Dentist vs. Dental Hygienist: What's the Difference?

By Indeed Editorial Team

Updated February 22, 2022 | Published May 25, 2021

Updated February 22, 2022

Published May 25, 2021

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

Dentists and dental hygienists both play vital roles in oral health care, but they differ in academic requirements, job duties and salaries. If you're interested in dentistry and oral health, you may benefit from learning about both career paths so you can choose which one best suits your goals. In this article, we define these dentist and dental hygienist careers, identify their differences and offer tips to help you prepare for a future in the dental field.

What is a dentist?

A dentist is a medical professional who practices dentistry, which is the study of oral health and the diagnosis and treatment of oral diseases. Dentists also engage in tooth repair, tooth extraction and tooth replacement. They provide their patients with crucial care through regularly scheduled checkups, cleanings and guidance. They also educate patients so that patients can maintain their oral health between visits.

Read more: 12 Types of Dentists (With Salaries and Requirements)

What is a dental hygienist?

A dental hygienist is an oral health professional who works with patients before the dentist sees and evaluates them. Dental hygienists perform important steps to prepare people for their procedures and checkups. A dental hygienist often takes X-rays, cleans patients' teeth, removes plaque and applies polish to teeth. They may also check for signs of oral diseases. Additionally, a dental hygienist advises patients on the best way to prevent tooth and gum disease, and they provide guidance on preventative activities like brushing and flossing regularly.

Read more: Dental Hygiene vs. Dental Assisting: What Are the Differences?

Dentist vs. dental hygienist

Dentists and dental hygienists are both provide important dental care, and patients can expect to interact with people in both careers when attending a dental appointment. However, there are important distinctions between the two professions. Here are the four main ways that a career as a dentist differs from a career as a dental hygienist:

1. Education requirements

To become a dentist, a bachelor's degree is first required. Aspiring dentists in their undergraduate education may major in chemistry or biology or take pre-medical courses of study. After completing the Dental Admissions Test (DAT), they attend a dental school program that lasts four years. Upon completion of all requirements, students earn either a Doctor of Dental Surgery (DDS) or Doctor of Medicine in Dentistry (DMD). New dental school graduates then take a series of state-administered licensure exams. Once they have learned the appropriate licenses, they can practice dentistry.

Becoming a dental hygienist involves earning an associate degree and obtaining a state license. Dental hygienists can obtain their education through dedicated dental hygiene programs offered at community colleges, technical schools, four-year institutions or dental schools. These programs require a high school degree or GED as a prerequisite. Some dental hygienists choose to further their expertise by earning a bachelor's degree. Regardless of degree type, courses are likely to cover dental anatomy, biomedical science, periodontology, preventative oral hygiene and disease prevention.

Read more: How Long Does It Take To Become a Dentist? A Career Guide to Dentistry

2. Salary and compensation

The average annual salary of a dentist is $236,825 per year. Dentists may be part of a large dental health practice, or they may practice on their own in a smaller setting.

On average, dental hygienists earn $78,828 per year. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics, both of these careers often yield weekly earnings and annual salaries that are higher than other careers with similar educational requirements.

Read more: How Much Does a Dental Hygienist Make? Salary Information and Best-Paying States

3. Job outlook

The U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics expects the number of new jobs available for to grow approximately 3% through the year 2030. This rate of growth is about average in comparison to other careers. Conversely, the projected growth rate for jobs for dental hygienists is 6% during this same time period, which is faster than average. The BLS states that both of these careers will experience growth as medical research continues to link dental health to overall health, driving demand for increased dental services.

4. Core responsibilities and duties

While both dental hygienists and dentists have duties relating to patient care, there are differences in their primary responsibilities. Typically, dentists work to identify, diagnose and treat tooth decay and gum disease. They often administer local anesthetics for basic procedures and can prescribe medication. Dental hygienists assist dentists in conducting cleanings and advising patients on proper oral hygiene and care. While they cannot perform operations or advanced procedures, they may help dentists in administering this care.

4 tips for preparing for a career in dentistry

Here are four important tips for preparing for a career in dentistry:

Research different careers in dentistry

It's important to first research the different types of careers in the field of dentistry. In addition to dentists and dental hygienists, there are orthodontists, oral surgeons and dental assistants. Each position has a unique set of educational requirements and salary. As you make a decision, you may want to decide how much time you want to commit to school and what you want most out of your career. Additionally, you may want to reach out to people who work in these fields to gain insight into their experiences.

Define your support system

Starting your career can include lifestyle changes like attending school or relocating to a new city or state. In these circumstances, it's helpful to identify and speak with the people within your support system. This is a group of people in your personal network who you can rely on for physical, mental and emotional support. Each individual's support system is unique, and may include family members, friends, healthcare providers, religious leaders or academic advisors. Identifying your support system before you make any lifestyle changes equips you to better utilize this system if you encounter any challenges.

Strengthen your study habits

Starting a career in dentistry requires multiple years of study, and earning a position after graduation depends on both academic success and your success on any relevant standardized state licensing exams. For this reason, it's important to develop your organization and study habits if you want to pursue a dentistry career. Consider things like watching a tutorial on note-taking, joining a study group or creating a detailed planner.

Expand your professional network

Your professional network is made up of people you meet in academic settings, your work-related connections and your personal relationships. It represents a group of people who might help you learn about career opportunities or learning experiences. Having a strong professional network is likely to improve your career trajectory, so it's useful to make consistent efforts to connect with others. To do this, consider joining an alumni group or attending an industry-related workshop or seminar event.

Related: Becoming a Dental Hygienist

Are you interested in a career as a Dental Hygienist, but not sure how to start preparing for it? In this video, we break down the skills and education needed, average salaries and give 5 additional tips to help you land a job in the healthcare industry!

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