Should I be a dental hygienist or a nurse?
July 15, 2016 9:15 AM   Subscribe

Attention dental hygienists and nurses of MeFi: which career track should I pick?

I'm currently finishing prerequisites for health sciences at a community college in Minnesota, and I'll be applying to a program this December. I had originally intended to apply to dental hygiene only, but I'm now considering hedging my bets and applying to both. (For the sake of this question, let's assume I have an equal chance of getting into both.)

-As either one of these providers, what is your day like?
-If you knew then what you know now, would you have taken a different path?
-What do you love about your job? What do you dislike?
-What are your plans for working as you get older, since both jobs are pretty physically tough?

Thanks for your help, MeFites!
posted by timetoevolve to Work & Money (19 answers total)
Best answer: I am neither but I will say this; when the economy crashed in 2008, for a few years thereafter my dentist's practice was hit kind of hard, as people were considering dental work to be an optional expense. One of his hygienists left the practice. They made it sound like it was voluntary on her part, but I think she wasn't getting enough hours. It seems to me that there were more options available to RN's during that time period than to hygienists.
posted by vignettist at 9:22 AM on July 15, 2016

Best answer: As the child of a former dental hygienist, go nursing. My mom went into dental hygiene when it was still a four year degree and a relatively well paying position. Most jobs now seem to only call for a two year degree and don't pay as well, plus it is more physically repetitive on the body than nursing. My mom was able to transition into a front-office job and eventually a management level job in a healthcare-related field, but I don't know how easy that would be without a four year dental hygiene degree. In contrast, my SIL is a nurse and seems to have lots of job opportunities available to her.
posted by notjustthefish at 9:29 AM on July 15, 2016 [1 favorite]

Nursing will provide many more avenues for career development and advancement, which could be a major advantage as you age as you can chose a path for yourself that requires less physically demanding positions.
posted by quince at 9:29 AM on July 15, 2016 [16 favorites]

There are plenty of nursing jobs that do not involve night-shift hours, but plenty that do. To the best of my knowledge, dental hygienists will never be called to work at 1am.
posted by aimedwander at 9:41 AM on July 15, 2016 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Nursing is an amazingly flexible career with a reliable salary. Practically all the women in my family are nurses and they all have had completely different career paths and specialties. Youthful rebellion kept me from following the family business and I've had some regrets about that over the years.
posted by something something at 9:58 AM on July 15, 2016

Definitely nursing. I came from a family of nurses but decided to get my dumb PhD in English instead.

I deeply regret my decision.... daily.
posted by Dressed to Kill at 10:35 AM on July 15, 2016 [2 favorites]

Nursing is enormously more flexible.

As for tough on the body, my mother worked (labor & delivery) into her 60s and was only stopped by a shoulder injury that was not from nursing. Many of her colleagues of a similar age are still working by choice past retirement age. Her closest nurse friend became a nurse manager for a big hospital after getting a JD; another is transitioning to office work for a plastic surgeon. There are so many more pathways in nursing.
posted by vunder at 10:42 AM on July 15, 2016

My mom was a nurse. One thing she said was that over the course of her career, she went form doing patient-oriented things (direct care) to filling charts and giving meds. She really missed the parts of her job that were eventually taken over by CNAs. That may vary by setting (she worked in a nursing home at the end of her career), but just something to be aware of if you like the people-oriented, hands-on stuff.
posted by christinetheslp at 11:05 AM on July 15, 2016 [1 favorite]

My BIL is a nurse, and he made a segway into dialysis specialization in his mid-thirties, and he has worked with many of the same staff and patients for decades. They are a very close-knit community, and he knows everyone like family. His patients love him and give him a lot of appreciation on a daily basis. It is a day job, and he recently transitioned into doing some admin work as well. He is the sole breadwinner and has been able to support a family on his salary (this is in Canada). I would say that it has been a very good career for him.

My aunt was an ER nurse, and she loved her job.

I work with a lot of hospice nurses who spend their days travelling to visit patients and talking to families, and they seem to really like what they are doing. Nursing seems like a pretty terrific career path, and can suit a variety of different kinds of people.
posted by nanook at 11:41 AM on July 15, 2016 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I just got my teeth cleaned this morning and my hygienist was talking about her carpal tunnel and how short hygienist's careers were in general due to repetitive stress injuries.
posted by rebeccabeagle at 11:45 AM on July 15, 2016 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Yep nursing offers a lot of flexibility over the years. My mom is now in her 60s, and worked as a nurse in the ER, ICU, regular floor nurse, then she was a patient diabetes educator, a legal nurse consultant (basically interpreting healthcare documents for court cases), and now works in an office doing bed management (triaging patients & assigning them a spot in the hospital, depending on availability).

Her schedule has been some variant on 12 hrs/3 days/week for decades.

My SIL is also a nurse. She worked at a nursing home dispensing meds, hated it, and was able to find a good fit at an indigent care clinic for drug addicted homeless people. She loves it. Her schedule is more or less 8 hrs/5 days/week.

What I notice about the hospital nursing job is that there is a fair amount of shift trading. It's relatively easy for my Mom to get someone to cover her shift last minute because she's always stepping up to help out other people. I don't know if that's the case for dental hygienists, since their shifts are bound by office hours, rather than needing to be staffed 24/7.
posted by jenmakes at 11:50 AM on July 15, 2016

Best answer: I don't know how you feel about this, but I recently went to a fancy dental practice and it seemed like a good part of the hygienist's job was sales (e.g. pushing unnecessary procedures on people).
posted by Jess the Mess at 12:19 PM on July 15, 2016 [2 favorites]

I'm a relatively new LPN. In my 4 years I've worked in a ritzy continuous care community and parts of my job included hospice nursing, rehab, dementia care, and tons and tons of care planning. I loved it. Now I work in an assisted living facility and I'm not crazy about it but my LPN license does not allow me to work in more acute settings. In December I will graduate with my RN and will either become a care manager at my current job or take a job on a med/surg floor at a local hospital.

