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The Best Career Is the One You Create

I have had the privilege of working in the field of dentistry for more than four decades in a variety of settings — from private practice to public health to dental hygiene education.

Private practice is typically where most dental hygiene graduates find themselves immediately upon graduation. In my experience, most practices — both corporate and private — welcome new graduates and are willing to ease them into the hectic schedule that is often the norm. In today’s corporate practice settings, assisted dental hygiene is popular. In this scenario, dental hygienists are assigned a designated number of chairs for which they are responsible only for dental hygiene procedures. Dental assistants complete the operatory turnover, expose images, and, in some states, provide coronal polishing and oral health instruction. This enables dental hygienists to increase their production. Often, the dental hygienist receives compensation based on production, so the possibility of earning a substantial bonus is great. The downfall is little to no interaction with the dentist, minimal time to establish patient rapport, and the temptation to rush through procedures.

Single family dental practices remain a mainstay in the employment of dental hygienists. Private practices may be slower paced, however, the expectation to produce is still implicit. Many offices have production and collection goals of which the hygienist is included. Benefits may need to be negotiated, if offered at all.

Public health is another option that offers the satisfaction of treating the underserved. During my time in public health, patients did not have any financial obligations, which allowed me to treat as I deemed necessary without having the dreaded financial discussion. The sense of gratitude from these patients was so poignant and often missing from private practice patients. The downsides for dental hygienists are that salary and benefits may be mid-tier.

For those passionate about education, online and in-person teaching can be wonderful careers. Teaching positions require additional education, depending on whether you wish to teach clinically or didactically. The general rule is that dental hygienists must earn a degree equal to or higher than the level they are teaching. For example, a baccalaureate degree is typically necessary to teach at the community college level. Those wanting to join the faculty of a Bachelor of Science program most likely need a master’s degree at minimum. Positions that are solely clinically based may have more relaxed requirements. Obtaining a tenured position can be challenging and salaries are often less than private practice. On the upside, benefits are typically generous.

Teaching in a dental school adds an interesting twist to academia. I am one of about 12 dental hygienists responsible for teaching local anesthesia, instrumentation, nitrous oxide administration, radiology, comprehensive exam protocol, and more to first- and fourth-year dental students. Many are unaware of the education, training, and licensing requirements for becoming a dental hygienist. Some dental students are open to learning from us, while others are hesitant to accept our contributions. At A.T. Still University, we teach the foundational skills and then oversee the dental students while they perform hygiene procedures in the dental clinic. If they don’t meet our requirements, they do not pass.

Working in a dental school requires ongoing continuing education outside of dental hygiene. Although not dentists, we require our faculty to be well-versed in all aspects of dentistry. If you like the fast-paced environment of working with hundreds of students per year, this may be your calling.

Fast-paced or slow, corporate or family-based — you get to decide. And you may choose one path now and change it down the line. Fortunately, the education and training we receive provide excellent foundations for a multitude of career options. Remember, the best career is the one you create.

From Dimensions of Dental Hygiene. June/July 2024; 22(4):14

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