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What degree do you need to become a dental hygienist?

The minimum qualification you need to become a dental hygienist is an associate degree in dental hygiene. There are other qualifications you can obtain to be eligible for the role, but an associate degree is the fastest way to become an RDH. To help you decide which degree is best suited to your future goals, here’s a detailed overview of the different qualifications you need to become a registered dental hygienist and how to get them. 

Exactly how to become a dental hygienist

1. Take the right highschool classes

You can begin your dental hygiene education as early as highschool. Courses in biology, chemistry, math, health and psychology will be very beneficial in a dental hygiene career. Having certificates in these subjects will also increase your chances of being accepted into a dental hygienist program.

2. Go to college

Although it’s not a requirement, most dental hygienist programs are more likely to accept applicants who have completed at least one year of college. Choosing courses connected to dental hygiene, such as the ones mentioned above, will provide a valuable foundation for a career in dentistry. Completing at least one year of college will also give you an idea of what studying for a degree will be like and if it’s the route you want to take. 

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3. Complete a dental hygienist program for an associate degree

To get an associate degree, you need to complete a dental hygienist program approved by the Commision on Dental Accreditation (CODA). These programs typically take 2 years to complete and can be taken at community colleges, technical schools, universities and dental schools. To enroll, you need to choose the course you’re interested in and follow the application requirements set by the school. This usually involves filling out a form and providing transcripts and test scores.

 

Classes in dental hygiene programs are divided into laboratory, clinical and classroom instruction and cover nutrition, pathology, anatomy, physiology, radiography, medical ethics, periodontics and patient management. When you’ve completed the program and passed the exams, you receive an associate degree. This degree allows you to take licensure exams to become a licensed dental hygienist.

Admission requirements for a dental hygienist program

Each school decides the admission requirements for their dental hygiene program. However, most programs require a GPA of at least 2.5 in subjects related to dental hygiene, such as anatomy, biology, chemistry and sociology. Since dental hygiene is in the healthcare industry, it’s fairly common for schools to require an applicant to have a CPR certificate before enrolling or to obtain one shortly after the program begins.

Getting an associate degree in a community college

Dental hygienist programs in community colleges cover comprehensive patient care, lifelong oral health and community health. If you get your associate degree this way, you’ll focus solely on topics related to your future career, unless you enroll in additional courses yourself. 

Associate degree in a technical school

The quickest way to get an associate degree is to complete it through a technical school. While most dental hygienist programs take 2 years to complete, some technical schools allow students to begin working in dental practices just 17 months after enrolling. Associate degrees in technical schools are career-driven and will provide you with real-world skills and training which you can transfer directly into your everyday work as a dental hygienist.

Getting an associate degree in a university

If you want to obtain an associate degree from a university, the process is very similar to what you’ll experience in a community college. The program takes around 2 years and focuses exclusively on education you’ll need on a daily basis working as a dental hygienist. You can also obtain a bachelor’s or master's degree in dental hygiene from a university. These 2 alternatives are covered later in this article.

Getting an associate degree in a dental school

You can also get an associate degree, a bachelor’s degree or a master’s degree from a dental school. Since these establishments focus solely on oral health, they’re a great option if you want to learn more about dental hygiene through hands-on clinical rotations, volunteer work and classroom teaching. 

Associate degree alternatives

An associate degree is recommended for someone who wants to work as a dental hygienist as quickly as possible. While this qualification is sufficient for working in a dental practice, it’s not enough if you’re interested in research, teaching or clinical practice in school or public health programs. If you want to take your career to the next level, you need a bachelor’s or master’s degree in dental hygiene.

Bachelor’s degree in dental hygiene

A bachelor’s degree typically takes 4 years to complete in a college or university. If you’ve already got an associate degree in dental hygiene, you can speed the process up and obtain your bachelor’s degree in 15-18 months. This type of course is known as a degree-completion program and is designed for students who already have a dental hygiene license and want to develop their knowledge of theory and research or learn leadership skills.

 

Wanting to advance your career as a dental hygienist isn’t the only reason to obtain a bachelor’s degree. As dentistry becomes more competitive, students with a bachelor’s will stand out from other applicants. These courses share many of the same topics with associate degrees, but they cover the subjects in much greater depth, giving you an advantage in the dental practice.

Admission requirements for a bachelor’s degree

If you’re enrolling in a course for a bachelor’s degree without an associate degree, you’ll need to meet the same requirements that you would for a standard dental hygiene program. This includes a GPA of at least 2.5 in subjects such as anatomy, biology, chemistry and sociology. Some schools will also require you to have certification in CPR and a minimum of 2 years in college.

 

If you’ve already got an associate degree, having knowledge in areas such as dental materials, radiology and anatomy will increase your chances of being selected.

Master’s degree in dental hygiene

A master’s degree is recommended if you want to conduct research, teach or work at an administrative level within dental hygiene. This type of degree can help you advance your position to roles such as oral disease prevention specialist or leader of a dental health program. Master’s degrees take 1 year in full-time education or 2-3 years in part-time education and require the completion of a capstone project, coursework and passing a comprehensive examination.  

Admission requirements for a master’s degree

To enroll in a master’s degree, you need a bachelor’s degree in dental hygiene or a related field, a GPA of 3.0+, proof of an up-to-date dental hygienist license, acceptable scores on the GRE, letters of recommendation and sometimes a career statement or current resume.

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4. Get licensed

After you’ve completed your degree, all states require you to obtain a license before you can practice. License requirements vary by state, but most include a degree from an accredited dental hygiene program, along with passing grades the National Board Dental Hygiene Examination and the completion of a state-level or regional clinical board exam. You can find specific instructions on how to get licensed in your state by searching “How to get a dental hygienist license in [your state]” online.

When you’ve received your license, you’re permitted to use “R.D.H.” after your name, signifying your status as a Registered Dental Hygienist. 

The future is yours

Becoming a dental hygienist is an excellent career move. Whether you want to work in a single dental practice for one dentist or take control of your career and use the power of Cloud Dentistry to become an independent contracting dental hygienist, becoming an RDH is a worthwhile investment and a great way to ensure a satisfying, fulfilling future.