How to Move from Dental Assistant to Dental Hygienist

As a dental assistant, you’re an important part of the dental team, and a big part of your role is to help dentists to work more efficiently. Your job may involve a combination of duties such as greeting patients, scheduling appointments, sterilizing instruments and preparing patients and work areas for treatment and procedures.

Working as a dental assistant is a stable and interesting career, but you may want to consider advancing to a career as a dental hygienist. This is a related career that requires you to have a higher level of knowledge and skill in dental care. Pursuing this career path can provide more pay and more job opportunities. Here we review your options in moving from dental assistant to dental hygienist, including bridge programs, further degree possibilities and “test-out” options.

Search Dental Assistant to Hygienist Programs

Dental Assistants earn your Dental Hygienist degree online for up to 1/2 the cost of traditional programs. All applicants must already be Dental Assistants.

Are You a Dental Assistant?: Yes No

Is it Possible to Move from Dental Assistant to Dental Hygienist?

Once you’ve decided you’re interested in moving from a career as a dental assistant to a career as a dental hygienist, you may wonder if it’s even possible for you to make this change. Becoming a dental hygienist requires completing either an associate’s degree program or a bachelor’s degree program in dental hygiene. There’s no reason you can’t pursue a degree while you’re working as a dental assistant. While there aren’t exactly “bridge programs” available, you may able to “test out” certain elements of the required program classes and reduce the burden.

Admission to dental hygiene programs can be competitive since most people know that working as a dental hygienist can lead to above-average wages. The good news is that since you’re currently a dental assistant, you’ve already demonstrated commitment to the field of dentistry, and you have a lot of knowledge of what’s involved in dental care. This may be beneficial for you when you apply to a dental hygiene program, both in making you a more competitive applicant and in feeling familiar with some of what you’ll be studying.

Reasons to Consider Moving from Dental Assisting to Dental Hygiene

There are some good reasons to consider moving from dental assisting to dental hygiene. One of the most obvious reasons is salary. The median annual salary of a dental assistant as of May 2019 was $40,080, while the median salary of a dental hygienist was $76,220, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.  

The salary range can vary based on training, location and experience, but it’s very likely your pay will increase once you become a dental hygienist. Since you’re being paid more for the work you do, you may be able to eventually work fewer hours or even on a part-time basis.

The population is continuing to age. Many people are living longer and keeping more of their original teeth than previous generations. This is one reason the demand for dental services is likely to increase. The job outlook for both dental assistants and dental hygienists is predicted to be faster than average for all occupations, with a job growth of approximately 6 percent for dental hygienists and 7 percent for dental assistants.

Job stability is great for both of these careers, but it may be even better for a dental hygienist than for a dental assistant. This is because a dental hygienist is a more highly skilled vocation.

What Subjects Would Be Included in a Dental Hygiene Program?

Dental hygiene degrees are offered at community colleges, universities and vocational schools. Each program offers a variety of courses to prepare you for this career, and usually includes both theoretical and clinical training. Some of your courses may include:

  • Microbiology
  • Anatomy and physiology of the head and neck
  • Infection control
  • Oral pathology
  • Local anesthesia
  • Dental radiography
  • Gum disease

Even though you already have a background in dental care, you may find some of these courses challenging and may feel overwhelmed from time to time. You’ll need to be committed to completing the program and, to do that, you’ll need to keep up with whatever is required of you in each class. Be sure to ask for help if you’re struggling. As long as you’re committed to succeeding, you’ll get through the days that feel overwhelming.

How Long Does It Take to Become a Dental Hygienist?

One reason you may have decided to become a dental assistant is because it gave you the opportunity to be trained for a career in the healthcare field in less than a year. To move up to a career as a dental hygienist, you’ll need to complete a degree program, which usually ranges from two to four years, depending on whether you’re pursuing a bachelor’s degree or an associate’s degree.

Attaining an associate’s degree takes two to three years, while bachelor’s degree programs usually take four years. Pursuing a bachelor’s degree gives you thorough training that prepares you to work more independently and may open the door to even more job opportunities. 

Do Dental Hygienists Need to Be Licensed?

Dental hygienists are required to be licensed by every state. This is done to protect the public from unsafe practices or unqualified practitioners. When you obtain a license, it helps to provide the assurance that you’re qualified to work in this field. Each state has its own requirements for becoming licensed, but in most states you’re required to:

  • Be a graduate of an accredited dental hygiene program
  • Successfully pass the written National Board Dental Hygiene Examination

There may also be a state or regional clinical board examination in your state that you’re required to complete. Once you’ve become licensed as a dental hygienist, you’ll need to complete regular continuing education classes to renew your license periodically. Contact your state’s Board of Dental Examiners to find out what’s required to earn or renew a license in your state.

What are the Requirements for Admission to Dental Hygiene Training Programs?

Admission to dental hygiene programs can be competitive, and some schools prefer candidates with previous office experience, particularly in a dental setting.  The experience you already have as a dental assistant means you’re familiar with dental terminology, dental instruments and patient care. This experience will be helpful as you learn more complex skills.  

Schools may also require candidates to complete prerequisite courses. These may be in science classes such as biology or chemistry, or in liberal arts classes that may include psychology, English or speech. Different schools have different requirements, and some may have a minimum grade point requirement for previous courses that you’ve completed.

Finding Training Programs to Become a Dental Hygienist

Dental hygiene training programs can be found all over the country. Many of these programs require students to attend full-time during the day, especially when you’re in lab or clinical portions or the program. Look for programs that are accredited by the Commission on Dental Accreditation. Examples of accredited programs include:

  • University of New Haven. Located in West Haven, CT, this university offers both associate’s and bachelor’s degree options in Dental Hygiene. Students who are freshmen in the dental hygiene program or are in the clinical courses must attend full-time.
  • South Florida State College. This college in Avon Park, FL, offers an associate in science degree in dental hygiene. This is a full-time day program consisting of 88 hours that can be completed in 2 years.
  • Farmingdale State College. This New York college offers several options for pursuing a career as a dental hygienist. They offer an associate in science degree, a bachelor of science degree and an online bachelor of science completion degree.

Can You Become a Dental Hygienist Online?

To become a dental hygienist, you’ll need some hands-on clinical training. If you initially become a dental hygienist by completing an associate’s degree, you may be able to pursue your bachelor’s degree through a completion program, which may be offered online.

One way to shorten the length of your schooling is to test out of some of your courses. Achieve Test-out Program can help you bypass some of your prerequisite courses by testing out of them.  This is a great way to save time while also saving money on books and tuition. For some classes, instead of spending 15 weeks attending class and doing homework, you may be able to attend a few test prep sessions that meet once a week and pass just one exam. For more information, enter your zip code in the box below:

Search Dental Assistant to Hygienist Programs

Dental Assistants earn your Dental Hygienist degree online for up to 1/2 the cost of traditional programs. All applicants must already be Dental Assistants.

Are You a Dental Assistant?: Yes No

A Career as a Dental Hygienist

A dental hygienist is an integral member of the dental team, examining patients for signs of dental decay or gum disease and providing preventative care and education on oral hygiene.  There are many job opportunities available for trained dental hygienists. The most common setting for employment is working closely with dentists in private dental practices of family dentists or specialists. A small number of jobs may be available in physician’s offices or government settings. If you pursue a bachelor’s degree, additional opportunities may open up such as management, research, teaching or working for health organizations in the community.

When you move from dental assistant to dental hygienist, you’re likely to enjoy higher pay and more flexible hours than working as a dental assistant. You’ll be well prepared to provide professional dental care to your patients, and to offer insights and education on oral health to them. With this advanced training, your skills will always be in high demand.