Obtaining a master’s degree has many benefits for those who want to leave clinical hygiene. Using a master’s in clinical practice has the potential to elevate the level of care and can improve patient health outcomes.1 Also, those with advanced degrees are well prepared to advance the dental hygiene profession and create autonomy.2 If you’re thinking about pursuing a master’s degree, you may be concerned about balancing your life, work, and family. But pursuing an advanced degree is more obtainable than ever, thanks to availability of online opportunities.
My personal journey
After eight years as a clinical dental hygienist, I was ready to move on. My initial motivation was to leave clinical hygiene because I was increasingly dissatisfied. But what I learned throughout the master’s program changed my perception about how I would use my degree.
In 2016, armed with my associate degree in dental hygiene, I set out for a master's in dental hygiene at Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences (MCPHS). MCPHS offered a bridge program, meaning I would take one year of courses to “bridge” the credits from associate’s to master’s. The program was totally online and took three years to complete. Despite never setting foot in a classroom, I never felt alone. I was in constant contact with my peers and faculty, and I felt strong knowing I had a good support system. Although there was flexibility with deadlines, it was an intense period in my life. After all, I was working full-time and had a family to support. My social life took a back seat. But I pushed on, knowing that soon I would walk across the stage to accept the degree I’d worked so hard for.
What I learned along the way
With each course I felt more liberated and confident, and the instructors and my peers always taught me something new—a new way to think, to practice, approach my coworkers, and interact with my patients. I gained so much from pursuing this degree that I decided to write my thesis on why hygienists get these degrees and what they do with them.
I reached out to 20 hygienists from around the country who had advanced degrees. Most had returned to get their master’s within five years of receiving their entry-level degree, while the others waited 20 to 30 years.3 Just under half of the participants had children at home while they pursued the degree.3 I scheduled online focus groups and asked questions about why they went for their degrees and what it meant to them and our profession. The results of these conversations were powerful.
What I learned from writing my thesis
I chose my topic with the intent of learning what career paths were available. I gained so much knowledge and growth from going through this program, and I wanted to help others understand what they could gain from this experience. What I learned was not just what career paths these hygienists took, but they shared their many “whys” and their satisfaction with their choice.
Previous research found that the barriers to obtaining an advanced degree are time, finances, and fear of having to write a thesis.4–6 Despite this, the participants I talked with were grateful for their degree and thought the effort was worth it.3 Even though there were challenges working and caring for family, each one felt that earning the degree was completely doable.3 Every course I took prepared me to write a thesis. It’s not as scary as you might think.
We have opportunities
If you’re a member of any hygiene forums on social media, you’ve probably noticed that many hygienists are dissatisfied with clinical practice. A 2019 survey revealed that 43% of hygienists do not feel valued or respected.7 Online posts consistently ask what opportunities lie outside the operatory. Now more than ever, hygienists are dissatisfied due to the impacts of COVID-19.8
Those who participated in my research confirmed that their degree afforded them many opportunities.3 The degree opened more doors to new career adventures, interprofessional collaboration, opportunities to advance the profession, and the flexibility to choose where they wanted to work.3
We can achieve growth
Dental hygienists are looking for more growth, whether it be in the clinical setting or outside of the operatory. To achieve job satisfaction, they’re looking for more than just increased wages and benefits.9 They also want more responsibilities and the freedom to perform them.9 Across the board, my research revealed that the degree participants experienced substantial personal and professional growth.3 They indicated that the master’s helped them move up the career ladder, use their strengths to make important decisions, and increase their salary.3 One participant spoke about how getting her master’s helped to elevate the dental hygiene profession.3 Another said that earning her master’s was a way to break down the barriers between dentists and hygienists.3
We develop credibility
One way to lend more credibility to our profession is to increase the amount of discipline-specific research.2 Clinical hygienists are at the forefront of improving population health. They perform comprehensive medical and dental assessments, have knowledge of the oral-systemic link, and deliver care that improves health and wellness. They’re positioned to raise research questions about how to create innovative ways to care for patients and increase positive health outcomes. Earning a master’s can prepare them for this role.
