Dental hygienists help prevent dental problems by inspecting and cleaning patients' teeth and by educating patients about proper oral hygiene. There are three main types of dental hygiene programs which train candidates to work as hygienists. These include an associate’s degree program, a bachelor’s degree program, and a master’s degree program. While these dental hygiene programs share many fundamental features, they vary in their typical lengths, the number of hours required for completion, the variety of classes taken, and the possible career paths following graduation.
In most cases, an associate’s degree is the minimum qualification required to work as a dental hygienist. Dental hygiene programs leading to an associate’s degree usually last approximately two years, and are offered by universities, technical institutes, and community colleges. These programs generally combine classes in a range of relevant subjects, such as biology, anatomy, histology, and periodontology, with clinical sessions in which students practice techniques they have studied in class. Most associate’s degree dental hygiene programs accept only applicants with a minimum of a high school diploma or its equivalent. Successful completion of an associate’s program and a certification exam generally qualifies one for an entry-level hygienist job.
Bachelor’s degree dental hygiene programs are generally offered by universities, and usually take approximately four years to complete. In addition to the subjects studied during an associate’s program, a bachelor’s program may require a number of classes in liberal arts or humanities, and usually involves a greater number of clinical hours. Some bachelor’s degree programs may only require applicants to have a high school diploma or its equivalent, while others may require the completion of certain college-level prerequisite classes. While a bachelor’s degree dental hygiene program takes longer to complete than an associate’s program, those with a bachelor’s degree may earn a higher salary than those with an associate’s degree and may also have greater opportunities for career advancement.
Master’s degree dental hygiene programs are offered by universities, and typically take around two full-time years to complete. Many of these programs are open only to those who have already completed an undergraduate degree in dental hygiene, and therefore do not involve the basic coursework and clinical practice hours required by associate’s and bachelor’s programs. Generally, the object of master’s-level dental hygiene programs is to prepare students for the research, education, or management sides of the dental hygiene field. Students usually choose one of these paths, and then complete a number of courses in appropriate subjects, such as research skills or educational psychology, as well as a final project or thesis.