Dental Hygiene : Careers to Smile about

By Hanna Geshelin

Dental hygienists, dental assistants, and technicians have healthy job prospects.

More than 30 years ago, Tennessee’s first public health dental hygienist, Debbye Krueger visited public schools to teach kids about oral health. Many years later, after earning a master’s in business administration, she was working on a research program in an unrelated medical field. One day a patient told Debbye that she reminded her of a lady who had come to her school when she was young and had given her her first toothbrush! Debbye asked when and where this had happened, and–yes, you guessed it!–Debbye had indeed been the “tooth lady.”

“You just never realize how you affect your patients’ lives or who will remember you,” she said. That incident was a turning point in Dabbye’s career. She left research and returned to public health because she realized how important it was and how many lives she had touched as a dental hygienist.

If you want a career that impacts people’s overall health, consider a career as a dental hygienist, dental assistant, or technician. Job opportunities in all three areas are expected to keep growing in the next several years. In fact, dental hygienists are projected to be one of the 20 fastest growing occupations.

“Dental assistants and dental technicians can begin on-the-job training right out of high school,” says Denise Bowen, professor of dental hygiene at Idaho State University, “or they can attend vocational programs first. Dental hygienists need three years of college to enter a field with great pay and lots of part-time and full-time opportunities.”

“OK, now hold still, please.”

Dental hygienists provide a variety of preventive services, including scaling and polishing teeth and teaching patients how to maintain good oral health. “I meet wonderfully interesting people, and we establish a long relationship,” says Beth Clark, a registered dental hygienist (RDH) in Worcester, Massachusetts. “In the right office, you are able to plant your roots deeply.”

Dental hygienists also examine teeth for decay and the mouth for abnormalities and signs of gum disease. They take and develop X-rays and interpret them for the dentist, who makes the diagnosis.

All states require that dental hygienists be licensed. In Washington, D.C., and in all states except Alabama, dental hygienists need to complete a minimum two-year college-level program in dental hygiene plus at least one year of college core courses such as English, psychology, biology, and physiology. (Alabama has a state-regulated program for on-the-job training.) All dental hygienists in the United States take the same written exam. Each state gives a clinical (hands-on) exam, and most states also require an exam on the law pertaining to the practice of dental hygiene.

Not all dental hygienists work in a dentist’s office. “What I like best about the job,” says Mickey Near-hood, RDH, of Portland, Oregon, “are the many opportunities available, such as teaching, selling dental products, or working in product research and testing.”

“Relax and get comfortable.”

Many people feel apprehensive about going to the dentist. As a dental assistant you must ease the patient’s fears and make him or her more comfortable in the examining room. Dental assistants also prepare patients for treatment and hand instruments to the dentist. Some assistants perform laboratory tasks such as making temporary crowns or making casts of teeth from impressions taken by the dentist. Others schedule and confirm appointments, keep treatment records, and order supplies and materials. Assistants might even have both lab and office responsibilities.

“When I was a junior in high school, I started working as an assistant in a dental office,” says Missy Holmes, now a registered dental hygienist in Douglasville, Georgia. After two years of on-the-job training, assistants are eligible to take a certification exam. Another way to become certified is to attend an accredited dental assistant program. One-year programs provide a certificate or diploma, while two-year programs award an associate’s degree.

If you decide on schooling for this field, be sure the program is accredited. Some schools make you a dental assistant in four to six months, but you still need two years of experience in order to take the certification exam–just the same as if you had on-the-job training. You need to be certified for advancement, but not to get a job in the field.

If you plan to work while attending college, being a dental assistant is an excellent choice. There’s a lot of part-time work. And the field provides a good foundation for two other fields. Dental assistants with office responsibilities can move into office management. And, as Missy Holmes discovered, working as a dental assistant is a good springboard for becoming a dental hygienist.

Smile, America

If you love working with clay or making models, think about creating smiles for a living. Dental technicians are artists who work with waxes, plastics, metallic alloys, porcelain, and other materials. Working from impressions (molds) of patients’ teeth or mouths and detailed written instructions, they create dental appliances: crowns and bridges, partial dentures, complete dentures, and orthodontic appliances.

