Career Advancement in Dental Hygiene

Expanding Knowledge and Work Experience in the Oral Health Field.
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Becoming a practicing dental hygienist can take less than four years, but career advancement in this field takes much more time, education and focus. Most dental hygienists work with people to maintain or improve their oral health, but those who continue education in dental hygiene may find work in public health, government, research, education and administrative positions, depending on where their personal interests lie. Learn more about the career advancement possibilities available to dental hygienists interested in exploring the field below.

The US News “100 Best Jobs for 2016” ranks dental hygienist 32 out of 100. In the more specific field of healthcare support, dental hygienist ranks number 2 out of 24.

Motivation Map for Dental Hygienists

Entry level dental hygienists typically have an office routine, cleaning teeth and keeping an eye out for any potential oral concerns in patients. The day-to-day work does not change much, but for those interested in advancing their career, the field of dental hygiene is more expansive than many realize. Take a look at the following career map example and get motivated to move forward.

  • Associate Degree

    Earn a two- or three-year associate degree in dental hygiene through a certified program.

  • Licensure

    Pass the National Board Dental Hygiene Examination and also 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 specialize in higher education and learn more about dental hygiene 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.

Degree Paths: Career Advancement for Dental Hygienists

After getting an associate degree in dental hygiene, students looking to advance their career have many different educational options to explore. While initial hygiene certifications focus on patient care, higher education programs allow students to delve into the administrative, governmental and public service aspects of dental hygiene.

  • Educational Option
  • Prerequisite Degree
  • Average Tuition Cost (ADEA 2015)
  • Estimated Timeline
  • Possible Areas of Study
  • Associate Degree

  • High school diploma, completed prerequisite coursework

  • $22,692

  • 1 to 3 years

  • Dental assistant, dental hygiene

  • Degree Completion, Bachelor’s Degree

  • Certificate or associate degree, license to practice

  • Varies

  • Varies depending on previous credits; 1 to 3 years

  • Dental hygiene, sales, dental management, education, research

  • Gap-Year Bachelor’s Degree Students

  • High school diploma, completed prerequisite coursework

  • Varies

  • Varies depending on previous credits; 1 to 4 years

  • Entry-Level Baccalaureate / Bachelor’s Degree

  • High school diploma, completed prerequisite coursework

  • $36,382

  • 4 years

  • Entry-Level Post-Baccalaureate Degree

  • Bachelor’s in another field

  • Varies

  • 18 months to 2 years

  • Dental hygiene, education, research, administration, public health

  • Master’s Degree

  • Bachelor’s degree

  • $30,421

  • 2 years

  • Dental hygiene, education, advocacy, administration, leadership

According to the American Dental Education Association there are currently 335 accredited entry-level dental hygiene education programs, 50 bachelor’s programs and 16 master’s degree programs in the U.S.

Dental Hygiene Degree Differences

Because there are such a wide variety of career advancement options for dental hygienists, determining the right degree level to pursue can be tricky. Students should consider how much time, energy and interest they are willing to invest, as well as the following fast facts about degree levels before enrolling in a continuing education program.


Certificate, associate degree, bachelor’s degree and entry-level post-baccalaureate degree programs all prepare students to work as clinical dental hygienists.


Bachelor’s degree, entry-level post-baccalaureate degree, degree completion and master’s degree programs prepare students to become educators, researchers or administrators.


Degree completion programs are designed for practicing dental hygienists who have a certificate or associate degree and would like to finish a bachelor’s degree.


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 education options.


Most higher-level dental hygiene degree programs require students to complete prerequisite courses in math, English and the sciences before applying to the program.

Guide to Career Advancement: Non-Traditional Students

Dental hygiene is an all-encompassing profession practiced across the globe. Whether students seeking to advance their careers have come from somewhere outside of the United States or have spent years working in another profession, dental hygiene is attractive field for non-traditional students to enter thanks to high starting salaries. Here are some profiles and tips for non-traditional students merging into the oral healthcare community.

Foreign-Educated Students

Students who were educated in another country through a program not accredited by the American Dental Association’s Commission on Dental Accreditation may join a dental hygiene program with advanced standing depending on their previous credits, experience and the American program they are applying to. These programs can usually be completed 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 exam to verify that they can communicate clearly with patients in English. Students may have trouble finding financial aid since they are not United States citizens, but there are resources specifically for international students to help locate scholarships and loans for attending an American dental hygiene program.

Career Changing Students

For people who think about pursuing dental hygiene after getting a degree in another area of study or after working in another field, it is possible to enter an associate, certificate or bachelor’s degree dental hygiene program. These programs may require students to complete prerequisite general education classes and shadow current dental hygienists, 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 wellbeing, or some other reason – should spend that year researching dental hygiene programs. Advisors can help gap year students figure out their options, plan their application process. These students should be sure to stay in touch with people willing to write recommendation letters for them.

Salary Information: Advanced Dental Careers

Dental hygiene is a unique field that tends to pay well above other dental or health related professions for entry-level work. That can make a career change a difficult choice. With starting salaries typically lower than a full-time dental hygienist’s salary, career advancement may actually mean a step backwards financially. The chart below details some common career jumps for dental hygienists. Individuals should also assess their passion, the potential for rapid advancement and the long-term value of higher-level specialization that can make career advancement appealing.

