Whether you are in the process of applying to a dental
hygiene program, about to start your first semester or maybe even just
beginning to think about dental hygiene as a career, you may want to consider
what day-to-day life would look like in this academic program. We are two dental
hygiene students who want to provide you with some insight on what to expect in
a dental hygiene program and how to manage your personal life while in the
program, we’ll walk you through what a typical “day in the life of” looks like
for both junior and senior dental hygiene students.
Understanding the Basics
As a first semester student in dental hygiene, there is a
lot of information to comprehend to prepare you to see your first patient.
Think of the first semester as filling your toolbelt with the necessary gear to
get started in the clinic the following semester. One of these necessary tools
is the basic understanding of oral and dental anatomy. The first semester is
filled with didactic courses, such as dental anatomy, head and neck anatomy and
biochemistry to help us comprehend the environment in which we’ll be working.
Another important tool that is needed is preclinical experience, where we get
the opportunity to practice our instrumentation skills on one another.
Preclinic can be thought of as a clinic preschool where we learn the basics of
infection control, hygiene instruments and the general responsibilities of a
dental hygienist. In order to make sure we are capable of using these
instruments in a safe and effective way, we are given skill assessments where
we demonstrate a skill on a classmate to show the instructor that we are ready
to use this instrument properly on a patient next semester.
After a short four months, you are already in your second
semester and ready to start seeing patients! This can be a frightening but
extremely exciting time. These first few weeks of clinic are a great time to
become really comfortable with the order in which you proceed through a hygiene
appointment. We call this the “process of care”. Additionally, you become very
familiar with the electronic health care system that the university uses to
house all patient charts. The first semester of the clinic is a wonderful
opportunity for you to start to develop your style of patient interaction. How
can you build rapport with your patients? What sort of verbal and non-verbal
forms of communication do your patients use to let you know how they are
feeling? How do you deal with an unhappy patient? Courses such as Communication
for Oral Health Providers can really help to give guidance in these areas, but
ultimately this takes practice.
A typical week for first-year dental hygiene students
consists of some days roughly being 7-8 hours of classes. Some days in your
week are for non-clinic lecture/didactic courses. Other days will consist of a
combination of didactic courses, and some time for appointments in the clinic.
In the remaining days, you have the potential to be with patients all day.
Certainly, being enrolled in a dental hygiene program takes
a lot of time and energy, both mentally and physically, so it is incredibly
important to make time for things in your life that charge you back up. For
some of us, that can mean setting aside time for the gym, spending lazy time
with roommates and getting home to see our families. Being the best student and
provider that you can be means taking care of yourself physically and mentally
so you can perform your best in the clinic and classroom. Think of this as a
favor to both yourself and your patients.
Getting Hands-on Experience
Life as a senior dental hygiene student is a whirlwind and
time goes by quickly. We are in the clinic much more and seeing a lot of
patients. Being in the clinic is more familiar, and we have the appointment
routine under our belt. At this point in our program, we’ve learned local
anesthesia, administering nitrous oxide-oxygen sedation, scaling and root
planing, restorative functions and much more. Your senior year is an opportunity
to implement all the skills you’ve learned so far into comprehensive
patient-centered care. Each patient is an opportunity to incorporate the skills
you’ve learned, and there are many chances to practice these skills that you
don’t do at every appointment, like using local anesthesia or taking
impressions, for example. The program builds on itself, so everything that is
taught in the first year is carried into the second year.
Typically, as a senior dental hygiene student we’re at
school from 7:30 am until 4:00 pm, and some days we get the afternoon free. The
afternoons where we are not in classes or clinics are great for completing
graduation requirements, like spending time in radiology taking x-rays.
Throughout our senior year, we have progressively more clinic hours in our
schedule. In the fifth semester, we start “double clinic”, where the
appointment times are shortened from three hours to an hour and a half. This is
an adjustment as we’re working to get faster and more efficient during
appointments. As the schedule becomes more demanding, it’s especially important
to stay organized with your time. Usually on a day where we have both clinic
and class, you can get to school about an hour before the appointment to set up
the patient cube and get all the supplies needed for the patients. Then we’ll
have clinic, followed by a short lunch and then it’s time to get ready for
class in the afternoon. After class, every day is different, but you should do
homework every day to stay on top of your courses, if you can.
It’s important to give yourself a break from homework
throughout the week to do something fun. One of the authors in this article is
a competitive ballroom dancer, which means dancing a few nights a week. Don’t
forget to spend time with significant others and friends. Get dinner with
classmates some nights, too. Thinking about graduating and everything that
needs to get done before graduation can be stressful so it’s important to
manage stress outside of school.
As a senior student in our program, we get the opportunity
to participate in outreach experiences to communities in need. The University
of Minnesota provides opportunities for outreach programs across the state.
These are opportunities to practice developing our skills and work with a new
community of patients. Many dental hygiene programs have a variety of volunteer
and community outreach opportunities for you to provide service to those in
need. In our program, we get the opportunity to do a service-learning project
for the semester in our public health class, which is another great way to
interact with another community. This semester, we will be going to visit a
classroom of first graders to teach them about oral health, and we’re really
Preparing For After Graduation
As seniors we’re starting to think more about graduation, so
we’re spending a lot of our free time thinking about next steps. We’re starting
to study for our national board examination as well. On top of that, we’re
starting to think about what kinds of offices we’d like to work in and finding
It’s exciting and overwhelming to think about graduating.
We’ve been given some board preparation advice and talked to previous students.
Faculty has been helpful for learning study tips. We have more work to do, and
we’ll continue to learn after we graduate, but we’re close to the finish line
with school. It’s been nice to have a small class where we all spend time
together during the day. Having support from classmates and getting to spend
time with them in and outside of school has made the program so much more fun.
It helps to have that support as we’re trying to finish up our requirements,
and we all help each other out.
Seniors before us gave us the advice to enjoy it while it
lasts, even when it’s stressful. If dental hygiene is your chosen area of
study, make sure to take the chance to get outside of your comfort zone and
soak up all the opportunity for attaining knowledge and growth that your
program has to offer.
Caitlin Gray and Rachel Schwartz:
Rachel Schwartz (right)
Fourth-year Dental Hygiene Student
University of Minnesota School of Dentistry
Rachel Schwartz is a fourth-year dental hygiene student at the University of Minnesota School of Dentistry (U of M SOD). She completed her prerequisites at the University of Minnesota. She is originally from Lakeville, Minnesota.
Ms. Schwartz is a ballroom dancer and spends her free time practicing and getting ready for competitions. She’s looking forward to warmer weather so she can get out on the golf course. She is excited to graduate in the Summer 2022.
Caitlin Gray (left)
Third-year Dental Hygiene Student
University of Minnesota School of Dentistry
Caitlin Gray is a third-year dental hygiene student at the University of Minnesota School of Dentistry (U of M SOD). She is from White Bear Lake, Minn. Ms. Gray has spent one year at University of Minnesota Duluth, and two years at U of M SOD.
While outside of the clinic and classroom, Ms. Gray spends time working at Walgreens Pharmacy in St. Paul. She enjoys running around the lakes of Minneapolis with her sister and weightlifting at the University’s Recreation and Wellness Center.