Pay for on-the-job training positions starts at minimum wage, but these jobs provide a gradual entrance to a good profession. “I look for employees who respect detail, can follow procedures exactly, are good with their hands, willing to develop their skill over time, and willing to learn beyond their specific tasks,” says Tammy Jakubik, who with her husband owns OrthoDent Dental Lab, Inc., in Phoenix, Arizona.

After five years’ experience, you would qualify to take the exam to become a certified dental technician (CDT). Or you could attend a community college, vocational school, or technical college program in this field. Graduates of accredited programs need two years of professional experience in order to become certified.

The characteristics that really count for advancement are attention to detail, skill, speed, dependability, and the ability to work well under pressure. Mr. Jakubik is a double amputee and uses a wheelchair. “Some extremely talented technicians are deaf or confined to a wheelchair,” says Alexa Wilson, a CDT in Virginia Many others are immigrants whose thick accents could be a barrier to advancement in other fields, but this is not a problem for those working in a lab. “The dental lab tends to be a very relaxed and laidback place to work,” says Wilson. “You can wear blue jeans and sweatshirts and listen to rock ‘n’ roll (on your headset) while you work. At times the job is high stress due to the precision work and fast turn-around schedule. Overall, this is a secret little niche where a lot of interesting technology is used to fashion a precision prosthesis one tooth at a time.”

About 25 percent of CDTs own their own lab–a lucrative opportunity for technicians with entrepreneurial skills. Another way to make good money in this field is to develop a specialization–for example, in the “crown and bridge” area. Commercial dental labs may employ anywhere from two to 200 people. The average lab is small, however, with just five to 10 employees.

Bright Future

The fields of dental hygienist, dental assistant, and dental technician offer different opportunities. What they share is the chance to start earning either right out of high school or shortly thereafter in fields with lots of part-time and full-time work and the chance to grow professionally in satisfying, hands-on work. And, as Alexa Wilson put it, “It is very rewarding to know that your work will brighten the world with a beautiful smile.”


* Registered dental hygienists with experience earn an average of $35,000 to $ 45,000.

* Certified dental assistants earn an average of $21,569.

* Beginning dental technicians earn an average of $15,954.

* Skilled dental technicians earn an average of $40,000 to $60,000.

(*.) Salaries vary greatly depending on location and level of experience.


Missy Holmes, a dental hygienist from Douglasville, Georgia, tells this story about her early days on the job as a dental assistant. I started working in a dental office in high school on a co-op type program to get some experience in the dental field. I was being trained as an assistant. The first time I tried to sit a patient up in the dental chair, I was not certain which button moved the back of the chair up and which moved it down. I was supposed to be sitting the patient up and letting him rinse with mouthwash after the dental procedure. I leaned down to look at the buttons on the chair and did not realize that with my other hand on the top of the chair, I was also pouring mouthwash on our patient head.”

COPYRIGHT 2000 Weekly Reader Corp.
COPYRIGHT 2001 Gale Group

You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

12 Responses to “Dental Hygiene : Careers to Smile about”

  1. olaniyi olowe james Says:

    I’m a Dental therapist(dental hygienist) I need a dental job

  2. Dental Crown…

    …and why not?…

  3. Very enlightening – always spread the word. Getting excited about an update. For too long now have I had the need to get started on my own blog. Suppose if I put it off any more I’ll never do it. I’ll be sure to add you to my Blogroll. Cheers!!

  4. i feel that that was really interesting. Good put up!¡­

  5. thankyou lots, I must announce that your site is excellent!

  6. Wow man, that’s very helpful info, thankyou.

  7. Cheers lots, I’ve found this very nice!

  8. I don’t understand your mean

  9. I was just browsing for related blog posts for my project research and I happened to discover yours. Thanks for the useful information!

  10. I take pleasure in seeing web sites that perceive about my search. I actually loved your site. I hope I find new article in this site. Thanks

  11. Going towards the dentist and feeling comfortable and confident is rare. People are often anxiouos and worried when it comes to visiting the dentist. In the event you knew a lot more about your dentist, and you trusted him, you would feel a lot a lot better going towards the dentist. That’s why I believe that no 1 ought to ever go to a dentist that they barely know. Always do some research on your dentist so that you might be prepared for whatever might come. It would make your life a lot easier should you knew your dentist was bad before you really went in for an appointment.

  12. Very good entry, is really helpful!

Leave a Reply