Nursing is incredible. I daydream about my career trajectory: med/surg to pediatrics to school nurse? Care manager to home hospice nurse to MSN to DON someplace? It is the most rewarding career I can imagine. I have to take a microbiology class this summer and I'm spending a lot of time in a lab with lab techs. Yesterday at work one of my residents, who is 96 and hell on wheels, coughed up some gnarly mucous into her hand and smeared it onto the wall. While I was wiping it up I was thinking "I'd so much rather be doing this than working in a lab." If you understand the sentiment behind that statement, then go into nursing.
posted by pintapicasso at 2:38 PM on July 15, 2016 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I am nurse. I love it and would greatly encourage it, provided you are the right type of person. I think you have to love people. I work in the ER and although I think it is probably more stressful than being a hygienist (one patient at a time vs many patients with competing needs), it is always interesting, I make a good salary, I have a very flexible schedule and can take a ton of time off, I work only three days a week, and I feel like I have a ton of options to advance or leave the ER should I ever want to. There is an endless amount of things to learn in this field. I came from a string of low-paying mostly office admin/customer service type jobs and I would never go back.

Any questions, PM me!
posted by queens86 at 3:22 PM on July 15, 2016 [1 favorite]

My grandmother, mother and wife are all RNs. My mother and grandmother made a career of it. My wife... Well they say nurses eat their young. If you can make it past the first few years in a nursing career (which everyone says is really, really fracking hard) then that's probably the right choice. Beware, though, of the burnout rate among new nurses. Certainly my wife 'landed on her feet' after leaving nursing (getting an Masters in Public Health and a job that appreciated the diverse training in nursing and statistics) but it wasn't an 'easy road'.
posted by Doc_Sock at 4:21 PM on July 15, 2016

My sister graduated from the Dental Hygiene program at Mankato State in 2010. She lives and works in St. Cloud and has worked for a few different practices. She's getting paid about what she thought (mid- to high-50s) but besides keeping up with inflation, she won't ever make much more.
The job market is pretty saturated right now, (supposedly) because a lot of hygienists getting close to retiring kept working after the 2008 market crash.
Nurses are often represented by a union, so they get benefits like employer-subsidized health insurance, disability insurance and paid maternity leave. Most dental hygienists work for practices with fewer than 10 employees, so they're not obligated to provide Medical benefits, maternity leave, etc.
You've already marked a lot of best answers, but if you want to know more just MeMail me and I'll see if she's willing to chat.
posted by Coffeemate at 7:37 PM on July 15, 2016

My mother hated nursing. She worked night shift in the chronic care ward. She put out both her back and shoulder from turning patients. She had chronic insomnia and terrible mood swings. Plenty of patients wouldn't follow medical advice (such as get out of bed), with predictable health consequences. She was always tired and burned out, but stuck around for the pension. It wasn't a good life for her.

A local hospital has a persistent MRSA problem. To prevent contamination of her car, a friend of mine changes and bags up her clothes/shoes before getting in, and washes them separately in hot. She is in the general medical ward. Again there are the frequent fliers who do not follow medical advice with predictable consequences. She seems burned out too.

Maybe the lesson is to avoid Canadian hospitals.
posted by crazycanuck at 10:18 AM on July 16, 2016

-As either one of these providers, what is your day like?

I'm currently in school for nurse anesthesia, so my daily life is significantly different than when I worked on the floor or the unit. Right now I spend my clinical time anesthetizing patients- administering drugs, placing lines, intubating, monitoring, resuscitating them etc. I worked on a neuro floor for 3 years. It was a lot of rehab, med admin, close monitoring of patient condition, communicating with the rest of the care team, bathing, positioning, keeping patients safe, and family management. Definitely a good amount of charting too. I then worked in the surgical ICU for 3 years. There the patients were sicker, but you had fewer to take care of. Because the patients were so sick, they were often on ventilators and sedated. This meant that the patient had fewer emotional needs, but the families had more. A lot of monitoring patients and communicating with the docs. Still lots of charting.

-If you knew then what you know now, would you have taken a different path?

No way. For the right type of person, it's a great job. You just need to figure out if you're the right type of person. I would highly recommend working as an aid or a tech to see what you think.

-What do you love about your job? What do you dislike?

The flexibility is really great. You can work with any patient population- peds, geriatrics, heart patients, cancer patients, psych patients etc. You can work at the bedside, in an office, or even in the field like community health. If you want to continue your education you can become a nurse practitioner, a nurse midwife, a nurse anesthetist, a nurse educator. You could become a flight nurse. You can do travel nursing. You can go into management. You can go into research. There's really a ton of possibilities. Also, you will always have a job and never be replaced by a robot (there are times when graduates find that it can be hard to get that first job, but once you have a couple of years experience under your belt, you will always find work).

The worst thing about nursing is that it's hard. It's hard physically, emotionally and intellectually. And many roles are not paid what they should be. That's not to say that nurses don't make enough money to live reasonably well, in most places they do, but I honestly believe that bedside nursing is arguably the most important role in the hospital and should be paid accordingly.

-What are your plans for working as you get older, since both jobs are pretty physically tough?

Nurse anesthesia. Still hard, but less physical.
posted by brevator at 12:03 PM on July 16, 2016

Advice I got from a doctor while he was taking care of my son: "If you want to work normal hours become a dentist instead of a doctor."
posted by furtive at 7:21 PM on July 16, 2016 [1 favorite]

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