Dental Hygiene Career Options: Creating Your Circumstances

Sept. 1, 2012
Wouldn't it be great if you could avoid the practice settings you find horrid and head straight to the ones you love?


“The people who get on in this world are the people who get up and look for the circumstances they want, and if they can’t find them, make them.” — George Bernard Shaw

Wouldn’t it be great if you could avoid the practice settings you find horrid and head straight to the
ones you love? You might not be able to eliminate the challenges completely, but you have a better chance at finding your match if you do some homework first.

Shirley Gutkowski and I created the “Paper Persona” (www.rdhpurpleguide.com) workbook — actually, we called it a “play” book because the activities are fun — that walks you through many activities to help you hone in on what you want and then organize your information once you get a clearer idea. We created the workbook because we know some people might not consciously know what exactly it is that they want. One way to begin is to try a little right brain work to tap into the subconscious. Even if you don’t think you are artistically inclined, the activity of drawing can reveal something about what makes you tick.

Drawing With The Right Side Of Your Brain

To do this, find a time when you are not distracted, put on some relaxing music, get some crayons or markers and a large pad of paper, and start drawing. You can begin by just drawing what you find makes you happy, excited, serene, etc. What you draw can be simple stick figures and symbolic, or it can be precise and detailed. Anyone can do this; just turn off your inner critic.

Next, sketch what your ideal job would look like. Hint: it might not even be an office. This is the time to throw your thinking cap away and let that right brain take over. An alternative to drawing can be to make a collage. Find a pile of old magazines, some poster board, scissors, and glue. Then, start putting together colors or images that appeal to you.


Once you do your artwork and your brain is more limber, do some journaling. It is best to do this longhand on nice paper — it slows down your mind so you can think. Write what drew you into dental hygiene and what aspects of it you find appealing. Take what you found in your drawing, determine what makes you happy about your profession, and try to hone in on what you would love to do all day long. Feel free to purge as well. What do you dislike about your job and about being a dental hygienist? Don’t worry about political correctness. No one is going to judge you here; this is for your eyes only. With clearer awareness of what makes you tick, you are now ready to move toward what it is you really want.

Career Objectives

Now you are more focused. Whether you choose to include one in your resume or not, you will want to create a career objective statement for yourself. This serves a similar purpose as your professional philosophy, but if you can boil it down to one specific, coherent sentence, you are well on your way to moving in the direction that will bring you the most career satisfaction and happiness. Hopefully, if you have identified yourself as a serene, autonomous individual, you will realize the job offer you have for that large, fast-paced group practice might not be the best fit. If it is the only job in town, then you can at least have an awareness of the disconnect so you will not be caught off guard when you start to feel stressed. You can take measures to help, such as making sure you step out for lunch, taking a quick walk down the hall between patients for a little peace and quiet, or asking for the room with the least amount of traffic flow.

As a side note, speaking of resumes, everyone should have a current, up-to-date resume that, if necessary, could be mailed out tomorrow after you customize it for the specific job.

Creating A Portfolio

Creating your portfolio allows you view the steps you have taken toward attaining career satisfaction, identify (by virtue of gaps) steps you need to take, and demonstrate to a prospective employer or client your competence and career highlights. Start gathering artifacts such as:

  • Work schedules
  • Production numbers
  • Special cases (with identifying information removed)
  • Relevant articles and continuing education
  • Journals you subscribe to
  • Forms you have created
  • Protocols you have developed
  • Volunteer work
  • Nice notes from patients, employers, colleagues, and teachers
  • Awards (photos or scans are great)

After you gather and organize this information, decide how you want to display and/or store it. Will your items be in a three-ring binder? An accordion file? Kept electronically? Now that you can see everything, it should tell a story. Decide what this story says about you and your philosophy, and write reflective narrative about the contents of this portfolio. Include what you notice about your ideas, goals, values, and strengths. Identify opportunities and obstacles for your growth, and devise steps to overcome the obstacles. How can you learn from others? What is your part in solutions to issues in your current employment setting (or profession)?

Here’s another side note: Just as important as having an up-to-date resume, every dental hygienist should also have an up-to-date professional portfolio.

Making A Road Map

Now, make a list of what you want (not what you don’t want) and make it specific. For example: “I don’t want to work as much” (negative). “I want more time off” (vague). “I want three weeks off every July to travel” (specific). Having a specific list of what you want will allow you to work out a timeline for your concrete plans. Include why you want to achieve the goal, steps you need to take, and the anticipated completion date.

Once you have your road map, virtually any path you take will be paved much smoother if you network. Go to the major conferences (Under One Roof, ADHA CLL), local and state meetings, social networking sites (Facebook, LinkedIn), and LISTSERV (http://www.amysrdhlist.com/). Talk with vendors, educators, officers, and speakers. Soak in the information and be an active participant. Approach people you respect. I have found most of the recognized names in dental hygiene are open to talking about their careers: how they got where they are, what’s involved, the ups and downs, and so forth. Have a professional networking card handy to give to them so they can contact you later. Vistaprint makes cards for free.

Following Your Dreams

If your dream is clinical private practice, you will be drawn to becoming the absolute expert in the latest approaches. At the very least, patients expect dental hygienists to know about DNA testing, lasers, digital radiography, and more. Your steps are to exceed the required CE hours, if your state has them. Attend courses, read (and write) articles, get certification if applicable, and complete many cases. Remember to scan or photograph the items for your portfolio.

To have your dream remain a reality for as long as possible, insist on having appropriate instruments, including ultrasonic unit, loupes, and an ergonomic chair. What this means is that even if the dentist doesn’t want to buy these for the office, you purchase the items for yourself and keep them. It’s your work, your eyes, your back, and your hands at stake. More than likely these purchases can be tax write-offs as well.

