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A Dental Hygiene Career Journey: Time Well Spent


Learn, grow, surround yourself with good people, and be kind. These are some of the many lessons this author learned during her long journey.

A Dental Hygiene Career Journey: Time Well Spent | Image Credit: © KeetaKawee - stock.adobe.com / AI generated

A Dental Hygiene Career Journey: Time Well Spent | Image Credit: © KeetaKawee - stock.adobe.com / AI generated

“Sometimes it’s the journey that teaches you a lot about your destination.”


In 1975, when I was a high school junior, my first job was cleaning the office of our family dentist. I never could have imagined how that job would be the start of my rewarding, lifelong career in dental hygiene!

My journey has not been a straight line, but more like a winding country road. It was sometimes a mystery about what was around the next corner. In addition to clinical dental hygiene, I have had the opportunity to work in several other areas in the dental field.

It seems to me that careers occur in stages or seasons. If we are lucky, we gain valuable insights into what energizes us and what drains us. We learn to identify our strengths and our areas that need development. When I reflected on the insights I gained in each role, it gave me the confidence and clarity to make decisions on my personal and professional goals.

My key takeaways from each season of my 44 years as a registered dental hygienist:

Dental Hygiene Student (BS in Dental Hygiene at the University of Iowa)

  • I can do hard things!
  • Don’t be afraid to be bad at something new.
  • Empathy and kindness with patients are essential skills.
  • Collaboration and teamwork are invaluable.
  • Study, study, study, and study some more. (Who needs sleep?)
  • Will I ever be able to do an adult prophylaxis in under 3 hours? Yes, I will!
  • I will love the Iowa Hawkeyes forever!

Clinical Dental Hygienist

  1. There is a dental home for everyone—most likely more than 1, but you might not find it immediately. You may have to search for it.
  2. The only constant is change. I started this season with paper appointment books, paper charts, hand-dipped analog radiographs, paper appointment books and no personal protective equipment.
  3. Change is good.
  4. Learn to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. Don’t be afraid to ask questions.
  5. Sales is not a bad word—I was selling treatment plans every day without even realizing it. Patient education is sales. When a patient understands the treatment you recommend, they accept their treatment plan—a win for the patient!
  6. A smile is a gift. When you partner with your patients, you give them a tremendous gift.

Dental Insurance Industry

  1. Do something outside your comfort zone to gain experience.
  2. This experience, although it temporarily lowered my income, was a huge plus for future career opportunities.

Public Health

From doing screenings at well child clinics to serving as a gerodontic health educator, I knew I was contributing to my community in ways that made a difference in people’s lives.

Dental Hygiene Director for a Large Dental Service Organization

  1. It is amazing to have people believe in you personally.
  2. Seek out a mentor. They want to help you.
  3. Huge opportunities for growth appear when you least expect it.
  4. Dentistry is a health care business that provides a valuable service.
  5. People are the greatest asset to any business.

Pediatric Hospital Dental Clinic Manager

  1. Working with medically compromised children is a gift.
  2. When you work for a hospital with the mission to “Make Life Better for Children,” you will feel that mission and support it every day.
  3. You may have a season in your personal life when you decide you must leave a role that you love, and you will cry when you give your resignation.

Professional Education Manager

  1. A career can come full circle. I am no longer a student, but I have the pleasure of working with dental professional students every day in my role as a professional education manager at Philips Oral Healthcare. Their joy and excitement to be starting out in their dental career is contagious and energizing. Networking with other professionals is a key component when looking for a new role. I would not have this job if it were not for a colleague who strongly recommended me.
  2. Everything you learned in the past seasons of your career will build and contribute to how you perform in this season.
  3. I’m grateful to be part of a company as trusted in the community as Philips whose products can really help patients. It makes that part of my job easy!

Dental hygiene students often ask me 2 questions:

1. “What was the most rewarding or favorite job you have had so far?” My response is always, “The one I am working in at this moment.”

2. “What is your No. 1 tip for a new graduate?” I can’t narrow it down to a single tip, and it applies to both new graduates and seasoned hygienists:

• Be a continual learner—and not just in your field. Branch out!

• Read books on leadership, business principles, and goal setting.

• Listen to podcasts in your areas of interest.

• Value what you do and what your team does every day.

• Dentistry is a small world—do not burn bridges.

• Always act and react in a professional manner.

• Be kind.

• Surprises happen every day—be ready.

• Stop telling yourself you are not qualified, not worthy or not experienced enough.

• “Growth happens when you start doing the things you are not qualified to do.” —Steve Bartlett @steven

• Surround yourself with coworkers and employers who create energy in your life and help you reach your full potential. In a recent episode of The Mel Robbins Podcast, she reviewed the results from the recent American Time Use Survey. Do you know who you spend the most time with between the ages of 20 and 60? Your coworkers! The people you work with every day have an enormous impact on your quality of life. For approximately 40 years of your work life, these are the people you spend the most time with, so be choosy.

• If you prioritize a great work environment, you will not only reach your financial goals, but you will also tap into your full potential.

In 2012, Sheryl Sandberg, who was at that time the chief operating officer of Facebook, delivered the keynote address to graduating MBA students at Harvard Business School. Even now, 12 years later, this is still great advice, no matter where you are in your career.

“As you start your career, look for opportunities, look for growth, look for impact, look for mission. Move sideways, move down, move on, move off.Build your skills, not your résumé.Evaluate what you can do, not the title they’re going to give you. Do real work. Take a sales quota, a line role, an [operations] job. Don’t plan too much, and don’t expect a direct climb. If I had mapped out my career when I was sitting where you are, I would have missed my career.” —Sheryl Sandberg

Best wishes to all of my dental professional colleagues and friends as you start or continue on your career journey. It is truly time well spent.

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