Dental hygiene students should anticipate a few things on the path to their careers, including growing one's network, building experience, preparing for exams, and vetting relevant career options. Read on for tools and resources that can help dental hygiene students pinpoint the best path to a career in dental hygiene while still in school.
Dental hygiene students specialize in a field the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects will grow 11% from 2020-2030, much faster than other industries. With so many people choosing this field, dental hygiene students should consider how to set themselves apart while exploring specific career paths. Supplementing classroom learning with real-world opportunities can help learners increase understanding while exploring potential specializations within the field.
Student Resources: Exploring Dental Hygiene
Fields to Explore
Being aware of potential careers within the dental hygiene field is critical for students as they start out. Determining interests early is crucial, to maximize time spent job shadowing, volunteering or interning. Explore some of the specializations dental hygiene students can use below.
Dental hygienists in the clinician role may work in a variety of settings. From private dental practices, hospitals and community clinics, to prisons, nursing homes, or schools, clinical professionals have a multitude of choices. Work duties cover oral disease diagnosis, intervention, and control to assessment and implementation of oral disease prevention plans.
Students seeking employment with private businesses and companies might gravitate towards this role. Dental hygienists interested in career advancement may find work as sales representatives, in product research and development, or as product educators or business administrators. Professionals who have interests in teaching or research will likely fit in well here.
Professionals interested in dental care policy and implementation may find their niche in the public health sphere. Most efforts go toward securing dental healthcare for people who may not have access to it because of limiting economic or geographic factors. Hygienists in this arena work as nonprofit officials, in local health departments, or in rural or urban clinics.
More science-minded hygienists can advance their careers by doing research to further the field. According to the American Dental Hygienists' Association (ADHA), scientists will do either qualitative (testing new procedures, products, or theories) or quantitative (survey conducting and analysis) research. One might find these hygienists in colleges and universities, corporations, government agencies or working for nonprofit organizations.
Through dental hygiene school, students will likely find a teacher or two that stands out. These teachers may once have been practicing hygienists, too, and likely are drawn to educating other oral health professionals after spending time in clinical practice. Instructors can work either in schools or for corporations, where they educate on a company's products or services.
There exist many hands-on opportunities and dental hygiene student resources to help stand out from the competition. Whether it is shadowing a professional in a specific role within the field, volunteering, or completing a formal internship, acquiring hours and exposure through the resources below will give students a leg up and a clear idea of what to expect from a future career.
- An opportunity for a student to follow a working dental hygiene professional through a typical work shift, to observe and learn what their day-to-day duties entail. Shadowing provides an in-depth, behind-the-scenes look inside different dental hygiene careers.
- Shadowing multiple professionals across a variety of dental hygiene careers can help students learn which part of the field is most interesting to them. Learners should reach out to the school career counselor or local dental societies to see if they offer job shadowing connections.
- Students can also research local dental hygiene professionals and offices who hold positions they are curious about. Learners should contact the office or dental hygiene professional via phone or email, introduce themselves as a student, and express interest in job shadowing for a day.
- Aspen Dental offers dental students and professionals an opportunity to shadow and work beside a dentist within their network. The Hygiene Shadow Program, supported by New Jersey Society of Periodontology and Implant Dentistry and the New Jersey Dental Hygiene Association, offers observation and mentorship opportunities with members of their professional network.
- Internships are offered in varying lengths of time determined by the organization (generally 9-12 weeks), and provide learners with real experience working in the field, ex: research projects, communications initiatives, practical dental office management, community outreach, etc.
- Some internships are paid, like those from Oral Health America or Pacific Dental Services, and allow students to branch out into specific communities and specializations (dental hygiene in at-risk communities or internationally).
- The American Institute of Dental Public Health offers dental internship programs throughout the summer months. Interns take part in interactive experiences with dental professionals across the country. Work the World provides international dental internship opportunities to those interested in gaining global experience. Interns receive placements in developing countries, joining an extensive network of dental professionals.
- Students can get involved in a state dental society, such as the local ADHA or similar organization.
- Volunteering can boost students' professional network and skillset, provide a sense of purpose, and develop stronger relationships with fellow volunteers.
- Interested learners can join the ADHA and volunteer, or use its resources to find a place that is looking for volunteers.
