It’s one of those opportunities that many dental assistants ponder as they map out their career paths: Should I move on to become a dental hygienist?

Many dental assistants prefer to stay in the profession because they thrive in the intensity of a demanding position that includes challenging tasks and serving as the right hand of their dentists, anticipating their needs as well as those of the patients. On the other hand, some dental assistants become dental hygienists because they want to take on new responsibilities.

No matter what road you take, here are a few things to consider in deciding whether dental hygiene is for you.


Variety of Tasks

Many dental assistants often choose to remain in the profession because they enjoy the variety it offers. They assist with various procedures and perform tasks that they wouldn’t otherwise do if they were dental hygienists.

“I just love the diversity I get with dental assisting,” says Alli J., CDA, of Omaha, Nebraska. “Being hands-on in assisting with dental implants and extractions and restorative things. Whereas with hygiene, you’re sitting there doing the same thing every day, which I don’t think I could do.”

“Their day has a lot of variety to it,” admits Mary Beth H., RDH, who was a dental assistant for six years before becoming a hygienist in King George, Virginia. “And with my day, I’m basically doing the same thing all day every day. They get to do all different kinds of procedures, and I do miss that about dental assisting. … I mean if I have perio scaling, then I’m just so thrilled.”


Patient Interaction

Although there are some repetitive aspects of the job, Mary Beth enjoys how dental hygiene allows her to work directly with the dentist’s patients. It’s one of the main reasons she decided to become a hygienist. “I wanted more one-on-one time with the patient,” she says. “I wanted to be the one that was really talking to the patient and educating the patient and being the one actually working on the patient – not assisting the doctor while he got the fun and worked on the patient.”

Alli also enjoys the direct patient interaction that comes with dental assisting, allowing her to develop relationships with them and better educate them about oral health. “I love that I get to interact with my patients on a daily basis,” she says. “I get to know them on a personal level.”


Pay Upgrade

Both dental assisting and dental hygiene are fast-growing professions. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects a 19 percent growth rate in the dental hygiene field between 2014 and 2024. Dental assisting is expected grow 18 percent during the same period. But it’s the pay increase that may tip the scales: The median annual salary of a dental hygienist is $71,520 compared to $35,390 for a dental assistant, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Mary Beth cautions against going into dental hygiene simply for the salary increase. “I’ve seen some people do it just for the money,” she says. “And then they end up being burnt out or just really hating it and regretting their decision.”

At one point, Alli did consider dental hygiene as a career option, but she decided against it. She prefers how dental assisting allows her to take on an array of responsibilities. It also offers opportunities for career growth. That includes pursuing state credentials, national DANB certification or a position in a specialty practice like orthodontics. Alli is currently working toward becoming an expanded functions dental assistant. “I’m not making as much money as a dental hygienist, but dental assisting has proven to be a fulfilling career for me,” she says.

Let us know what you think. What aspects of dental assisting keep you feeling fulfilled? Are you considering a career in dental hygiene?