6 Things I Wish I Knew Before Becoming A Registered Dental Hygienist

The dental hygienist industry can be daunting for just starting out in the field. Here’s a few points of advice to keep in mind.
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patient having her teeth cleaned by the hygienist

I love being a registered dental hygienist (RDH) and I wouldn’t change it for anything in the world. From giving patients some much-needed pain relief after they’ve suffered for years to teaching little ones how to take care of their teeth and gums at home, dental hygiene is incredibly rewarding.

But I haven’t always felt this way.

I’ve worked in dental hygiene for 20 years and I’ve seen a lot of changes in the industry, as well as in myself. Looking back with the knowledge and experience I have now, I can easily spot my mistakes and know that I could have progressed even further in my career if I’d made different decisions along the way.

Don’t follow in my footsteps and realize your mistakes far too late. Here are six things I wish I knew before becoming an RDH. I hope learning about these errors can help you avoid them altogether and enjoy a wonderful, fulfilling career as a dental hygienist.

1. Be Sure Before You Commit

Many people in my dental hygiene course decided to become RDHs because they thought it would be easy. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Although it only takes a couple of years to earn an associate degree, the material can be really challenging and requires your full attention. 

Dental hygiene doesn’t get any easier when you leave college, either. Not only do you still have to continue your education to keep your license valid, but you’ll come across many struggles in your average work day.

I’m passionate about dental hygiene, so I’m able to work my way through these struggles without much difficulty. But my classmates who were looking for an easy ride found themselves in over their heads and ended up switching careers.

2. Never Sign Up With Dental Temp Agencies

The biggest mistake I made as a dental hygienist was signing up with a dental temp agency. I was young, fresh out of college, and eager to find work. I thought the easiest way to do this would be to sign up with an agency. But instead, I lost years of my career and countless dollars.

I did receive a few job offers from my dental agency and because I was desperate to become an adult and start living my own life, I snapped them up. Unfortunately, every single placement I received was badly paid. I had to work with other dental professionals who were clearly unhappy and I was usually forced to commit to work schedules that clashed with my plans. 

I stuck with my dental temp agency for three years before I finally gave up and took my name off their list. At the time, I was really scared that I’d made a mistake and my career as a dental hygienist would be over. But now I can see stepping away from the temp agency was one of the best decisions I ever made for my professional and personal life.

3. Work For Yourself

After leaving the dental temp agency, I decided I didn’t want to be forced to work anywhere I didn’t like ever again. That’s why I decided to work for myself. I went through the legal process to an independent contractor and I’ve never been happier.

Before this, I had no experience running my own business, but it was so much easier than I ever planned. Being able to set my own working hours, choose the practice owners I worked for, and deciding how much to charge was so liberating.

Even if you currently work at a dental practice, I encourage you to give working for yourself a try. It could ignite a flame within and inspire you to become your own boss, just like it did for me. You’ll never know if you don’t give it a go.

4. Charge What You’re Worth

After earning a shockingly low hourly rate with a dental temp agency, I was worried about overpricing my services. This led me to seriously undercharge my first few dental clients.

Don’t make the same mistake I did and throw money away. Consider how much the average dental hygienist earns, what other RDHs are charging, and the value of your experience to determine your hourly rate. It’s never too late to increase your rate according to your value. But you can never step back in time and recover the money you lost.

Your value as an RDH increases over time. Make sure you increase your hourly rate accordingly. When you gain a lot of new experience or develop a new skill, consider boosting your hourly rate.

5. Practice Self Care

Dental hygiene is physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausting. Positioning myself in awkward angles, dealing with the occasional difficult patient and being a shoulder to cry on for patients who need it can certainly take its toll. To help myself recover, I commit to practicing one act of self care every single day.

It doesn’t matter whether you go for a walk in nature, cook yourself a wholesome meal, or even give yourself a DIY massage at home, it’s important you take care of yourself when working as an RDH. Pick an activity that has a positive impact on your body, soul, or mind and treat yourself to it at the end of each shift.

I’m a big believer of the phrase, “You can’t pour from an empty jug.” Before you can take good care of your patients in the practice, you need to be taking good care of yourself at home.

6. Don’t Overwork Yourself

I can say without a doubt that I took on far too much work when I became an independent contractor dental hygienist. I was worried that I wouldn’t earn enough income to pay for my rented apartment, so I accepted every job offer I got. Instead of helping me keep the lights on, all the work did was ensure I burned out.

I felt stressed, overwhelmed, and tired all the time, but I still carried on. Back then, I thought that was just what life as a dental hygienist was like. But now I can see how wrong I really was.

Full-time RDHs rarely work more than 30 hours a week because it’s simply not possible. The job is incredibly demanding, with high concentration levels needed for hours every day. While it’s sustainable for a couple of weeks, you can’t work this many hours on a permanent basis.

When you work for yourself, you’re in charge of your hourly rate. This means you can choose how much you get paid and create a sustainable work schedule that doesn’t result in burnout.

A Career As An RDH Is Worth It, If You Want It

Being a dental hygienist has its ups and downs, but I wouldn’t change my job for anything in the world. I love being able to make a difference in my patients’ lives and I plan on continuing doing just that for as long as I can.

If you’re considering becoming a dental hygienist, I urge you to do it. I had a great time in dental hygiene school and look forward to stepping into the practice every morning when I wake up. If you’re passionate about helping people obtain bright white smiles, there’s no better career than dental hygiene.

For the full story about maximizing your income as a dental hygienist, check out our complete guide to this exciting career!

Written By Dr. Steven Tuggle