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Engaged in Change: How to break into untraditional dental hygiene roles during your career

March 14, 2017
Carol Jahh, RDH, offers suggestions on elevating career paths into untraditional dental hygiene roles.

By Carol Jahn, RDH, MS

"How do I start doing what you're doing?" is likely one of the most frequent questions I'm asked at my continuing education courses or at trade shows. It's not a question with an easy or singular answer. What worked for me might not be right for someone else.

It will depend upon what you want to do. If it's being employed by a company doing sales or marketing, then a bachelor's degree will likely be required. If you are looking to start speaking or writing, your degree matters less than finding your authentic voice and leveraging your expertise. While there are many paths to new opportunities, there are some universal ways that can help anyone move forward.

Network, connect, engage: It really is true that it is often not what you know but who you know. Today's world makes it easier than ever to network, and there are three things you need to participate in:

  • Social media is a must, and the best place for career networking is LinkedIn. You can post a resume, highlight your skills, or even add a video.
  • Attend one to two trade shows/exhibits per year. Ideally, if feasible, you need to be at the ones in your own backyard; that's where you will find your local connections. But if you really want to meet many of the top influencers and decision makers in dental hygiene, then attending RDH Under One Roof or the ADHA's Center for Lifelong Learning is the way to go.
  • Become active in your professional association. If you have the time, volunteer; it is always an attention-getter on resumes, and it will provide you with skills you may not have the opportunity to get in private practice.

It's not enough to network. You need to make connections and have engagement. Key influencers and corporate hygienists meet hundreds of people every year. To be remembered, you need to form a connection. It's not as hard as you think. It can be as easy as reaching out to someone on LinkedIn for advice or following up with someone you met at a trade show.

At RDH Under One Roof last August, I met a dental hygienist who was looking for new opportunities and was wanting help getting a Water Flosser for her mother in a nursing home. A couple of months later, she sent me a wonderful thank you, letting me know how much our product had helped her mother. Is she on my short list should an opportunity arise in her area? Absolutely!

You are your own brand. In today's connected world, very little stays private. Anyone can find your Facebook page and review your posts, comments, and photos. If you are serious about building your professional career, then you have to be vigilant about how you present to your peers and the dental professional community. There are many RDH Facebook pages; make sure that your posts make you shine. No griping or making fun of patients, coworkers, or employers. Seek to provide ways to lift people up or be a good resource-and refrain from arguing or shaming colleagues for their beliefs and opinions.

Appearance matters. Here's another old adage that is still appropriate: Dress for the job you want, not the one you have. It's great to be comfortable when walking around a trade show or sitting in an all-day course. But if you want to network, connect, and engage, think about dressing to put your best foot forward.

You want the person you are talking with to look at you and think, "She/he might be a good fit." A suit or expensive clothing is not necessary. Invest in what you can realistically afford. Jeans (no holes) are acceptable just about everywhere; pair them with a nice top and street shoes, and you are good to go.

Don't overlook business cards. If I've enjoyed talking with you, I'll ask for a business card. Nine times out of 10, I hear, "I don't have one." You need to invest in business cards for yourself. There are many low-cost options available online.

Should you put your picture on it? Why not? You can also use the photo with your LinkedIn profile or resume. Having a face to go with a name helps build connections. Last year, at the ADHA CLL meeting in Pittsburgh, the association offered free headshots over a course of two days. It was one of the most popular venues on the exhibit floor.

As Nike says, "Just Do It." If you want to get published, but aren't sure what to do-start a blog. You can publish through LinkedIn or set up a site through WordPress. Eager to give a course? Figure out what your passion is and then put it together. Don't know how to do PowerPoint? Take a course. Practice. Then pitch your topic to your local dental hygiene component. If you have worked on networking/connections and branding, then you will be talking to colleagues, not cold-calling.

Invest in yourself and your future. For some, it may mean going back to school. Completing a bachelor's or master's degree as an adult is always impressive. Often, it's less about the degree and more about seeing yourself as someone who had the tenacity to follow through on a goal. Many adults start to earn a degree; not everyone finishes. Life can get in the way. Going back to school and completing a degree tells potential employers you have the wherewithal and capability of finishing what you start.

Education doesn't have to be formal. There are great books on business, leadership, entrepreneurship, principles for success-you name it. TED Talks features a number of inspiring and motivating speakers. Sign up to get regular information from sources that provide you with cutting-edge information on dentistry and/or your particular area of expertise.

For example, each day, I get an e-mail from MedlinePlus and MDLinx so I can ensure I am on top of all the latest research. Read the paper in hard copy or online. Writing and speaking is more than just having a dental knowledge base; it's important to understand general issues and trends going on in the United States and world.

Assemble a team. Not only should you find a cheerleader, you should also try to find someone who can be your kindest critic. Yes, it sounds like an oxymoron, but if all you ever hear is positive reinforcement, you will miss out on opportunities for growth. I'm not talking about someone who beats you up, but rather that person who you can turn to for editing help with an article or some tangible feedback on how to improve your speaking.

We all need someone who builds us up. When I get positive feedback, it certainly keeps me going. But I also know that what improved my writing was when I learned that editing makes me look good. In the long run, it makes me a better writer. The same is true for speaking. There have been slides or topics that I've loved. But my audience seemed a little lukewarm. I've appreciated the times someone has helped me find ways to improve and make it more interesting.

You can do what I do. The best way to start is by creating your own opportunities. The best time to start is now. RDH

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