Those in my study said their advanced degree gave them more credibility.3 They noted the extra letters after their name helped them realize they were highly knowledgeable, could back up their opinions, and could become more vocal.3 Overall, they felt they earned more respect from colleagues, and were asked to weigh in often on key issues.3 Hygienists who move up are better prepared to collaborate with professionals in parallel fields and lend more credibility to our profession.2
Dental hygienists with advanced degrees want you to get one, too
One important question that I asked was if they had any words of wisdom for others who were thinking about getting a master’s or doctorate. Their responses were remarkable. They were so satisfied with their degrees and return on investment that they advocated for more hygienists to become educated at the master’s and doctoral levels.3 Some of their remarks should resonate with most dental hygienists. They believe that no one is ever too old to go back to school. that they made a great decision, and that their journey was absolutely worth it.3
The benefits of having more hygienists at the master’s level would be immense. We could contribute more discipline-specific research, increase access to care, deliver more complex care, reduce the educator shortage, and potentially create autonomy and self-regulation.1–3,5 Nursing, our parallel profession, has already obtained more autonomy and self-regulation by using master’s degrees toward this goal.10,11 One participant said that dental hygienists earning advanced degrees is bigger than just ourselves, and that the profession needs this to drive forward.3
Types of career paths
A broad range of career paths were revealed in my research, such as administrator, lawyer, entrepreneur, dental therapist, dentist, nurse, educator, researcher, public speaker, consultant, editor, state oral health program director, and marketing.3 In most cases, the career paths remained relevant to dental hygiene.3 Some participants stayed in the clinical setting, and others worked outside of clinical and were still involved in dentistry in some way.3
I thought the master’s degree would be my ticket out of the operatory. I realized along the way that I love being a clinician and teacher, and the degree strengthened my skills for both. In fact, earning the degree made me fall in love with being a dental hygienist all over again, and in new ways that I never thought possible.
Like the participants, the degree promoted my professional and personal growth and increased my confidence, which allowed me to have more meaningful conversations with my colleagues and patients. It also gave me more credibility with my boss and other professionals, which empowered me to introduce innovative ideas and tools into my practice. The degree opened more doors both in and out of the op, such as teaching, developing programs in my organization, and pursuing additional training in myofunctional therapy.
Pursuing an advanced degree is a personal choice and a big decision. Out of the 20 hygienists I interviewed, not one of them had a single regret about their decision to pursue their degree. They were proud and satisfied. For those looking to reignite their passion in clinical hygiene, grow professionally, or pursue a new adventure, enrolling in a master’s program might be the right fit for you.
Editor's note: This article appeared in the August 2022 print edition of RDH magazine. Dental hygienists in North America are eligible for a complimentary print subscription. Sign up here.
- Fried JL, Maxey HL, Battani K, Gurenlian JR, Byrd TO, Brunick A. Preparing the future dental hygiene workforce: knowledge, skills, and reform. J Dent Educ. 2017;81(9):eS45-eS52. doi:10.21815/JDE.017.032
- Walsh MM, Ortega E, Heckman B. Dental hygiene’s scholarly identity and roadblocks to achieving it. J Dent Hyg. 2015;89:9-12.
- Jones-Teti J, Boyd LD, LaSpina L. Career paths and satisfaction of dental hygienists holding master’s and doctoral degrees. J Dent Hyg. 2021;95(12):p54-62.
- Coruth CL, Boyd LD, August JN, Smith AN. Perceptions of dental hygienists about thesis completion in graduate education. J Dent Educ. 2019;83(12):1420-1426. doi:10.21815/JDE.019.156
- Smith AN, Boyd LD, Rogers CM, Jeune RCL. Self-perceptions of value, barriers, and motivations for graduate education among dental hygienists. J Dent Educ. 2016;80(9):1033-1040.
- Boyd LD, Bailey A. Dental hygienists’ perceptions of barriers to graduate education. J Dent Educ. 2011;75(8):1030-1037.
- The state of the RDH career in 2020. RDH magazine. December 1, 2019. Accessed June 1, 2022. https://www.rdhmag.com/career-profession/article/14073700/the-state-of-the-rdh-career-in-2020
- DentalPost. The state of the RDH career in 2021. Registered dental hygienists. February 1, 2021. Accessed June 1, 2022. https://www.rdhmag.com/career-profession/article/14190024/the-state-of-the-rdh-career-in-2021
- Hartley M. Career satisfaction in dental hygiene: Room to grow? DentistryIQ. February 19, 2015. Accessed June 1, 2022. https://www.dentistryiq.com/dental-hygiene/salaries/article/16350780/career-satisfaction-in-dental-hygiene-room-to-grow
- Ortega E, Walsh MM. Doctoral dental hygiene education: Insights from a review of nursing literature and program websites. Am Dent Hyg Assoc. 2014;88(1):5-12.
- Taylor H. Parallels between the development of the nurse practitioner and the advancement of the dental hygienist. Am Dent Hyg Assoc. 2016;90(1):6-11.