How your skills fit other career paths

Feb. 10, 2014
The dental hygiene profession draws strong academic performers who tend to become lifelong learners and create satisfying careers in a number of ways.

Hygienist discovers the building blocks that expand career options

By Peggy M. Cotter, RDH, BS, CHTS-TR

The dental hygiene profession draws strong academic performers who tend to become lifelong learners and create satisfying careers in a number of ways. Many hygienists in private practice seek advancement through the addition of skills in related areas such as expanded functions, periodontics, nutritional counseling, etc.

Dental hygiene career paths can lead to employment in a number of diverse settings, such as government education, research, sales and marketing, or public health. Many hygienists find new career directions built on the foundation of their solid health-care education and experience in the field. By sharing personal examples of a nontraditional career path -- that began with a degree in dental hygiene -- I hope to inspire ongoing exploration of your potential for development.


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As your journey unfolds, you will note that career growth is rarely linear. In my case, if I were to graph it, the line would appear like a jagged EKG readout rather than as a simple, upwardly sloping line. At times the line pushed boldly upward as I took advantage of opportunities that increased my income, enhanced my experience, or grew my skill set. However, interruptions in my career growth also occurred as I chose to relocate and have children.

While on the surface such decisions might have appeared to hinder my career, it is important to note that these times presented a chance to explore alternative work experiences and learning opportunities. Some of these new explorations added nontraditional skills and varied experiences to build on a foundation that supported future career choices. No matter what motivates a hygienist to move out of a comfort zone to try something new, there will undoubtedly be experiences that will add to the building blocks that shape any future career directions.

I began my career as a practicing hygienist in Minnesota, and when we moved out of state, I passed the Ohio state licensure exam and worked as a temp in private practice there. In the difficult job market at the time, finding a permanent position eluded me, so I began to explore options. I interviewed with a major pharmaceutical firm, emphasizing my knowledge of anatomy, physiology, and health care, and was hired as a sales representative. I continued to work for this company for two years in Ohio and an additional year after moving to upstate New York.

My sales career felt rewarding, and soon I began to ponder how to utilize my newfound sales and territory management expertise as I returned to the dental profession. I researched and found an opportunity where I could use my dental knowledge and my emerging business management skills to become a distributor of dental products. In this role, I partnered with the local chapter of the Dental Hygiene Association and the local community college in a number of ways. I also spoke at major dental meetings, including the Yankee Dental Congress in Boston.

After just three years, my company employed four sales representatives and a bookkeeper. As an entrepreneur, many new skills began to emerge, such as delegation, accounting, inventory control, negotiation, vendor relationship management, and more confident public speaking. After six years I sold my successful dental supply company to a market competitor and embarked on the next phase of my journey.

For the following eleven years, I focused on raising a family and navigating a series of my spouse's corporate moves which led to our three children being born in three different states. Moving, in itself, contributed flexibility and resourcefulness to my skill set, and also gave me the opportunity to skill-build in some nonconventional areas.

To motivate myself and avoid having my skills becoming antiquated in an increasingly technology-driven marketplace, I wrote software reviews for the school newsletter. I volunteered for a literacy group and was invited to speak at the Ohio State Literature Conference. I also gave weekly lectures at a weight loss organization to further augment my public speaking skills. I took on leadership roles in the PTA, my church, and other organizations, and I served on the board of a local hospital. When our school district supported passing a school referendum, I volunteered to write the marketing materials. My goal at this stage was to continue engaging in some adult activities during a phase when raising small children dominated most of my time. But in retrospect, the skills built during my hiatus from traditional employment added many more building blocks to my personal toolbox. It honed my writing skills, gave me more public speaking opportunities, taught me more about managing a budget, and set me on a path that included leadership roles.

Throughout my career history the key to my success has been preventing circumstances that some would view as a setback, such as moving to a new city and leaving behind a good position, from becoming a barrier to exploring diverse career options. Whenever I was unsure of my next step, I circled back to my dental roots and created a direction built on that competency.

Skipping Past The Dead Ends

Following one cross-country move, I hoped to investigate teaching dental hygiene, but unfortunately I discovered we had moved to an area where the community college had no dental program. I spoke to other college departments and learned that the college had agreed to develop a food safety curriculum for a local meat processing plant. I discussed my experience and persuaded the biotechnology department director that my health-care background and education degree positioned me well to do this. I was hired and was sent to Chicago to take the premier food safety training course provided by the National Restaurant Association. I then set about the task of creating a curriculum to teach food safety to the meat processing plant workers. They even asked me to teach the course the first round it was offered!

