By: Megen Elliott, MS-OCL, RDH, CDA
Becoming a dental hygienist is a rewarding, challenging, and exciting adventure.
If you’re considering a career in dental hygiene, keep reading my guide on how to become a dental hygienist, or forward it to a friend who is considering a career change!
Steps To Becoming a Dental Hygienist
Step 1: Complete High School or Obtain a GED
The first step to becoming a dental hygienist is to complete high school or obtain a GED.
A high school diploma or equivalent is required for admission to most dental hygiene programs.
Step 2: Obtain an Associate’s Degree in Dental Hygiene
The next step is to obtain an associate’s degree in dental hygiene from an accredited program.
Most programs take two years to complete and include classroom instruction, laboratory work, and supervised clinical experience.
Coursework typically includes anatomy, physiology, radiography, pharmacology, and periodontology.
Step 3: Pass the National Board Dental Hygiene Examination
After completing an accredited dental hygiene program, you must pass the National Board Dental Hygiene Examination (NBDHE).
This exam measures your knowledge and skills in areas such as oral health assessment, community health, and patient management. Passing this exam is a requirement for licensure in most states.
Step 4: Obtain State Licensure
Once you’ve passed the NBDHE, you must obtain licensure in the state where you plan to work.
Requirements for licensure vary by state, but typically include passing a state clinical board examination and meeting continuing education requirements.
Step 5: Consider Obtaining a Bachelor’s or Master’s Degree
While an associate’s degree is the minimum requirement for becoming a dental hygienist, some hygienists choose to pursue a bachelor’s or master’s degree in dental hygiene or a related field.
These higher degrees can lead to expanded job opportunities, higher salaries, and opportunities for research and teaching.
Learn More: Qualities of a Great Dental Hygienist
5 Tips for Becoming a Dental Hygienist
Here are some tips, you didn’t know you needed, on becoming a dental hygienist.
1. Do Your Research
First thing first, do your research. As you consider becoming a dental hygienist, it is important to understand what a dental hygienist does, where they may be employed, and which educational institutions are available to you.
Seek out a local dental practice, maybe even the practice where you are a patient, and ask to “shadow” or observe a dental hygienist. Most dental practices are happy to welcome individuals interested in shadowing and to share any insight they have into the profession and position within the practice. During this time, you will get to know more about the day of a dental hygienist and what they actually do!
Ask questions! It is important to ask questions during your stages of research. Ask questions of dental professionals, employers, college faculty and admissions staff, any past graduates of local colleges, just ask and ask some more! You will gain clarity and learn the opinions of many, which will help you form your own.
One thing to be aware of, social media can be an amazing tool for meeting dental professionals, but like social media for most professions and groups, it can also be a place for unhappy people to vent! Try not to let the negativity of others sway your career direction, there are many dental hygienists who absolutely love their careers.
Once you narrow down some colleges of interest (keep in mind, most states require at least a 2-year associate’s degree to become a licensed dental hygienist), ask questions of the admissions advisors to see which prerequisite courses or placement tests you may need to take or any other qualifications you may need to meet.
The first step is asking, and then quickly acting on your next steps because you never know what time-consuming hurdles you may come across.
2. Apply Early
Once you have narrowed down your college options, apply early to start taking steps toward success. The reason the emphasis is placed on “quick” and “early” application and progress toward admission is due to a few factors.
You may need to meet additional requirements before you are accepted into the program. Some programs require a petition process, some others require prerequisite courses, and others certain test scores for admissions.
You may find yourself needing to meet expectations before starting your program, just because you want to start immediately, does not mean the program will be available to you immediately.
Most dental hygiene programs have a challenging admissions process, and honestly, the programs themselves are rigorous as well, so this is great preparation for what’s to come. Be patient with the process, always make steps forward and check things off your list.
Explore when prerequisites are offered and how. Some courses are only available during certain semesters, some with online options, and others on campus.
Knowing your plan early will help you streamline this process and avoid bumps in the road that may cause delays.
3. Complete Relevant Courses
You may find yourself waiting to enter a dental hygiene program or waiting for a spot to open for you. This is a great time to consider enrolling in other relevant courses. This could be a time to take general education courses that are required for your dental hygiene program.
If your college allows general education courses to be taken at any time, taking these courses early could lighten the load for you during the program, so it is something to consider! Also, though, at this time, a bachelor’s degree is not required to earn a dental hygiene license, many dental hygienists choose to earn advanced degrees of some kind.
There are many reasons to consider an advanced degree, such as a dental hygiene role with a focus on leadership, sales, marketing, finance, education, administration, etc. An advanced degree could make these opportunities more easily attainable.
Though your plan may be clinical dental hygiene, sometimes opportunities present themselves and plans change. Also, there are many bachelor’s degrees (and masters, and doctorates) with a specific dental hygiene emphasis which creates an opportunity for a deeper understanding of concepts related to patient care.
Another point to consider is many associate degree colleges have arranged articulation agreements with bachelor’s degree colleges, this means, some or all of your credits at the associate’s degree level may transfer to other colleges and meet credit requirements at those colleges too.
In those instances, you will likely need to fill in some course gaps, some of which can be filled even before you even start your dental hygiene program! Ask your college about these agreements.
4. Build Your Network
Get connected! Building your network is key to success not only as a student but also as a practicing dental professional.
Your professional network can connect you to dental professionals locally, regionally, and nationally. These connections will allow you an opportunity to see how other dental hygienists practice, what techniques and equipment they utilize during patient care, a place to brainstorm solutions and to collaboratively grow the profession.
As a pre-dental hygiene student, your network may consist of the dental professionals at the office where you shadowed, your future instructors, any past graduates from the dental hygiene program, your future classmates, and other dental professionals online.
As you begin to be exposed to the dental profession, the opportunities to build your network continue to grow. Even the most introverted and shy individuals can create a network, you can start communication online, via phone, or text, which will grow into a deeper relationship. Find a mentor who is willing to let you tag along to continuing education, conference, and volunteer events!
Get creative, and make an effort, it will pay off!
5. Never Stop Learning
If you’re entering the dental hygiene field hoping to get through college and wipe your hands of learning, spoiler alert, dental professionals never stop learning!
The dental industry is constantly changing, evolving, and innovating. Without additional learning and growth, dental professionals could not provide a high standard of care to their patients. So, as a result, most dental professionals are required to attend dental continuing education courses to stay up-to-date.
Do not let continued learning scare you away. Continued learning is empowering, and exciting, and helps to keep the passion for your profession alive. Think of continued learning as an enhancement of your initial education, your patient experience, and of you as a professional!
Frequently Asked Questions
How long does it take to become a dental hygienist?
It typically takes two years to complete an associate’s degree in dental hygiene and pass the NBDHE. Additional time may be required to obtain state licensure and pursue higher education.
What is the job outlook for dental hygienists?
The job outlook for dental hygienists is excellent, with the Bureau of Labor Statistics projecting a 6% growth rate from 2020 to 2030. Dental hygienists are in high demand due to the increasing importance of oral health and the aging population’s need for dental care.
How much does a dental hygienist make?
The median annual salary for dental hygienists is $77,090, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Salaries vary based on location, experience, and education level.