- Volunteers for the Global Dental Relief program travel to six countries to support dental field clinics. Program members work in teams that provide dental treatment for children. Volunteering through Wake Smile allows dental hygienists and other dental professionals opportunities to serve in clinics for patients in need of care.
- Developing a working relationship with a dental professional, whom a student can turn to for real-life advice, can be beneficial. Learners can ask questions and get guidance on everything from coursework to job prospects.
- Building a long-term relationship with someone who works in the field can lead to potential access to an established network of dental professionals.
- Learners should reach out to professors or personal connections in the dental field, including at their personal dental office.
- The Oregon Dental Hygienists' Association mentorship program provides virtual connections between dental professionals and student or new hygienists. The Dental Associates' mentorship program connects new clinical staff members with experienced team members to support learning and clinical practice.
Questions to Ask
In preparing for a job-experience opportunity, students should introspect and pose questions to their mentors. A student should often be evaluating their trajectory and asking themselves, "Am I interested in this, and what am I hoping to get out of this?" Some sample mentor questions for dental hygiene students:
What do you like and dislike about dental hygiene?
- If answered candidly, this question can elicit a very genuine response. Maybe the professional has a long list of items they do or don't like, or maybe the answer is much different than expected. This will help students determine if their chosen path in dental hygiene feels right.
Do you feel challenged by dental hygiene, and are you planning to advance your career?
- Career advancement is important in any field, and the answer to this question may give students a realistic view of those opportunities in dental hygiene. Plus, it is always great to know if someone's work gets boring, or if it is easy to keep it fresh and interesting.
What would you change if you could go back to dental school and do it over again?
- We can all learn from each other's experience. Ask dental professionals what they did right and what they would change if they could go back and start fresh. The more advice and tips students can collect, the better.
How do you balance dental office duties and life or family obligations?
- Every person has an idea of their ideal work-life balance. Some dental hygienists put their career above all else, while others believe family life, traveling, or other activities are very important. Students should find out how different dental professionals find balance, and work to apply any tips they receive.
What advice can you give me about dental school?
- Again, students should pick up as many tips and tricks as possible. Avoiding common pitfalls may help make for a smoother journey through dental school, and can set students on a clearer path towards a career in dental hygiene.
Dental Hygiene Student Networking Resources
Networks are critical for furthering opportunity; dental hygiene students should take advantage of the people they meet and keep in mind ways that they can contribute to a network. Here are some networking tips students can use as part of their dental hygiene student resources.
Tip 1: Do not be shy around dental professionals.
It is okay to make the first move and confidently introduce yourself to dental professionals. Make eye contact, shake someone's hand and smile. It can be intimidating, but keep in mind that in the dental business especially, a great smile goes a long way. Being genuine and polite are key to breaking the ice.
Tip 2: Find something in common beyond dental care.
Go beyond an interest in oral health; ask questions about colleagues, and find something else in common with them to help further the relationship. You may have grown up in the same state, or share an alma mater with a family member. These extra connections can make students more memorable.
Tip 3: Insert yourself in the dental community.
Sign up for volunteer opportunities or events sponsored by the local dental health society or clinics, or apply for a student leadership position at dental school. It may take some time and energy, but putting in the extra effort while still in school can save students precious networking time after graduation.
Tip 4: Use online networks professionally.
Keep personal profiles tidy, and know anything posted online is never 100% private. Create one professional social media page and keep the content industry-related. This is a great way to stay in touch with your dental hygiene networks and share articles, academic accomplishments, or interesting research
Dental Hygiene Websites
Learners should start using their resources and building networks while in dental hygiene school. Take advantage of opportunities to connect with dental professionals and other students through private and school organizations. Students who get involved early can learn a great deal from this collection of groups and resources in dental hygiene, as well as school-sponsored clubs and organizations.
An organization for education professionals, students, and administrators. Students get the benefit of free membership with enrollment in a member institution, and all student members can access myriad scholarships, awards, and fellowship opportunities.
A resource hub for hygienists and students, ADHA provides information for student members just starting out, either by volunteering, interning, or first becoming officially licensed. It also walks students through the final stages of exam-taking and offers advice on entering into the profession.
This organization is a membership-based student connection and support service group designed specifically for dental students. The ASDA hosts events, provides how-to information, and offers professional mentorship programs in dental health.