All of a sudden, what appeared to be a dead end because of the lack of a traditional path (i.e., no dental programming at the community college) turned out to be a remarkable opportunity to add many new skills to my toolbox. Through just this single divergence from traditional paths I was able to learn how to work within a corporate culture, seek ESL options for bilingual employees, and build networking skills that would lead to my next role in the college's economic development department.

Having proven I could acquire knowledge of the subject matter to produce quality curriculum, the economic development department hired me to develop on-the-job training programs for a number of industries. The key to the employer considering me for this opportunity was that I highlighted the career building blocks provided through my dental hygiene education and career experiences: understanding concepts of physiology and health and curriculum development. This role cemented some previous learning in curriculum design and also exposed me to the art of effective interviewing to uncover in-depth information. Although I was not yet aware of it, this would prove a helpful building block in securing my next role.

As rewarding as this position was, our family decided to return to our roots in Minnesota and I knew I would once again set about the task of reinventing my career. I became interested in the field of executive coaching after talking with colleagues who had utilized a local coach to build their leadership and communication skills. I set a goal to become involved in this industry and began to investigate this option through newspaper and web research. I pursued employment and was hired for a role that involved interviewing executives and providing written reports of their progress.

This part-time role helped me grow in my career, while still meeting the demands of parenting my young family. The technology involved in this company's processes was all new to me, and over the next two years this provided me with an opportunity to update my computer skills. I even was one of the early adopters of the telecommuting technology that so many workers enjoy today. So during this part-time diversion from the traditional dental hygiene path, I was able to acquire many additional career building blocks such as utilizing technology and the strengthening of my interviewing, surveying, and analysis skills.

Soon I felt I was ready to return to full-time employment, and I missed my roots -- dentistry. I combed online listings searching keywords: sales and dental. Oral-B Laboratories posted a position for a temporary sales representative to cover a six-month maternity leave. I found this to be a perfect way to explore if the time was really right for me to resume full-time employment. I enjoyed working for Oral-B and was pleased that when their salesperson returned from maternity leave, they transitioned me into a new role. As educational seminar specialist, I drew on my background in education and my sales experience to schedule several presentations each week in dental offices and dental schools. This utilized many of the career building blocks I had stacked, such as curriculum development, sales, and public speaking.

Six years later, feeling the pull toward a very worthy cause, I was employed for a brief stretch in the nonprofit sector. In this full-time position as director of marketing and development for a local charity, I once again applied my writing and sales skills, and also drew on skills from the years that I had primarily volunteered, such as networking, fundraising, and major event planning.

Doing Something, Not Nothing

I am not sure where in my future these skills may benefit my career, but I have come to trust that gathering new and interesting experiences has a way of creating energy and forward motion. I have long followed the motto, "Do something, because doing nothing doesn't teach you anything." In some instances, that "something" turns out to be the wrong choice, but in "doing" comes the opportunity to identify what does or does not work, which can give valuable perspective to future decision making.

Embracing a learning curve has always excited me, so in 2010 I returned to college to earn a certificate as a health information technology trainer. I saw this as an opportunity to use my interest in technology and combine it with my health-care background. My goal was to move into the new career space created when the HITECH Act funded health IT education and gave incentives to physicians and dentists who adopted electronic health records (EHRs). Although this movement began in medical practices, I anticipated that the profession of dentistry would eventually make the conversion to EHRs a priority and I wanted to be ready for the future career opportunities that would arise.

In traditional dental practices, the role of hygienist is highly regarded. When changing fields, I often had to admit I was the less experienced worker as I embarked on a new career direction. The beauty of this admission is that others stepped in to mentor and teach me. I came to understand and appreciate the power of self-awareness and humility regarding my skill deficiencies and to make learning a priority, while minimizing the importance of income, position, title, or status. I chose to do what interested and energized me, and left behind the focus on other rewards.

My first role in my new health IT career was as a volunteer in a medical office where I could practice my skills in workflow analysis and learn how to navigate and create templates in an actual EHR system. I was involved in helping two other medical practices implement EHRs before taking my first role as a paid health IT consultant. As a part of that role, I drew on my past skills as an educator and created a presentation given at a major conference by one of that organization's leaders. The connections that presentation generated led to an opportunity for me to consult as a project manager on a curriculum development project for the Minnesota health information technology program at Normandale Community College (NCC).

