The field of dental hygiene offers several strong career choices, including dentists, dental assistants, and dental hygienists. Students looking for a profession that combines critical thinking, technique, and interpersonal skills, but who are hesitant to commit to the years of dental school required to become a dentist, may find that pursuing a degree in dental hygiene is the most rewarding option. Dental hygienists most commonly have associate degrees, although bachelor's degrees and master's degrees are also available through certain institutions, and are necessary for teaching or research positions. Through their schooling, dental hygienists will learn how to clean teeth by removing plaque, tartar, and build-up, take x-rays, and document and instruct patients on tooth and gum healthcare.
As previously stated, the most common educational trajectory for a dental hygienist is to earn an associate degree through an accredited institution and then obtain licensure in whichever state he or she intends to practice. Associate degrees are typically three years long and include a variety of classes including anatomy (particularly head and neck anatomy), physiology, pathology, and periodontics, among others. Most programs offer clinical practice under the supervision of licensed dentists and hygienists, both through their on-campus dental clinic as well as through clinics in the surrounding area. The aim of these programs is to fully prepare students for a career in dental hygiene; to become licensed in whichever state they intend to practice, and to provide the hands-on experience that makes them more competitive for entry-level dental hygienist positions.
The admission requirements for associate degrees in dental hygiene varies by institution. Most will require high school transcripts, with evidence of comprehension of mathematics, biology, chemistry, health sciences and the humanities. Students will find that most programs supply specific directions for applying, including undergraduate-level course prerequisites. This means that at least one year of higher education is necessary for program entrance.
While they are less common, bachelor's degrees in dental hygiene can be found at several academic institutions. These programs are generally three or four years in length,and culminate in a Bachelor's of Science in Dental Hygiene. The course requirements for a bachelor's program are similar to those found in an associate degree program, however they go into further depth and specificity and include research development as part of the curriculum. A bachelor's degree may be appropriate for those who are looking to pursue research or teaching, or who are hoping to eventually enter a graduate program. As with associate degree programs, prerequisites and admission requirements will largely depend on the academic institution, but it is common for the admission process to include personal statements and interviews, in addition to reviewing transcript and academic history.
Graduate degrees for dental hygienists are generally for those who have already completed their preliminary degree, have work experience, and are looking to advance their career to either the research or academic level. Goals for programs at this level include expanding on the foundations laid by associate or bachelor's degree programs to include preparation for assuming leadership positions in dental hygiene education, and the development of healthcare practices. Research and field work also plays a large role in graduate degree programs. The field work component may be tailored to give a student experience in an area that they are most interested in, such working in a public health facility, government agency, or in a research setting.
In order to be accepted into a graduate program for dental hygiene, students should make sure they have an associate or bachelor's degree from an accredited institution, and have strong grades in their undergraduate classes (specific GPA requirements will vary). Requirements may also include the submission of personal letters of recommendation and/or an essay.
Annual tuition for a dental hygiene degree will largely be dependent on the institution offering the degree, and the level of education sought. There are options starting around $5,000 a year, with the more expensive programs reaching close to $50,000. Financial aid is available in various forms, from scholarships offered through national organizations like the National Dental Hygienists Association, or through private foundations such as the Dr. Esther Wilkins Scholarship. Applying for scholarships typically involves proof of academic merit and a personal essay, but will vary by the scholarship and year of application.
When selecting an institution to pursue a degree through, it is essential to make sure that it has received accreditation through the American Dental Association. The ADA has outlined a number of standards which, when met, ensures that the program is credible and legitimate. The Commission on Dental Accreditation, or CODA, has a website with a search engine for accredited dental hygiene programs.
Following the completion of a degree program, all dental hygienists will need to pass a licensing exam in order to begin working professionally. Licensing requirements for dental hygienists will depend entirely upon the state in which they are intending to practice. A state's medical or health board will outline the exact steps that must be taken, but almost all require passing scores on a written and clinical exam, as well as CPR certification. In order to keep one's license up-to-date, continuing education credits are often necessary.