5 Ways to Advance Your Dental Hygiene Career by Emily Miller-Lehr, RDH, MEd

Categories: Career;
5 Ways to Advance Your Dental Hygiene Career

A hygienist’s job can take many forms, if you’re interested and take initiative


by Emily Miller-Lehr, RDH, MEd


I’ve had a fun career so far: I’ve worked as a dental hygienist in private practice, sold supplies for Philips Sonicare and Zoom, held a lead faculty position at a dental hygiene school, taught didactically for a community college, managed the Maricopa County Office of Oral Health, and now I work for Aspen Dental Management as an academic and industry relations manager for dental hygiene.

And I’m not special. I say this because it’s 100% true! As a dental hygienist who has taken on career changes and challenges headfirst, I’ll be the first to say that any hygienist who’s dedicated to change also can do just that. These five tips helped me grow and advance, and I think they could help you too.

1. Evaluate your strengths and opportunities

Understand your soft and hard skills and evaluate how they could be used beyond the clinical chair. Soft skills include communication abilities, leadership strategies, teamwork, problem solving and adaptability. Hard skills are usually tied to a system, product or tool; you might have hard skills related to PowerPoint or other software, or expertise on a particular CE topic.

After evaluating your skills, think about how you might gain additional ones. For example, if your office needs someone to figure out the recall list, offer to lead and organize the efforts and document your success: You’ve just built a new skill you can carry with you! For hard skills, such as using Microsoft 365 or Google Workspace, courses are available on sites like Udemy.com.

2. Grow, even with setbacks

Didn’t get an internal job you applied for? Didn’t even get a call? No worries: Find out who did and support them. This person will likely share key tips in landing your dream job. Likewise, when you’re interested in how someone grew their career, ask them! People generally love to share how to grow.

I suggest going to Hygienetown and LinkedIn and connecting with people who perform jobs similar to the one you want. Reach out and ask for 15 minutes to pick their brain—they can only say no! Remember to connect in real life too. Ask people for business cards and reach out via email. Some may be highly responsive, others may not.

For those who are responsive, offer to go for coffee or meet on Zoom, and try to make the conversation about them. At this point, you’re here to learn and grow, not sell yourself into a position. These folks might think about you when positions open up.

3. Communicate your interest

If you’re in a highly supportive work environment, tell your supervisor, team and friends about your aspirations and ask for opportunities to build your résumé to match the skill set of your dream job. In my experience, employers have appreciated this open approach and have supported my desire to improve. I share my excitement to grow and how the process of my growth will positively affect the practice and my current work.

Remember to leverage the digital tools at your disposal. Open a LinkedIn account, and let potential employers know you are open to work. Actively connect with friends, colleagues and their recruiter contacts, and then reach out. Go to the Hygienetown community page and share your interest with others. You will find that people are often open to helping others in these group settings. Ask questions like, “What types of nonclinical work do you do?,” get ideas and network.

4. Do your research

A degree, diploma or certificate program could be a crucial component of your career growth. Research job postings and ask people who have similar roles to your dream job what level of education is required, and which degree most people in that role have obtained. Also ask about other learnable skills that people in those roles use regularly. Many dental hygiene-related positions, including my current role, do not require a separate degree but may require strong knowledge of Microsoft 365. Before you invest in education for the purpose of career growth, make sure it is worth your while.

5. Understand your options

Career opportunities in the contemporary dental landscape are exploding, particularly with dental service organizations. DSOs can offer remarkable career growth opportunities because of their size, growth and range of roles. A private practice’s hiring needs will stop when its hygiene team is staffed, but DSOs employ hygienists in roles including territory and regional support; marketing; learning and development; continuing education; and talent acquisition. That means DSOs offer many options for career-minded dental hygienists.

However, if you prefer a private practice, many are supportive and flexible and would allow you to work on your goals part time. For example, some hygienists do marketing, front office duties or even help with hiring. Developing all these skills can be very useful.

If career change is on your mind, you can position yourself to chase your dream career. Be sure to evaluate, grow, communicate, research and understand as you expand your career. These steps have helped me continue to evolve, and I know they can help you too!


Author Bio
Emily Miller-Lehr, RDH, MEd, is an academic and industry relations manager for Aspen Dental Management, working with dental hygiene leaders, school administrators, faculty and students to support dental hygienists. She received her initial hygiene education at Rio Salado Community College in Tempe, Arizona, and earned a master’s degree in education with an emphasis in adult learning from Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff. Before her college career, Miller-Lehr worked clinically and as a sales representative for Philips Sonicare and Zoom, and served on several dental hygiene and dental assisting advisory boards in Arizona and New Mexico.
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