Confessions of a Newly-Licensed RDH

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As hygienists, we’ve all been there; newly graduated and new to the “real world.” While the hygiene program prepares us to be excellent clinicians, it cannot completely prepare us for everything we will face in the working world. Only experience can do that. Here are quotes from newly-licensed dental hygienists who are making it through the learning curve of hygiene school to the real world:

“I once had a really cute male patient. He was so cute that I lied and told him we were out of floss threaders because my hands were shaking the whole appointment. He had an upper and lower permanent wire retainer… I didn’t floss $#%@.”

~Flustered in Fairfield


“Sometimes my patients will ask me questions about things pertaining to their oral health. Being newly graduated, I’m not always exactly sure how to properly answer them. They will ask me things like, “Why is this tooth so sensitive?” or “What can I do to solve this problem?” Of course, I answer to the best of my ability, but then I sit there and think, “Did I get that right?” I question myself often, which I guess (and hope) is normal for a new grad. I accept that I will not know the answer to every single question my patients throw at me, but I find myself scrambling for an answer more times than I would like.”

~Indubitably Doubtful in Martinez


“There was a time when a patient asked me, “What is the difference between tartar and plaque?” I immediately started sweating when I realized… I had no idea! The only thing that came to mind (which I now recall hearing a professor stating that she would physically cringe when students gave this response) was, “Oh, that’s just when the plaque hardens.” In between my patients, I Googled “difference between plaque and calculus” and wanted to ram my head through the wall. Two years of hygiene school and THAT is what I take from it?! THAT is what happens when you focus too much on memorizing and learning. I didn’t realize how big of a difference they were until I stepped into the real world of hygiene. Thank God this is anonymous otherwise I would need to spend the rest of my career in hiding.”

~Not Hiding in Hercules


“I question whether I’m really cut out to be a dental hygienist. The day I received my license was my happiest day in quite some time. Two years of blood, sweat, and tears finally produced something I can show off! Then terror set in. I hadn’t even picked up an instrument in a couple of months, I’m still just as slow as I was in school, and what if they can already tell that I’m completely new at this?! Every time I get a call from the temp agency, I get the same anxiety. Every time I arrive 15 minutes early, I think that I’ll never make it through the day. If a patient complains or makes a remark about my newbie status, I beat myself up for a few days after. I blank on terms and explanations. Sometimes, I feel a patient would be better off using Google rather than asking for my insight. I worry about the day I have to recall random information from a PowerPoint presentation in a class 2 years ago and then pretend to be knowledgeable about it. I still look in mouths and question what I am looking at or how I am going to accomplish this cleaning. Sometimes I don’t accomplish it, and that’s just the reality. I have stayed up at night thinking about the career I have chosen. I have cried wondering if I wasted years of school and all my money and should have spent more time figuring out what I wanted to do. I don’t tell anyone because they are all so proud and were supportive for so long, I’d be embarrassed that I let them down and myself down. I’ve always been hard on myself, but this job takes it to another level because I am responsible for the health of others now. I know I am still very new, and nothing good comes easy, so it will take time. My hygienist finally told me that it took him two years to feel like he knew what he was doing. He said the first two years were almost like an extension of school and you’re still learning, growing, and figuring things out. Well…I made it through hygiene school, what’s another two years?”

~No More Tears in Martinez


“I just have to ask…is anyone truly skilled at scaling wisdom teeth? It sure ain’t me. There was an instance in which I didn’t even see tooth #16 until after I finished the cleaning and began flossing.”

~Still Learning in Larkspur


If you are a newly graduated dental hygienist, making your way through the learning curve of the real world, know you aren’t alone. Hygiene school is a great foundation; however, there’s much more to learn. In fact, the learning never stops. Your struggles will not only help you be a better clinician but can even encourage lifelong learning. Be patient with yourself; with time and experience, your knowledge and confidence will grow!