A diversity-focused, membership-based group that holds annual conventions, offers student scholarships and grants, continuing education, and career advancement. NDHA specifically focuses on increasing oral healthcare accessibility throughout the country and on increasing Black membership.
Exam Prep: Dental Hygiene Study Resources
The National Board Dental Hygiene Examination (NBDHE) measures cognitive skills through a 155-question short-form exam. The exam includes two components, one that covers theory and principle, and one that covers knowledge and skill. Students should not underestimate the necessary preparation. Despite a 92% exam passing rate in the previous NBDHE, the new short-form exam may provide a different challenge. Help ease exam stress with this list of study resources to ensure thorough preparation.
The American Dental Association offers a ample test for students studying for the NBDHE. The practice test uses formatting and questions similar to those on the actual National Board of Dental Hygiene Examination.
Students who are members of the ADHA can log on and prepare for exams with other students in an interactive community on this site.
Developed by a Dental Hygiene Education Consultant, students can access a collection of sample cases to assist with studying for the case-based portion of the NBDHE. The site creator also has a Facebook page providing additional resources for exam candidates.
This tool allows students to study the real NBDHE format with expert-penned questions. The study guide uses metrics to allow test takers to track their practice test time to better allocate effort to each section. The site also provides user support for additional help.
A comprehensive guide from the exam commission gives students a clear idea of exactly what to expect when they take their test. It details the content and provides preparation materials, and lays out the format of the exam questions.
This online preparation tool allows students to take a simulated NBDHE exam that looks and feels like the actual exam. This allows test-takers to improve their scores over time, estimate scores, and learn from detailed explanations of questions.
Student Wellness in Dental Hygiene School
It is completely normal for students in dental hygiene school to feel overwhelmed, especially those tackling accelerated coursework. Going through school is just as much about learning to take care of yourself as learning how to take care of patients. According to the American Student Dental Association, there are five dimensions of personal wellness to identify with: emotional, physical, intellectual, occupational, and environmental. Here are some dental hygiene student resources to maintain overall health.
The ADA hub for its student members provides information and resources to help with managing stress and balancing life, school, and work, along with more practical tips like ergonomics for back pain — a common issue for clinical dental hygienists.
A complete online guide to resources available to students as they go through school and transfer into careers as hygienists. The ASDA hosts Wellness Webinars and Wellness Challenges, and breaks down helpful information by state associations. This site dives into the five dimensions of wellness and explains how to maintain great health in each category.
This membership-based online forum for dental hygienists and students focuses on support, troubleshooting, and communications specific to dental hygiene. From blogs and podcasts to message boards, this site provides real-life peer resources and advice.
Check out the dental school's wellness center. Many dental hygiene schools offer services and resources available specifically for stress management.
After Dental Hygiene School: What's Next?
While students often prepare to work hard to achieve graduation and licensure, many underestimate the necessary time and energy it could take to land their first job. Dental hygiene school will teach students most things about oral health, but learners should have an idea about some of the additional skills that will help create a well-balanced life and success in a first job.
Resume and Interview Resources
Prepare a dental hygiene-relevant resume
Consider how you want to come off to potential employers when they see you on paper. Documenting any previous dental hygiene experience is very important. Use simple, direct language with active words, including some phrases used in the specific job posting. Make sure to include any awards you received in dental school.
Establish a dental professional appearance
Make sure your outgoing voicemail has a smooth, professional tone. Clean up your social media presence. Brush up on your phone etiquette, as many initial interviews are on the phone. Running through a mock interview process with a classmate or career counselor at your dental school can help ease nerves and prepare you for common questions dental professionals may ask.
Prepare to present yourself to dental professionals
It pays to learn more about the dental professionals or practice you interview with before you meet. The more polished you are, the more confident you will seem. Show enthusiasm for the specifics of the job, and let your genuine interest for dental health come through.
Be tenacious and gracious
Most students will not get the first job they interview for, or the second, and that is okay. Keep trying, and keep applying. Be patient and gracious, thanking the coordinators and asking dentists for interview feedback whenever possible. Going through multiple interviews in real-life dental offices will only make you a stronger candidate when the right job in hygiene comes along.
On-the-Job Advice and Resources
Ask questions of hygienists
The learning curve in the dental hygiene field can be steep. Despite all you know from school, much of what you learn comes from outside the classroom. Ask questions of your superiors and colleagues, and do not be afraid to ask if you are unsure of something or are uncomfortable with a procedure.
