FAQ: What Can You Do With a Dental Hygiene Associate Degree?

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published November 2, 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.

If you're interested in studying oral health, you may benefit from pursuing a dental hygienist associate degree. These programs provide you with the knowledge, skill set and abilities you need to receive your license and perform effectively in the role. You can typically receive this academic credential through an online certification program, at vocational schools or from community colleges. In this article, we review what a dental hygienist is, the difference between earning an associate and bachelor's degree and what careers you can pursue with this qualification.

What is a dental hygienist?

A dental hygienist is works directly with dentists to examine patients' teeth, gums and other areas around their mouths. They have advanced knowledge of and experience with dental tools and instruments and use these to perform cleanings on patients. During these cleanings, dental hygienists may remove stains from teeth, scrub beneath margins in their gums and inspect any potential cavities or oral diseases. Most dental hygienists can work independently during these cleanings. They may later communicate any potential diseases or issues to dentists who may examine these findings further. Other common job duties a dental hygienist might have can include:

  • Feeling lymph nodes or other areas of the face or mouth for tenderness or swelling to indicate any signs of oral cancer

  • Conducting routine cleanings on patients and communicating problem areas to patients to explain where to focus their attentions when brushing or flossing

  • Locating signs of gum disease using probes and other dental tools

  • Finding signs of dental decay or diseases and recording these for the dentist to review and address

  • Making sure the x-ray machines and other equipment items remain cared for and sanitized at all times

  • Developing x-ray films for dentists to review and analyze

  • Applying dental decay prevention agents like fluorides during cleanings

  • Assisting dentists during complex dental procedures

  • Talking with patients to answer any dental hygiene questions and to explain proper brushing or flossing techniques to follow

Related: 14 Reasons To Consider a Career as a Dental Hygienist

What's the difference between a bachelor's and associate degree in dental hygiene?

While both of these roles typically allow you to meet the necessary requirements to perform as a dental hygienist, there are key differences between these two credentials, including:

Degree length

You can often complete an associate degree in dental hygiene in around two to three years. These programs typically require students to finish around 30 general education credits in areas like math, English and science, in addition to the more specific dental hygiene courses. After completing your two-year degree, you may have the option to transfer to a university, which might offer a bachelor's degree in dental hygiene.

It typically takes full-time students around four years to complete this program altogether. If you're transferring from a two-year college after earning your associate degree or getting 60 credits of general and dental hygiene-related courses, you may be able to complete two additional years of school before earning your bachelor's degree in dental hygiene.

Related: How To Advance from Dental Assistant To Dental Hygienist

Hands-on experience required

When earning your dental hygienist associate degree, you may complete a combination of classroom coursework and clinical experience that gives you a general understanding of how to perform successfully in the role. In addition to lectures, most programs require you to gain supervised clinical experience during your first year, which can be around 8 to 12 hours of hands-on training and experience. As you enter your second year, most programs require you to increase this time to around 12 to 16 hours a week. Once you finish this degree program, you can receive your dental hygienist license.

If you're enrolling in the bachelor's degree dental hygienist program without receiving your associate degree, you can complete a similar amount of supervised clinical work as those who earn associate degrees. For those transferring to this program and currently holding a dental hygienist license, some programs may not require you to receive additional supervised clinical work.

Qualifications earned from the program

Receiving your associate degree in dental hygiene can provide you with the basic qualifications needed to perform as a licensed dental hygienist. Most students who transfer or enroll in undergraduate dental hygiene programs typically try to pursue more advanced roles or to learn how to provide more specialized care.

Some individuals in this program may take courses focused on developing oral health education programs in school or community health settings. Other students choose to pursue a bachelor's degree in dental hygiene to improve their leadership abilities to better prepare for management or senior-level roles in the dental health industry.

What can you do with an associate degree in dental hygiene?

In addition to working as a dental hygienist, there are many other careers you can pursue after earning an associate degree in dental hygiene. For the most up-to-date Indeed salaries, please click on the links below:

1. Medical assistant

National average salary: $38,229 per year

Primary duties: Medical assistants perform a wide variety of dental health and administrative tasks in different medical settings like hospitals, medical clinics or dentist offices. Their main responsibilities include locating and recording patients' medical information and histories, scheduling upcoming appointments for patients, reminding patients of upcoming visits, sanitizing and preparing treatments rooms for patients and assisting dentists during procedures by handing tools, retrieving items and providing water for patients to rinse.

Related: Learn About Being a Medical Assistant

2. Dental office manager

National average salary: $53,617 per year

Primary duties: Dental office managers oversee the daily operations of a dental office or the dental health department of a larger facility. Their responsibilities may include overseeing the performances of front desk workers or dental assistants, handling any insurance claims that patients or companies file, developing policies to keep employees and patients safe at all times and building a budget and ensuring all employees remain within these financial guidelines when ordering supplies or equipment items.

Related: Learn About Being an Office Manager

3. Dental sales supplies representative

National average salary: $67,953 per year

Primary duties: Dental sales supplies representative use their advanced knowledge of and experience in oral health care to promote and sell supplies and equipment items to various dental health facilities. Other responsibilities can be evaluating the needs and preferences of various facilities, recommending and demonstrating sales supplies to dentists or office managers and remaining updated on ongoing dental health trends to offer new and innovative tools or solutions to dental health offices.

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