene employment to grow at a faster rate than the national average for all jobs.

New Workplaces

While dental hygienists primarily work in dental offices, there are growing workplace opportunities for dental hygiene professionals. The American Dental Hygienists’ Association (ADHA) reports that dental hygienists can work in corporate settings, community health centers, and healthcare organizations.

Expanded Employment Opportunities

Continuing education opens career possibilities in dental hygiene administration, technology and practice advancement, licensure and regulation, and public health programs.

The American Dental Hygienists’ Association (ADHA) reports that dental hygienists can work in corporate settings, community health centers, and healthcare organizations.

New Markets

The retiring generation and the rise of cosmetic dentistry present new opportunities for dental hygienists to receive different kinds of licensure. Dental implants alone are estimated to be a global industry of $3 billion. Dental hygienists interested in pursuing new certifications or continuing education may choose to explore this market, among other specializations.

Career Advancement: Ask the Expert

Cyndie Richardson is a dental hygienist who graduated from the Oregon Health & Science University in 1993 with a bachelor of science in dental hygiene. She keeps current by attending a monthly study club known as “The Gum Gardeners” and is contemplating pursuing an MBA in healthcare.

What kinds of programs did you look into for higher education and career advancement in dental hygiene?

I looked at schools that you earn a degree at versus a trade school. It was important to me to earn a bachelor’s degree.

What are three qualities that you see as essential to cultivate and work on in the dental hygiene field?

Dental hygienists must be passionate about people, strive for clinical excellence, and hold high standards for patient care.

What benefits have you seen in seeking career advancement in dental hygiene?

Involvement as a team member has enhanced the daily job by including responsibilities not limited to teeth cleaning.

Dental Hygiene Advancement Resources

Dental hygienists play an important role in the healthcare industry, dealing with patients at every stage of life. They educate people about preventative care and ensure continuing dental health.

Professionals at every stage of their education can join organizations to explore emerging research, network with other professionals, and engage with continuing education opportunities.

This association offers a leading source of oral health-related information for dentists and patients. In addition to promoting dental healthcare reforms, they provide members with continuing education opportunities and career resources.

The ADHA offers scholarship resources, continuing education programs, and state-level organizations for members. Dental hygiene students and current practicing professionals can join to expand their peer networks.

In addition to providing the public with oral care products, Colgate offers continuing education and scholarship opportunities to dental health professionals.

This continuing education group provides resources for dental assistants, office managers, dentists, and dental educators. Dental hygienists interested in pursuing alternative careers can use this resource for study materials and career development planning.

DANB provides licensure and certification exams in fields such as radiation health and safety. This association also features resources on state requirements and how to maintain certification.

This education and outreach organization offers members continuing education resources and networking opportunities. They aim to support minorities in the dental hygiene profession.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the first step to become a dental hygienist?

Prospective dental hygienists can start by pursuing associate degrees through accredited dental hygiene programs. Find accredited programs through Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA). Learners interested in advanced career opportunities can consider bachelor’s or master’s degrees.

What education do you need to be a dental hygienist?

An associate degree is the minimum required dental hygiene education. However, some degree-seekers pursue higher-level degrees to gain more skills and pursue advanced positions.

What is the career path for a dental hygienist?

Dental hygienists start with associate or bachelor’s programs that include classroom and clinical instruction. Each graduate must pass an exam to receive licensure through their state’s Board of Dental Examiners before beginning their dental hygienist career.

Can a dental hygienist become a dentist?

Yes. Dental hygienists with bachelor’s degrees can transition to dentistry by pursuing Doctor of Dental Surgery (DDS) or Doctor of Dental Medicine (DMD) degrees. Look for CODA-endorsed programs. Aspiring dentists must also obtain licensure through their state’s Board of Dental Examiners.

Should I be a dental hygienist?

A high starting median salary and strong growth projections make dental hygiene an attractive career choice. Dental hygienists also enjoy hands-on work, patient interaction, and plenty of advancement opportunities.

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