This is an exciting time for dental hygienists who want to remain in clinical practice and want to treat the underserved population. RDH magazine has published a number of articles about the midlevel provider and the Advanced Dental Hygiene Practitioner (See my articles, “The ADHP Initiative: A National Overview” in August 2009 RDH and “The Mid-Level” co-authored with Ellen Standley in June 2011 RDH).

If you are interested in this type of work, look into what is happening in Minnesota. Last year, the Metropolitan State University program graduated its first class of Advanced Dental Therapists (ADTs), who perform most duties via a collaborative management agreement and do not require onsite dental supervision. Some of these duties include:

  • Evaluate, assess, and treatment plan
  • Nonsurgical extractions of permanent teeth
  • Dispense and administer analgesics, anti-inflammatories, and antibiotics
  • Restorations and preformed crowns
  • Pulpotomies and pulp capping

The ADT is a master’s level program and requires the candidate to have a bachelor’s degree and be an actively practicing hygienist for program entry.

Farther west, in California, the Registered Dental Hygienist in Alternative Practice (RDHAP) license was created in 1998 to meet the needs of people who are homebound or in schools, residential facilities, institutions, and in areas where there is a dental health shortage. If you are interested in becoming an RDHAP, you must be a licensed RDH, have completed 2,000 hours of clinical practice in the preceding 36 months, possess a bachelor’s degree or equivalent, and pass a written test. The program is a 150-hour, four-month program from an accredited postgraduate training program specific for this license. The program fee is approximately $4,000.

If the midlevel-type work or practice settings are not what you visualize, yet you crave patient interaction and the autonomy of owning your own practice, consider becoming a certified orofacial myologist and helping patients with their speech, dentition, and swallowing. This is a 28-hour course and costs approximately $2,300.

Expanding Upon Your Degree

If you are like most dental hygienists, you have an associate’s degree and might feel as if your degree limits you to one thing: scaling teeth in private practice under direct dental supervision. In reality, you have many transferrable — or at the very least, foundational — skills that serve you well beyond the operatory in other positions. Think of time management, knowledge of nutrition, interpersonal communication, sales (you sell the idea of flossing to teenagers, for goodness' sake), interpersonal communication, writing, business, insurance, ethics, law, chemistry, biology, physiology, just to name a few. You work with all of these every day in private practice. Because of this, consider using the terms “options/alternatives to private practice” rather than “options/alternatives to dental hygiene.” A dental hygienist is in all of the roles identified by the ADHA: clinician, educator, advocate, administrator, and researcher.

Having an AS degree will more than likely require you to complete additional formal education, or at the very least have experience for a good number of years in private practice, to branch into nonclinical roles. For example, an adjunct (part-time) clinical instructor position at the community college program I directed requires a minimum of five years of private practice or a bachelor’s degree. A full-time, tenure-track educator position requires a minimum of a BS; with the competitive market, many successful candidates, even at community colleges, have master’s degrees.

The ADHA has compiled a list of BS degree completion programs at http://www.adha.org/careerinfo/degree.htm and online MS degree programs at http://www.adha.org/downloads/edu/distance_masters.pdf. Degrees in dental hygiene, education, health-care administration, nutrition, and biology are the most common for an educator position; however, any related degree satisfies the hiring requirements for most programs. For example, because my doctoral dissertation addressed dental hygienists, my degree in English, although unusual, qualifies me to be a dental hygiene educator and program director. To be in administration, such as a program director, the Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA) requirement is a master’s degree or above.

If you are interested in working for industry, approach the company reps at conventions or meetings and ask about their specific hiring requirements. Most dental hygienists I have seen who work within industry possess a BS or higher. Opportunities exist for sales, education, research, advertising, and more. If you like to travel and meet new people, this might be a great fit.

There are certain opportunities available to dental hygienists where individual state practice acts and specific job postings need to be consulted for specific requirements, such as correctional institutions, hospitals, nursing, not-for-profit organizations, elected offices, public health, veterinary practices, the military, and mobile or fixed dental practices such as in Minnesota, California, or Colorado.

If you are more of a free spirit and yearn for entrepreneurship, you might be interested in connecting with dental hygienists who invent dental and nondental products, coach dental teams and individual dental hygienists, lecture, write, or volunteer. Know that most dental hygienists in these roles also either work as educators or clinicians at least part-time in order to have a full-time income.

Oportunities For Dental Hygienists Are Unlimited

Certain paths may surprise you and might not be readily apparent until you do your right-brain work. These roles require you to build from your dental hygiene education and skills using distinct paths. Dental hygienists have become secretaries of state, attorneys, photographers, website designers, cartoonists, estheticians, makeup artists, natural chefs, fitness coaches, financial planners, journalists, novelists, and even English professors. The possibilities are limited only by your imagination. To paraphrase Deepak Chopra, sometimes thinking outside the box is not enough. We need a whole new box where we can create our opportunities.

You have your education and experience, which serve as your solid foundation. Now, from doodling, to creating your portfolio, to researching your steps, you are well on your way to designing and constructing your own career option. RDH

HEIDI EMMERLING MUÑOZ, RDH, PhD, FAADH, is a professor of English at Cosumnes River College in Sacramento, Calif. She is a former professor and interim director of dental hygiene at Sacramento City College. Dr. Muñoz is the owner of Writing Cures (www.writingcures.com), a writing and editing service, co-author of “The Purple Guide: Paper Persona” (rdhpurpleguide.com), and creator of the Career Development Center for the Friends of Hu-Friedy website. At the University of California Santa Barbara, Dr. Muñoz taught senior-level professional writing to premedical, dental, and engineering students. She is a frequent contributor to RDH magazine and has written articles and columns for a variety of publications. Dr. Muñoz can be reached at [email protected].

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