There’s more to that sought-after, dazzlingly white smile than meets the eye: though your friendly neighborhood dentist may fill your cavities and fix your teeth, it is often a dental hygienist or dental assistant that cleans, buffs, and polishes your coffee or wine-stained incisors into an eye-catching smile.

Dental Assisting and Hygiene Career Opportunities

Related Careers: DENTAL ASSISTANT and DENTAL HYGIENIST

As with many medical support personnel, job prospects for dental assistants and hygienists are expected to be excellent.  There were over 295,000 dental assistants in 2008, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics expects an additional 105,000 jobs by 2018; that’s an occupational growth rate of 36%.  Dental hygienists are expected to add almost 63,000 new jobs to the 2008 tally of 174,000 positions; that’s also a growth rate of 36%.  Compare that with the 8.2% expansion of the size of the civilian workforce, and start practicing your "open wide!"

Projected Growth Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics
Projected Growth Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

The Occupational Information network, a resource of the Department of Labor’s Employment & Training Administration, reports that there will be a total of 98,400 openings for dental hygienists and 161,400 openings for dental assistants from 2008 to 2018.  That figure includes jobs added by occupational growth and positions that open due to retirement or early termination.

Dental Assistant and Hygiene Earnings

Dental assistants and hygienists learn many of the same skills and perform many of the same tasks, but hygienists are licensed to perform more complex clinical procedures.  As a result, hygienists typically earn much more than assistants: a median of $66,570 yearly for hygienists compared to $32,380 for assistants in 2008, according to the BLS.

The middle 50% of hygienists earned between $55,220 and $78,990.  The bottom 10% of the field earned less than $44,180, and the top 10% earned more than $91,470.

The middle 50% of dental assistants earned between $26,980 and $38,960, while the bottom 10% earned less than $22,270 and the top 10% earned more than $46,150.

Annual Earnings Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

Dental Assisting and Hygiene Educational Benefits

Completion of a post-secondary dental assisting program is not strictly required for entry to the field, but it is increasingly preferred, as more and more institutions offer 1 and 2 year diplomas and associate’s degrees in dental assisting.  Dental assistants with an associate’s degree will be more competitive in opportunities and pay than those with a 1 year diploma, while those with diplomas will be more competitive than those with no post-secondary education.

According to The Occupational Information Network, a government career-planning resource, 36% of dental assistants have no education beyond a high school diploma.  A majority, 54%, have some college, including associate’s degrees and diplomas in dental assisting.  The remainder – only 10% – have a bachelor’s degree or higher.

Educational Achievement Source: Occupational Information Network

An associate’s degree in dental hygiene is required to qualify as an entry-level dental hygienist.  Most states also license dental hygienists: after graduating with an associate’s degree in dental hygiene, the candidate will have to pass a national and state-level exam.

According to The Occupational Information Network, only 3% of dental hygienists have no post-secondary education.  62% have some college (including associate’s degrees, diplomas, and certifications), and the remaining 35% have a bachelor’s degree or higher.

Educational Achievement Source: Occupational Information Network

Both dental hygienists and assistants will take a combination of general science courses (like anatomy, chemistry, microbiology, and social sciences), and courses dealing with the technical and practical aspects of dentistry (including instruction in treatment of gum disease, radiology, and clinical hygiene).

Some dental hygienist programs offer internship placement, allowing the student to gain valuable on-the-job experience while still in school.

Dental Assisting and Hygiene Programs Online

Degrees Possible: Diploma and Associate’s Degrees

As with the educational programs of many medical support personnel, there are a growing number of dental hygiene and dental assisting programs offered online.  These range from initial degrees in dental assisting to continuing education for working dental hygienists. The best of these programs will provide a rigorous, high-level education comparable to a dental assisting or hygiene program offered at a local school or college, but in a more flexible format that may be better suited to working students.

As with any serious educational decision, do your research:  is the school accredited?  Will credits transfer?  What is the school’s job placement rate?  What are people saying about this school in general and this program specifically?  You’ll find the answers to many of these questions within the University Bound Network of Web sites, but don’t be afraid to ask your admissions counselor pointed questions.

Dental Assisting and Hygiene Skills and Abilities

It is important for those dental support workers who have direct contact with patients to have a courteous chair-side manner.  Because dental assistants and hygienists must work closely with others, including the dentists that supervise them, good communication and active listening skills are also important.  Good manual dexterity is definitely a plus, as dental support personnel work in the confined space of the human mouth.

Educationally, dental assistant and dental hygiene programs incorporate clinical and administrative aspects, so a strong science and math background is helpful.

Dental Assisting and Hygiene Advancement and Qualification

On completion of a dental assisting program, graduates will be qualified to work as a DENTAL ASSISTANT.

With advanced education, dental assistants and hygienists can qualify for supervisorial positions.

Additional Information

The American Dental Hygienists Association (ADHA) maintains a Web site at http://www.adha.org.

The American Dental Assistants Association maintains a Web site at http://www.dentalassistant.org.