As with any job, first-time hygienists should lean towards formality until getting a better feel for the dynamics of a new workplace. Some dental offices are very rigid; gauge the atmosphere. Sometimes you may need to make adjustments to fit in.
Be flexible and open to new ideas
A real dental practice will introduce unexpected stress into a first-time hygienist's life. Be prepared to work through tough shifts, learn new ways of doing things, and make adjustments outside of work. One major trait a dental hygienist should possess is the ability to talk to people in a fast-paced environment.
Learn about basic personal finances
As with any career, start thinking about your budget, your credit, and your savings as soon as you get your first steady paycheck. Students can put themselves in a great position for the future by learning about balancing personal finances before graduation, but putting it to practice is likely the hardest part.
Professional Organization Resources
Check out local and state dental organizations
Build a relationship with dental hygiene-specific associations early and continue network building, even after landing your first job. You never know when an opportunity may come up, or when you will be able to lend a hand with an exciting dental research project.
Join national dental organizations
The American Dental Association, American Dental Hygienists' Association or National Dental Hygienists' Association offer members outstanding benefits. In addition to growing a network, you can also get information on continuing education opportunities and advancements in the field.
Look into international opportunities
The International Federation of Dental Hygienists is a nonprofit that unites people from all over the world in their promotion of dental health.
Set up for career advancement
Continuing education can get you on a great path toward career advancement in dental hygiene. Stay updated on learning opportunities and current dental industry developments to continue to challenge yourself within your field.
Explore other dental interests
Maybe you work in private practice but have a passion for public health policy. Or you are interested in being an educator. Continuing education courses present a great way to explore your field even when you are locked into a small part of it.
Be active in the dental community
Support your dental community peers and allow them to support you. If you have ideas about the betterment of the profession or seek to branch out in the dental hygiene field, you will need a diverse network of knowledgeable professionals.
Become a member of the American Academy of Dental Hygiene
Members of the Academy can work to become dental hygiene educators. Be sure you have current state licensure before you apply.
Additional Dentistry Resources
This group provides career advancement opportunities through leadership, mentorship, and fellowship in the dental hygiene community. As mentioned above, you can apply to become a member.
Try your hand at an easy-to-use search tool from the ADA that provides information for local dental societies by state.
This helpful article by Linda Blackiston, RDH, BS outlines for Registered Dental Hygienists Magazine detailed ways dental hygiene students should prepare for interviews.
A handy compilation of tips and tricks for dental hygienists written by Regina Dreyer Thomas, RDH, MPA, this resume guide is great for first timers or seasoned veterans.
Hygienists coming to the U.S. from international dental programs can read through this list of frequently asked questions by the American Dental Hygienists' Association to learn more about regulations and requirements.
This page presents full responses from new dental hygienists about what they wish they learned in school. It includes professional information as well as personal work-life balance tips.
Formed in 1986, IFDH and its members advocate for dental health around the world.
Curious about the dental hygiene licensure credentials for your state? Check out this chart from the ADHA.
Jannette Whisenhunt, RDH and dental hygiene educator, writes this column for Registered Dental Hygienists Magazine about what she learned in the field. The column is specifically geared toward new dental hygienists.
Frequently Asked Questions
The American Dental Hygienists' Association mission centers the improvement of public health by expanding access to oral healthcare and promoting the benefits of prevention measures. Additionally, ADHA focuses on establishing high standards of education and practice among dental hygienists.
Membership costs for the American Dental Hygienists' Association begin at $65 per year for students. Recent graduates can access a free trial membership to the professional network. Professional membership rates start at $200 per year.
Students do not benefit from discounts through Oral-B. Available discounts include back-to-school deals on electric toothbrush packages and water flossers. Online dental courses sponsored by the joint efforts of Oral-B and Crest+ provide free learning resources to dental students.
Dentist offices provide free toothbrushes for students, children, and families. Dental students may receive free toothbrushes through their degree institution. Toothbrush companies can send free toothbrushes to those who inquire through their company websites.
Typodonts, also called study models or dental casts, provide educational resources of the mouth for dental students. Models show accurate representations of teeth and offer ways to practice dental care techniques in an educational setting.