My current role at NCC is in the department of continuing education and customized training, so I have the opportunity to interact with adult students embarking on career change and growth. I am continually amazed by the vast bank of experiences they bring to the table, yet I am frequently surprised by their inability to identify strengths. It appears that because our personal career journeys unfolded over years, it is easy to minimize the importance of a gradual morphing of skills and capabilities. If an individual has stayed in one career role for a long time, he or she may not have felt the need to go through the process of taking a skills inventory and identifying individual strengths. It may be human nature to downplay some of these experiences and even to minimize their worth. I found great value in meeting with a skilled career counselor to help identify some of my personal success stories to illustrate for potential employers where I had gone the extra mile to advance my skills. Learning how to talk about your own strengths is one of the most important building blocks.

The way that you choose to stack and combine your personal career building blocks can launch you in a number of different and rewarding career directions. When you respond to a job posting, worry less about the one or two skills you may lack and focus on the strengths and skills that you already possess. For example, when I was hired by the executive coaching firm, I had no experience in their industry, but I did have experience interviewing employees from a variety of industries from my role developing on-the-job training while employed by the economic development department. It is helpful to speak in terms of transferrable skills. Show that you understand and can apply a concept while learning to fill the gaps in your current skill set.

I continually reassess where I am in my career and how I can catalyze new growth. So I question myself about whether health IT and curriculum development are my last career stops. Currently, I see broad opportunity within this field to provide satisfying growth opportunities. I am particularly interested in watching trends in dentistry toward the adoption of truly interoperable electronic health records. In the emerging culture of health IT, a member of the dental team with an understanding of health IT will add value to dental practices in multiple ways. It will be more cost-effective to train dental team members than to hire consultants or rely on vendors to maintain the functionality of EHRs. This is a great time for a hygienist to investigate career growth, and the field of health IT provides exciting possibilities!

Lessons Learned:
  1. Career growth is rarely linear.
  2. Remain open to diversions and nonconventional learning opportunities.
  3. Understand the power of self-awareness and humility regarding skill deficiencies.
  4. Learn how to talk about and promote your own strengths.
  5. Doing something is better than doing nothing. Figuring out what you DON'T like to do is just as important as figuring out what you DO like to do.
Some Examples of Building Blocks:
  1. Curriculum design
  2. Public speaking
  3. Sales management
  4. Leadership
  5. Technology skills
Advice from a stripe changer

To help you identify your strengths, I consulted Catherine Byers Breet (www.arbez.com), the nation's No. 1 "stripe changer." She has helped thousands of people go from "just a job" to doing what they love for a living. Catherine said, "Most people are but one small adjustment away from the career they want, but fear and uncertainty leave them feeling like they aren't smart enough, experienced enough, educated enough … and on and on. If they would only stop, breathe, and rediscover the things that make them great just as they are today, making the right changes would be so much easier for them."

Here is Catherine's five-point plan for harnessing your strengths:

  1. Think about your proudest accomplishments in life. Use "STAR" stories to write them down (What was the Situation? What was your Task? What Action did you take? What were the Results?). Jot down two or three of these stories, and you will start to see recurring themes of your natural instincts and talents.
  2. Repeat this process for your proudest career achievements.
  3. Do a "career happiness chart." This is one of our most popular tools. Create a chart with a scale of 1-10 going up the left-hand side. Create columns across the chart (as many columns as jobs you have had throughout the course of your career). Plot each job on a scale of 1-10 (10 = "I loved that job!" and 1 = "That was toxic!").
  4. For each job, ask yourself, "What were three things I liked about the job? Three things I disliked? Why I did I leave?" Again, you will see what happens when you put your natural talents to work (you become happy at work) … and what happens when you are unable to work in your sweet spot (you are unhappy at work). You will also learn a great deal about the type of work and work environment that are important for you to be happy.
  5. Talk to people who know you well -- friends, family, and coworkers. Ask them what they think you do really well. Ask them for ideas about other things you can do in your current job, or in a new job, that would really harness your natural strengths. You will be amazed at how clearly other people see you at your best.

Catherine also highly recommends Gallup's StrengthsFinder assessment (gallupstrengthscenter.org) -- an excellent way to understand your innate talents and how they show up at work.

Catherine added, "The grass is not always greener on the other side! Before you jump ship, think about ways to make a greater impact in the space you are in right now. Then talk to your boss about your ideas, and see what happens. And remember: If at first you do succeed, try not to look too astonished!"

Peggy M. Cotter, RDH, BS, CHTS-TR, is a Minnesota Health Information Technology Program Specialist at Normandale Community College in Bloomington, Minn. She provides continuing education and customized training in Health IT. She can be contacted at [email protected].

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