By Ann-Marie C. DePalma, RDH, MEd
You have practiced clinical hygiene for a number of years and feel comfortable in your knowledge and skills. You may have worked in one practice only or have experienced a variety of practices. You enjoy clinical hygiene but are looking for something more. You have developed protocols for your practice that may or may not have taken hold. Do any of these images describe you? Are you looking to move beyond being a clinical hygienist into another role? How do you accomplish a move out of the clinical chair?
This article will investigate options for hygienists to move beyond clinical and embrace another role of the dental hygienist, specifically in education. In addition to dental hygiene education, we will review dental assisting education, corporate professional educators, continuing education providers, and consultants. Dental hygienists are the primary prevention specialists. We educate our patients every day. For some, education is the primary focus of their day-to-day clinical existences; for others, the clinical skills outweigh the educational component.
For those who enjoy education, moving beyond the clinical chair into an educational role can be appealing. As with any new challenge, however, there are positives and negatives to such a move. Individuals have to weigh their own situations and determine the best course of action for themselves at that particular point in time. Hygiene education in its many forms beyond clinical requires dedication, passion, and time - beyond the normal 9:00 to 5:00 clinical hygiene chair. Are you ready for that commitment?
When one thinks of hygiene education, the most common position is teaching in a dental hygiene program. Over the coming years, there will be a shortage of qualified educators to teach the next generation of dental hygienists, so there is a definite need. But the rigors of academic life begin before the clinical hygienist even starts teaching a course.
Requirements for educators
In order to teach dental hygiene students, a clinical instructor must possess at least a bachelor’s degree. Many dental hygiene programs employ part-time adjunct instructors who divide their time between teaching clinically and clinical dental hygiene practice. Can you be flexible in your schedule to accommodate semester changes or the contract salary of an adjunct? If you do not have a bachelor’s degree, start taking courses now to advance your opportunities. Dental hygiene graduates today often have bachelor’s degrees, so if you are not in a program currently, investigate the many options that are available. Make sure that whatever program you choose is a viable, accredited program.
If you are interested in teaching full-time didactic courses, a master’s degree or higher is a necessity. Along with a full-time position come employee and salary benefits that are often not seen in clinical or adjunct positions. Full-time faculty, in addition to the rigors of the dental hygiene program, are also asked to contribute to the advancement of the college or university by participating on committees, performing research, and/or publishing in industry publications.
Academic life is not a 9:00 to 5:00 job; it may require night or weekend involvement. Does your current lifestyle allow you to be flexible? Are you comfortable enough with your clinical skills that you can translate difficult concepts to new students? Are you actively supporting dental hygiene so as to mentor future hygienists? The answer to these and other questions can point you in the direction of academic education if that is your goal and desire.
A suggestion to help guide your decision would be to seek out both full-time and adjunct faculty members and perform informational interviews. An informational interview differs from a traditional interview in that it is a meeting between an employment seeker and a current employee, where the seeker is looking for advice from the current employee regarding the potential career or workplace environment (similar to a mentoring relationship). There is no specific job available and the interview is usually a short, one-time, one-on-one conversation (about 15 minutes). If the employee is willing, it can also involve shadowing the employee in daily activities.
Dental hygiene educational programs can be very rewarding. Seeing students move through the stages of learning competency is uniquely satisfying. Meeting former students after graduation at continuing education or other dental/dental hygiene events as they remark about how you made an impact on them provides rewards beyond compare.
In addition to dental hygiene educational programs, if you have current dental assisting knowledge and skills and are a certified dental assistant (or willing to become a CDA), teaching in dental assisting programs is also an option. There are many types of assisting programs, both ADA accredited and nonaccredited, that are worth investigating.
The corporate setting
If you are looking for an education position but are not sure academia will be the right fit for you, corporate education offers another alternative. In recent years, many dental companies have learned that hygienists make excellent educational representatives. Similar to academia, the requirements vary. Some positions require a bachelor’s degree or beyond; others require only a certain amount of clinical experience.
Some corporate educational positions are considered part-time independent consultants, while others are full-time company employees with appropriate salary and benefits. If you are interested in corporate positions, seek a hygienist who is in a current corporate educational role and ask for an informational interview. Ask your local company sales representatives or network at continuing education events with corporate sponsors to see if the company has any opportunities. Speak with the manager of a company’s education department and establish a relationship. Often it is through networking that corporate educational positions are filled.
Base the decision of whether corporate education is for you by considering these factors:
- How much travel is involved?
- How comfortable you are with the products or technology the company offers?
- How responsible you are for tracking expenses and providing up-to date reports
- How you feel about independent versus employee status.
Again, similar to academia, corporate education can require more than the traditional 9:00 to 5:00 job. Independent contractors often establish their own schedule, while full-time employees are required to be available for weekend or evening events. Travel can be local or long distance with or without overnight stays. Sometimes days can be longer than an eight-hour workday. Does your current lifestyle allow for this?
Whether you are seeking an academic or corporate position, having an up-to-date résumé is crucial. Résumé styles vary but the purpose of a résumé is to provide a prospective employer with a snapshot of your skills, abilities, and accomplishments. It is used to “sell” you to secure an interview. The résumé should highlight your skill sets and show how you can benefit the future employer.
If you are seeking an educational position with only clinical experience, highlight how you have educated patients in your previous clinical endeavors. Include activities beyond the clinical chair that may or may not have involved hygiene - for example, having taught your child’s class dental program or teaching religious education. Think outside the box!
Another type of educational opportunity is becoming a continuing education speaker or consultant. Educating dental professionals on the latest products or techniques requires the confidence and ability to be a public speaker. Travel is extensive as a speaker or consultant and the monetary rewards fluctuate - some months may see higher revenue than others.
Since you are often self-employed, the advantages and disadvantages of owning your own business are front and center. Are you a savvy businessperson with a workable business plan? Are you comfortable with both constructive and nonconstructive criticism and feedback? Can you motivate and challenge others to accept change? No advanced degree is needed to be a consultant or speaker, but the more education and current clinical skills you possess, the more credible you become.
Regardless of the type of educational position you have a passion for, don’t let salary be your only guide. Yes, we all need decent salaries to provide for our families and ourselves, but often when we seek positions for salary only, disappointment abounds. Salary and the tangible and intangible benefits that education offer can provide fulfillment far beyond the numbers.
Having had clinical, academic, and corporate educational experience, I can attest that it isn’t always about the numbers. It comes down to the common saying: “Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.” Many mentors are available to help you “just do it” and make the move into education. RDH
ANN-MARIE C. DEPALMA, RDH, MEd, FADIA, FAADH, is the 2017 recipient of the Esther M. Wilkins Distinguished Alumni Award of the Forsyth School for Dental Hygiene/Massachusetts College of Pharmacy. She is a Fellow of the American Academy of Dental Hygiene and the Association of Dental Implant Auxiliaries, as well as a continuous member of ADHA. She presents continuing education programs for dental team members on a variety of topics. Ann-Marie has authored chapters in several texts for dental hygiene. She can be reached at [email protected].