Advanced Career Median Annual Salary Minimum Educational Requirements
Dental Hygienist $72,330 Associate degree
Public or Community Health Specialist $49,212 Varies, up to Bachelor’s degree
Dental Sales Representative $49,997, plus commissions Varies, up to Bachelor’s degree
Dental Hygiene Instructor $53,000 Bachelor’s degree, work experience
Certified Dental Practice Office Administrator $54,500 Certificate
Certified Dental Laboratory Technician $57,000 Associate degree, certificate
Registered Nurse $67,490 Bachelor’s degree, licensure
Product Development Engineer $69,709 Post-baccalaureate degree
Dentist $158,310 Doctoral or professional degree

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

Job Market: Advanced Dental Careers

Dental hygienists are in high demand, but there are also a lot of people pursuing entry-level dental hygiene careers. Though job growth statistics in advanced dental hygiene positions vary widely, positions that require further education often offer more job openings. The American Association of Dental Schools has also noted a shortage crisis in the number of dental hygiene instructors, providing a potential landing place for hygienists interested in career advancement. Check out other growing dental advancement options below.

Advanced Career Growth Projection Minimum Educational Requirements
Dental Hygienist 33.3 percent Associate degree
Certified Dental Practice Office Administrator 36 percent Certificate
Dental Assistant 24.5 percent Certificate, Registered Dental Assistant certification
Dentists 16.3 percent Doctoral or professional degree
Orthodontists 16.3 percent Doctoral or professional degree
Postsecondary Instructor 13 percent Master’s or doctoral degree
Certified Dental Laboratory Technician 2.6 percent Associate degree, certificate

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

Career Advancement: Is it the Right Time?

For dental hygienists with an entry-level position, the day-to-day routine of working with patients and cleaning teeth may get dull. It can be difficult to tell if it is the right time to make this change; there are a number of factors to consider, including finances, true professional passion and job security. The factors below speak to the current state of the dental hygiene industry, and include questions hygienists looking into career advancement opportunities should consider.

Questions to Ask Yourself What is my passion?

Maybe dental hygiene was a forever-career, maybe it wasn’t. Either way, hygienists should assess their passions when thinking about career advancement. Those passionate about helping underserved patients could consider a new career in public health, while those interested in dental technology could consider moving into dental research.

Can I handle the time commitment to continue education?

Making a career change impacts many other areas of a dental hygienists life. Be honest about the time commitment it will take to pursue an advanced career. If it will require more schooling, what will class and study time take away from? Is there family to support, or is being a full-time student an option?

What are the financial implications?

Many career advancement options for dental hygienists involve going back to school, but hygienists looking to make a more lateral move may find other fields don’t offer as much financial satisfaction. Be honest about financial needs, and assess whether or not a lower starting salary in another field will lead to greater career advancement options in the future.

The State of the Dental Hygiene Field Growing Employment

Dental hygiene is a field that the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects to grow at a rate high above the national average. The entry-level wages are good and work is consistent, often with flexible hours for those who prefer to work part-time.

New Workplaces

While dental offices will always need and hire dental hygienists, there are growing workplace opportunities for dental hygiene professionals. The American Dental Hygienists’ Association predicts more jobs for dental hygienists to be added into community centers, retail locations and within healthcare organizations.

Expanded Employment Opportunities

Continuing education opens up career possibilities in dental hygiene administration, research, education, technology and practice advancement, licensure and regulation, public health and governmental programs. There are many resources to address various job opportunities and plan further education goals.

New Markets

The retiring generation and the rise of cosmetic dentistry is opening up new opportunities for dental hygienists to get different kinds of licensure. Dental implants alone are estimated to be a global industry of $3 billion according to the American Dental Hygienists’ Association. Dental hygienists interested in pursuing new certifications may choose to explore this market, among other specializations.

Dental Educator Crisis

A 2000 report from the American Association of Dental Schools found that, because of the increase in associate degree programs for dental hygienists and current educators retiring, there is a shortage of dental hygiene educators. Current professionals with a higher degree and work experience can find work in this field, educating a future generation of dental hygienists.

While the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that most dental hygienists worked in dental offices as of 2014, the American Dental Hygienists’ Association predicts that there will be many more opportunities for dental hygienists to work across a range of fields outside clinical practice.

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, "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?

AI 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?

ADental 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?

AInvolvement 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, which is a very individualized process. There are a lot of organizations designed to support aspiring dental hygiene professionals at every stage of their education process.

  • American Dental Association

    This association is 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 and career resources.

  • American Dental Hygienists’ Association

    This association offers scholarship resources, continuing education programs, and state-level organizations for members. It is a great networking resource for dental hygiene students and current practicing professionals.

  • Colgate Professional

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

  • The DALE Foundation

    This continuing professional education group provides resources for dental assistants, office managers, dentists, and dental educators. For dental hygienists interested in pursuing alternative careers, this is a great resource for study materials and career development planning.

  • Dental Assisting National Board, Inc

    This certification organization provides further licensure and certification exams in fields such as Radiation Health and Safety. They have resources on state requirements and how to maintain certification as well.

  • National Dental Hygienists’ Association

    This education and outreach organization also offers members networking opportunities at conventions and has continuing education resources. They are particularly supportive of minorities in the dental hygiene profession.

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