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finding your way in your dental hygiene career

Ready for a change? How to find career fulfillment in dental hygiene

May 17, 2024
If you feel it's time for a change in your hygiene career, ask yourself these questions to give you direction on your new path.

Being a dental hygienist is not easy. It takes a toll on the body, mental health, and spirit. Because of this, many hygienists reach a crossroads in their career. They may ask, do I stay at this practice or go somewhere else? Do I try a different type of practice like a DSO or Federally Qualified Health Center (FHQC)? Do I explore other options such as teaching, sales, marketing, or research?

Figuring this out takes time and it’s easy to become discouraged. You may feel left behind or experience FOMO when you see friends and colleagues finding new positions and expanding their careers. You worry that you don’t have the necessary education or skills and wonder how much it will cost to earn them. 

There’s good news. This distress is a positive thing and a sign you want to keep persevering. Growth does not come from a place of contentment. People grow when they’re restless, unsure, uneasy, and uncomfortable. Not knowing what you want or how to do something is not a weakness; it’s normal and necessary for growth.

In her book, Radical Cander, CEO coach Kim Scott identifies three career conversation questions.1 You can have a friend or colleague ask you these questions, or you can write out the answers yourself. The benefit of writing them down is that you can look at them in a week, a month, or a year later and see if they’re still relevant and what progress you’ve made.

Do you know your past to understand your motivations and values?

Why did you become a dental hygienist? Do you still like clinical practice? Why or why not? What have you learned about yourself as a hygienist? What has been your favorite job and why? If you left, why did you leave? If not, what keeps you there? If you have not left and you want to, why have you not made the move yet? Who has helped you along the way? Who have you helped?

When you read your answers, you’ll discover some key insights about yourself and your work that you may not have thought about. There may be a reoccurring theme or some undiscovered strengths. This can also help you uncover areas where you successfully made transitions, and if you failed to pivot, you can ask yourself why. It’s also important to uncover what you don’t like to do or want to avoid in a future position.

What are your dreams and career aspirations?

Can you align your desires with your values and motivations? For example, you thought you were tired of dental hygiene but realized you enjoy being a clinician, and your aspiration is to find an office that values and appreciates you. Another example is you thought you wanted to teach but value a flexible schedule, so instead of teaching students you might provide continuing education.

When it comes to career planning, it’s common for people to ask, “Where do you want to be in five or 10 years?”  This is daunting! Moreover, the world changes quickly, and we need to change with it. So, think about your planning by month, quarter, or year. Think small wins for the ultimate victory. This can make change feel more manageable and less overwhelming if you want to change course. This does not mean you should not dream big or think five or 10 years down the line. You can have a big dream along with several small ones along the way.

What do I need to do to move in the direction of my dreams and aspirations? 

This can be one of the areas where you get stuck. You want to work for a dental company and feel certain you would never be hired because you don’t have a bachelor's degree. While a BS or MS is required for many corporate positions, there are also many opportunities available to those with an AA in dental hygiene. It depends upon the position and the company. Furthering your education takes time and money. Optimally what you need in a degree should align with your career aspirations. Many find going back to school broadens their career aspirations and opens doors.

A misconception is that dental hygiene career growth is limited to moving out of clinical practice. This is not so. There are plenty of growth opportunities for clinicians. You can continue to learn by becoming certified in lasers or taking courses on silver diamine fluoride, sleep medicine, and new products.

The DSO model offers avenues for clinicians to grow through management roles. Clinical public health positions are growing and evolving as 42 states allow direct access to a dental hygienist and several states offer a credential or certification as a public health hygienist. Your state association or practice act can help you find out what your opportunities are available in your state.

It’s never too late to contemplate the direction of your career. If you’re unhappy or stuck with your current situation, take the time to answer these career questions and find your path. A career coach can also help you sort out your values, aspirations, and avenues for success. Your journey will be as unique as you; do not compare yourself or your progress to others. Let the beauty and wonder of the next chapter unfold for you.


Editor's note: This article appeared in the April/May 2024 print edition of RDH magazine. Dental hygienists in North America are eligible for a complimentary print subscription. Sign up here.

Carol Jahn, MS, RDH, is the director of professional relations and education for Water Pik, Inc. She may be reached at [email protected].